Tom Petty never received the adulation of a rock god. Then again, being a rock god never seemed part of Petty’s plan.
His 40-year catalog of classic-rock staples never cultivated the mystique of Bob Dylan, who tapped Petty and the Heartbreakers to tour in the 1980s. He never commanded gossip-column inches a la Mick Jagger. While Bruce Springsteen broke down the wall between artist and audience, Petty remained elusive.
He came to rock, not bare his soul, and rock he did, in his reliable, relatable way, with his Grammy awards and gentle, central Florida twang, until his death from cardiac arrest in Santa Monica, California, on October 2 at the age of 66.
“Time Meant Nothing”
His career was a string of hits and astronomical album sales, but, behind the scenes, his soul had its tests.
Divorce, a home destroyed by arson, the acrimonious departure of the original Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch, the drug-related death of bassist Howie Epstein, and his own midlife-crisis addiction to heroin punctuated his fame.
“Baby, time meant nothing,” Petty sang on “Even the Losers,” the third track on side one of the Heartbreakers’ 1979 commercial breakthrough album, “Damn the Torpedoes.”
Still shy of 30, he had to have known firsthand that line was a kid’s conceit. Even by the time fans heard him sing it, Tom Petty had been through the breakup of Mudcrutch, battles with his record label, and bankruptcy.
Before that, he’d suffered the physical and verbal abuse of his father, who’d have preferred his son be a confident jock, instead of a musician.
In this context, it’s unsurprising that Petty dedicated so little time to the antics of his peers. His early challenges in life would have been overwhelming to even the strongest personalities. He didn’t seek attention. He sought success.
Through it all, he kept it moving with albums and tours, mostly with the Heartbreakers, but also solo or with superstar collective The Traveling Wilburys, and even with his reunited, pre-Heartbreakers outfit, Mudcrutch.
In between the albums and tours, he worked with Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Prince, and more.
He made music like a man who knew his watch was ticking.
Rock and — Reliability?
Consistency isn’t a typical rock-and-roll value.
Some artists — Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain — pursue self-destruction and fulfill rock’s sick “live fast, die young” ethos. Most bands peak early and muddle through years of mediocrity. Each new release raises and inevitably dashes hopes for a comeback.
Tom Petty never had a comeback, because he never stopped creating superlative records. Even his least-celebrated albums, like 1999’s “Echo,” full of post-divorce doldrums, or “The Last DJ,” a rant about the music industry, have cuts that belong on any thorough retrospective.
Just a week before his passing, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up a 40th anniversary tour that drew near-unanimous critical praise.
His recent releases, like 2014’s “Fault Lines” or 2010’s “First Flash of Freedom,” reveal an artist who was not only prolific, but who produced quality work, equal in technical skill and composition to his most familiar and best-loved hits, decades after their popularity.
He proved consistency didn’t have to cancel out cool. Rock-and-roll could be reliable and still rock. If there’s a downside to that, it’s that his fans assumed there would always be a next album and a next tour.
“Time Is The Problem”
Sixty-six isn’t young, but it sure ain’t old. Tom Petty was no choirboy, but he was no Keith Richards, either. He was long past burning out, and his music signals he had no intentions of fading away.
He had said the Heartbreakers’ anniversary tour likely was his last major road jaunt. He had said he wanted to slow down and spend time with his granddaughter, like any reasonable man in his mid-60s. He knew what time it was.
But, to fans, more music still seemed certain.
The writer Bob Mehr posted to Instagram upon hearing of Petty’s death. He had interviewed Petty a few weeks ago, a conversation that produced a quote that is now almost unbearably poignant.
Petty was talking about wanting to produce other acts and record more on his own, “But time is the problem. There never seems to be enough of it.”
We wholeheartedly agree. We wish he had more.