“It’s alright if you love me, it’s alright if you don’t…”
Though this lyric from one of Thomas Earl Petty’s early singles with the Heartbreakers (“Breakdown”) reeks of assured indifference, it’s undeniable this icon was beloved as a musician, especially one raised one promises who took us on a wonderful trip through music’s great wide open for 40 years.
Now, many of us are left to freefall into sadness; Petty is gone at 66 after suffering from cardiac arrest. He leaves behind a great American songbook few have been able to replicate. The closest ones would likely be the individual legends comprising Petty’s fellow Traveling Wilburys (i.e. Dylan, Harrison, Lynne and Orbison).
Each of us knows at least one Tom Petty tune (either with Mudcrutch, the Heartbreakers or without), which speaks to this legend’s universality. “American Girl” continues the jingle jangle guitar tradition of his influences The Byrds but adds in a fresh dose of rock ‘n’ roll attitude. “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down” are charged affairs, while “The Waiting” speaks to every man. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is snarky; “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is raw and ballsy; “Free Fallin'” speaks to a wistful consciousness we’ve all felt at some point in our lives.
Although his roots were planted in Florida, Petty was a storyteller who belonged to the world. His nasal croon could entrance one minute and take on fantastic bite the next. While the careers of his contemporaries would wane some into the 90s, 00s, and 10s Petty keep cranking out his distinctive brand of rock, keeping the critics and fans happily listening in the process.
Days earlier, Petty and his Heartbreakers would perform penultimate shows at the Hollywood Bowl celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary. There seemed to be no doubt the band would easily be able to surpass that milestone. That’s what makes this so sad.
Yet we can take comfort in knowing this is one Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose legacy is forever solidified. That’s why it’s imperative to get his albums out and – like that last dance with Mary Jane – play them as many time it takes to kill the pain we’re collectively feeling.