“I know that look on your face, but there’s something lucky about this place.
There’s something good coming for you and me. There’s something good coming, there has to be…”
An icon of American music has passed at the age of sixty-six after suffering a cardiac arrest in Malibu, California earlier the same day. Tom Petty’s music, whether with the Heartbreakers, the Traveling Wilburys or on his own, was the embodiment of a sense of Americana that seems ever further in the rear view mirror.
It would be misguided to equate the horrific massacre which occurred at a Las Vegas concert less than twenty four hours earlier to Petty’s death but it goes without saying that with a nation’s heart already broken, Petty’s passing only underscored a loss of that wild eyed American spirit that used to be preoccupied with chasing down a dream before having to run for cover.
For some people its cowboys, some soldiers or presidents, but for me, Tom Petty has always been America. He never had to wave a flag or be a macho tough guy, the America I saw in Tom Petty was of the same bright horizon I wanted to be a part of. A young boy raised on MTV, Tom Petty’s almost David Lynch-like interpretations of American life in music videos for songs like “Freefallin’” and “Into the Great Wide Open” captivated a ten year old me who was gaining a keyhole glimpse into a much wider world of all the everybodies I’d never know but instantly connect with all the same. It was a much larger tapestry Petty was weaving, a patchwork sewn of the world around him. It was through this very conduit that Petty tapped into the American Heartland, a mainline that remained fine tuned and prescient for over thirty years.
An America doesn’t seem right without a Tom Petty in it. A nation of defiant dreamers that just won’t back down, Petty’s gleaning toothy smile carried with it the same youthful, reckless abandon that even the losers could find a champion in. Petty was born into poverty to an abusive and alcoholic household that he endured but never succumbed to. Despite the pain that framed his past, it was brighter tomorrow that he always seemed to be smiling towards. It was this same idealistic resiliency that the best of America has seen through tragedies in the past and one I hope we can maintain if even the personification therein has left us.
Early in his career he was quoted in Rolling Stone saying, “We ain’t no punk band, we ain’t folk rock, jazz rock, or any of that bullshit. Just rock, and we don’t put no other name on it than that. We’d be stupid if we did.” The admission is evidence to the heart of Petty, the indefatigable integrity and honesty that he possessed both in person and in performance.
Forming the Heartbreakers in 1976, Petty would pen some of the most influential numbers in American rock that remain popular to this day including “American Girl”, “Refugee”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, and so many more. As if the Heartbreakers were not enough, Petty went on to join one of the most impressive super-groups of all time in the Traveling Wilburys that featured Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynn. While occasionally stepping out for solo albums, Petty remained with the Heartbreakers, performing as recently as last week.
As his representation has stated following his passing, he was a “father, husband, brother, leader and friend.” And while we wish him the best as he steps out into that Great Wide Open, America mourns a loss for each in the death of Tom Petty.
Rest in Peace.