Tom Petty, 1950–2017 | Music Matters

Photo by David W. Baker

Both dedicated and casual music fans mourned the passing of rock star Tom Petty (1950–2017) on October 2. From the late 1970s, when rock and roll was unchallenged as a bellwether for music culture and as the primary profit generator for the record industry, until the present, which finds it neither, Petty was always there. His death has inspired many to consider the artist’s influences and his achievements over the course of his 40-year career: 18 albums, 13 Top 40 singles, and songs that connected deeply regardless of their provenance.

Baby’s a rock ’n’ roller

In 1977, precision-tuned corporate rockers such as Boston and Styx; disco emblemized by the Saturday Night Fever sound track; and megabands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles dominated pop culture. Southern rock acts such as Lynyrd ­Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band provided a way in for Petty. Like those groups, his band was from northern Florida, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did not digress into long jams, the concise nature of their songs owing much to the Byrds (that band’s leader Roger McGuinn was heard to ask his manager, “When did I record this?” upon hearing the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl”) and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Concurrently, fans of power-pop, a genre that actualized the “don’t bore us/ get to the chorus” credo that had been in short supply since the Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks extended both their song lengths and facial hair, had since the early 1970s searched in vain for an advocate that would produce genuine hits. Big Star, ­Flamin’ Groovies, and Dwight Twilley never could, but Petty (and Cheap Trick and the Cars) might. “American Girl” is the rare power-pop recording that’s well known to mainstream listeners.

The band’s third album, Damn the Torpedoes, was considered at the time to be of an ornery piece with not only power-pop but with insurgent “new wave” musicians such as Elvis Costello and the Ramones. Yet the likes of “Even the Losers,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Refugee,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” gained a foothold on AM radio in 1979 and took up permanent residence on FM radio, achievements that would elude those other acts. Consequently, Petty and his band were much more comfortable than other tradition-minded artists with the emergence of music videos in the 1980s, hamming it up in clips for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “You Got Lucky.”

Around this time, the “roots rock” movement, a semipopular genre concerned with the blues, soul, rockabilly, and country qualities that were in danger of disappearing from the rock and roll template, found ballast in Petty and the ­Heartbreakers.

Makin’ some noise

In 1988, Petty was the junior member of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup (also featuring Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison), which led to his ubiquitous 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever, produced by fellow Wilbury/ELO supremo Lynne. The 1993 multiplatinum Greatest Hits is the Heartbreakers’ best-selling album and may as well be included alongside a liquor license for any new bar, such is its omnipresence in jukeboxes nationwide. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is included therein and has had unusual staying power for a previously unreleased song tacked on as an extra with a collection of massive hits.

Petty’s 1994 Rick ­Rubin–produced Wildflowers completed the transition from the often inchoate, complaint-heavy lyrical style of the late 1970s and early 1980s to a more avuncular, wizened, and empathetic series of observations. Since then, the band released eight more records (including two as Mudcrutch, a revival of a previous version of the Heartbreakers). While mass popularity would wane in the late 1990s, each album displayed consummate craft and abundant heart.

The best of everything

Relative to peers such as Bruce Spring­steen, Petty’s 1990s music was much more present in the mass consciousness, and he had a spot in the emerging alternative rock movement—a post-Nirvana, pre–Foo Fighters Dave Grohl briefly played drums for the Heartbreakers in 1994, and Petty covered Beck’s “A**hole” on 1996’s She’s the One, an album scored to the Ed Burns film of that year.

Petty became a touchstone for the next ten years of “alternative country/Americana” artists such as Wilco, the Jayhawks, and Whiskeytown: that band’s leader Ryan Adams’s work in the 2000s and 2010s is particularly indebted to Petty, and the War on Drugs is the current rock act that echoes him with the most distinction. Yet as guitar-based rock and roll has ebbed, the popular music in the past two decades that bears his influence most strongly is mainstream country music courtesy of such artists as Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Kenny Chesney.

Ultimately, Petty is one of two American rock and roll artists emerging out of the mid-1970s having endured as lodestars (Springsteen is the other). Yet it may be that Petty’s work is easier to live with; instead of the portentous wide-screen statements about the American experience Springsteen’s reputation was built on, Petty’s songs were concerned with personal matters, interior moments that not only speak to Everyman but to everyone.

Rob Kemp is a Brooklyn-based music writer

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Liz French Liz French says:

    succinct, hilarious, heartfelt. Thanks for this, esp. the “liquor license” comment.

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