Tom Petty Left His Stamp


The recent death of rocker Tom Petty hit me hard. And not just because I was a fan of his music.

As I’ve explored a number of times in this space, the way a person and their art intertwine affects how I feel about what they do and/or create. In a way it’s like an artistic DNA strand.

It wasn’t until Petty’s passing that I fully realized that he was one of the very rare musical artists whose work I love who never did anything to disappoint or alienate me. I feel he died with his integrity intact – no small feat in the upper reaches of the music business game.

I don’t feel he ever compromised himself or his music. I knew of no personal matters of his that in any way sullied my liking or respect for him. That includes his midlife heroin habit, which he overcame. He didn’t display any self-important rock star attitudes, or flaunt his wealth and fame.

It would be kind of silly to simply say he seemed like a regular guy, because regular guys don’t achieve the level of artistic and career success he reached. He had a unique and profound talent. But Petty did seem real, and his essence as a person and values never appeared to be changed by fame and fortune. And he achieved that through his talent and virtually no PR or promo gambits or tactics.

When fellow rocker Dan Zanes – also a former Petty tour opener as main man in the Del Fuegos – wanted to write a biography of Petty, Tom didn’t want it to be “authorized.” And let Zanes know that it was okay to reveal that he’d had a heroin problem. The book, simply titled Petty, is a rock bio well worth reading.

One notable aspect of it is that he had nothing to hide, to be ashamed of. That speaks highly of the man. As did the way he fought his record label when they wanted to raise album prices by a buck on his Hard Promises release. And won. Plus how he came to realize after using the Dixie stars and bars flag on his Southern Accents as a symbol of his and the band’s regional legacy that it was something that also stood for things he could not support.

It took me a while to become an avid fan of Petty and the Heartbreakers. I saw the band after they released their first album in 1976, opening for Roger McGuinn, whose band, The Byrds, cherished favorites of mine, were a big influence on Petty. Saw them again live after the next album in a concert hall. Liked the band and the albums, but they hadn’t grabbed me yet.

It actually mystified me a bit. They were most all just a few years older than me. We all came of age on pretty much the same musical mix, raised on rock’n’roll and what surrounded it in the days of Top 40 radio and 45 RPM singles and then 12-inch vinyl albums and FM radio. Their influences and mine were much the same. On their arrival the group was able to glide alongside punk yet update classic influences with a pop savvy.

It took until their 1987 Rock’n’Roll Caravan tour – which included my PR clients the Georgia Satellites and aforementioned Del Fuegos – for me to finally truly get it, and become enthralled. One night the music from the stage started to pull me in with a profound and irresistibly magnetic power. It was potent and even grand and stately. Yet there was this relaxed, almost nonchalant vibe to it as it flowed so seamlessly, a river of music that didn’t need to be pushed. A perfect pairing of frontman, singer and main writer and his band, so masterful yet seemingly effortless, as if it were eternally meant to be yet also totally of that moment.

Many more wonderful shows and albums by Petty solo and with the band graced my life from then on. The music and his story can be savored in the four-hour (but worth the time) documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream by Peter Bogdonavich.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Petty’s stature was when he joined up with legends that influenced him like Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison the the Traveling Wilburys. He was one of our generation that was inspired by such icons who transcended into their pantheon.

He shall be missed. But he will not be forgotten.

Populist Picks:

CD: American Story by Various Artists – This five disc, 100-song set that accompanied the PBS documentary about the early years of American recording is an ideal primer on the first recorded roots music. The tracks have been restored and divided into regional groupings in this collection with excellent accompanying essays.

Book: They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley – The son of William F. Buckley – gee, remember when conservatives were smart and likable – boils up a delightful political satire that feels almost prescient with its fake news, spin doctoring, corruption and screwy foreign policy.

TV Documentary: Panama Canal: Prized Possession – Maybe this two episode look at the transfer of the canal from the US to the country where it is has more interest to policy wonks. But put it together with PBS’s American Experience doc on its origins and construction and you’ll become a bit of an expert on it.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2017

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