Tom Petty: Old school rock icon leaves nation heartbroken
Tom Petty was the kind of rock icon who appealed to nearly everybody. With his passing on Oct. 2, 2017 from a major cardiac arrest in California, the world simultaneously mourned the passing of rock superstardom itself. Sure, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen are still perpetually touring, but apart from them, who else has created such invincible mass-culture totems as “Free Fallin’,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and especially “American Girl?” The last song’s ringing riff alone is enough to provoke cheers and cries of recognition around the world.
Petty was a rock and roll legend, playing a variety of styles throughout his career, while continuing to adapt to fit the times. In his early years, from 1976 to 1982, he played stolidly straightforward rock music, which fused the clean, powerful pop riffs of 1960s Southern California rock bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, with the toughness and energy of 1970s new-wave and pub rock artists like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson. Petty was often lumped into categories with punk and new-wave artists because of his back-to-basics approach to composition and arrangement, and his clever, often cynical lyrics. However his songs were less concerned with breaking new ground and more interested in bringing listeners back to an era when pop and rock music were intertwined, and when rock and roll was something everyone could enjoy. His most iconic song, “American Girl,” came from this period, as did other classics like “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “The Waiting,” and “Even the Losers.”
Later, in the mid-1980s, his music became a part of a nebulous subgenre known as “heartland rock,” music which wasn’t exactly country, but appealed to people who lived in rural parts of America. This put him alongside others like Bob Seger, Bruce Hornsby, and John “Cougar” Mellencamp. However, being branded as a heartland rock artist undersold the power his music had to entertain and warm the hearts of people from all backgrounds. The album which capped off this period of his career was the 1986 release Southern Accents, which made platinum in the United States, and contained the mega-hit single “Don’t Come Around Here No More” which successfully fused 1960s psychedelic rock with 1980s pop music, and exemplified the absolute peak of commercial studio sophistication for its time period.
In the latter half of the decade, he joined the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup consisting of several other rock legends, including Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. This project connected him with superproducer and erstwhile member of Electric Light Orchestra Jeff Lynne, who he had worked with to make two massively successful albums in the 1990s, Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open, which, while updating his sound a little for the current decade, proved its invincible power and adaptability. For the next two decades, he toured the country, played the Super Bowl halftime show, and started his own radio station on Sirius XM, which played not only his songs, but ones which he found interesting or meant a lot to him personally. His passing last week is a great blow to the musical world, but can never diminish the impact his songs have had on millions of people, and will continue to have far into the future.