These have been two of the saddest days in American memory. On one hand we had the biggest mass shooting in our history go down on the Las Vegas strip Sunday night. Scenes of terror like this have become almost commonplace these days, and we’re collectively almost numb. But this attack set new horrific records for deaths and injuries.
Country star Jason Aldean was onstage when the shooter opened fire from a high-floor hotel window, raining a rapid-fire assault on the outdoor concert festival crowd. Close to 60 have been counted dead so far, with hundreds more injured.
Now on the other hand, we’ve lost Tom Petty, which in a very different sense is a tragedy in its own right. For fans of rock and roll, Petty was our “Last D.J.”, a guy who fought the good fight, took on record companies in defiance of their short-sighted greed, and wondered out loud how this strain of American music so many of us love so dearly wound up being fodder for television “game shows” like American Idol.
The first time I was aware of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I was about 15 and saw their video for “Refugee” on TV. They flashed a certain post-Punk New-Wave edginess back then, and there were attempts to market them in that skinny-tie mold. But they had too much of a compelling grip on roots American music, too much toughness directly inherited from the likes of the Stones and the Kinks, too much Byrdsian jangle, and too much raw songwriting savvy to be confined to a simplistic marketing category. Their influences were wide-ranging and their intent was sincere. They were too much for the record company suits to figure, and at the end of the day they were just a plain old classic rock and roll band for the ages.
Petty was cool, in the most profound and primal sense of the term. He wasn’t rattled by fads or duped by know-nothing corporate music-biz weasels. He had a taste for the genuine articles, as far as popular music, pop culture, and the friends and associates he worked with. There’s never been a higher-quality group of rock musicians than the Heartbreakers; Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell also graced plenty of great records outside Tom Petty’s, and their sound and style are instantly recognizable and a standard of excellence.
They continued to experiment and deepen their musical reservoir. Through the years, the perfectly crafted songs just kept coming: “Refugee”, “American Girl”, “Breakdown”, “Even the Losers”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “The Waiting”, “Southern Accents”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Rebels”, “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, “Free Fallin’”, “Learning To Fly”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, “Wildflowers”, “Swingin’ ”…goddamn. Just sitting here and typing a partial list off the top of my head is dizzying, and the body of work is a timeless stunner.
Yeah. One of my personal landmarks with Petty was when I bought Southern Accents, back in high school. It’s a great record, and breaks into some psychedelia with “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, co-written with Dave Stewart. And the title song itself always hypnotized me, from the first seconds I was hearing it right up til today.
Petty could do that. He could charm you and trance you and stick in your head indefinitely. The songs were so catchy and finely honed, but they weren’t just cosmetically refined. They were tough and sweet and defiant and all kinds of emotional, they were like a Masters’ Class in songwriting, and they just reeked of that elusive element we call Soul.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were arguably the greatest mainstream American rock and roll band we’ve ever had. They made iconic sounds for over 40 years, and never made one bad record. They never became self-parodies and they never stopped earning their reputation as the real deal.
After I saw the “Refugee” video that first time back in 1980 or so, I was an instant fan. I read all the articles I could find and figured out Tom Petty and I shared a birthday, October 20 (along with Mickey Mantle, Bela Lugosi and Arthur Rimbaud). That seemed a hidden significance to me, an aimless kid back there in West Virginia. I never stopped listening to the Heartbreakers, and I don’t expect I ever will.
Petty was an aimless kid himself, back there in Florida in the ‘60s. He wound up playing with Beatles, and Dylan and Orbison and McGuinn and Cash, and it really doesn’t get much better than that. And he gave it all back, some of the best music we’ve been blessed to hear.