Tom Petty was always there for you
“If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” — Penny Lane, “Almost Famous”
Tom Petty felt like everyone’s buddy. That sounds silly, and it’s not literally true since, of course, many people don’t like his music. But more than any other rock star, he positioned himself on the listener’s side
That was true both in a fight with his record company to keep them from raising the price of his record by $1 (he won), and in his lyrics and delivery. He had a gift for being relatable. He felt like the guy riding shotgun with you in the car or truck — he still does.
Of course, the road is the best place to listen to Petty. By the time he named an album “Highway Companion” in 2006, that description was unnecessary. In the 1990s, if you got into a vehicle with anyone in their teens or 20s, you were probably more likely to find Petty’s tapes or CDs than anyone else’s.
It’s worth discussing which of his albums is best behind the wheel. It depends. For road trips during the day, the contemplative groove of “Into the Great Wide Open” is my favorite. At night, there’s something about “Wildflowers,” especially its closers, “Crawling Back to You” and “Wake Up Time.”
Sure, Petty was super-popular and super-rock ‘n’ roll, and there are plenty of people who don’t like one or both of those things. But Petty, more than most, could be a secret love of people who normally abhorred commercial rock. That’s because he was so personal. He spoke more than sang, he understood his listeners, and he could carry a conversation. Plus, he wrote about real things. He didn’t just add to the pile of songs about love and lust; if a guy sitting next to you talked about nothing but that, you’d get rid of him as soon as you could. Petty wrote about all kinds of stuff, from getting “lost in a one story town” to watching goth girls party at the “Zombie Zoo,” from riding down the “Kings Highway” to holing up in a “Cabin Down Below” or a “Room at the Top.” He dedicated an album to raging against the decline of the radio industry (“The Last DJ,” 2002). Sure, he wrote about relationships, but he articulated their feelings and dynamics more specifically than other rockers. And more than anything, he wrote on one overarching theme: standing up for underdogs and fighting off bullies. “I Won’t Back Down” is one of his most resonant songs, and for good reason.
Yet this pugnacious fighter could also write convincingly about the futility of violence, such as his “Two Gunslingers” who decide that shooting each other is pointless. Petty knows, however, such pacifism is unpopular.
“Well the crowd that assembled for the gunfight were let down. Everyone hissed and booed,” he sings in the second verse. “And the stranger told his missus, ‘That’s the last one of these gunfights you’re ever going to drag me to.'”
People have all kinds of special moments with Petty. That scene in the movie “Almost Famous” when everyone on the tour bus starts singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” — well, I experienced that on a bus loaded with high schoolers in 1991 in Indianapolis, except the song was “Free Fallin’.” One night in 2000, driving home from Lake Placid after seeing “High Fidelity” at the Palace Theatre, the blazing insistence of “Long After Dark” was so perfect that I had to drive around Saranac Lake for a while that night, flipping the tape from one side to the other.
This week, in trying to process Petty’s death, the first album I turned to was “Echo,” written when he was battered and sad, defensive but also graceful.
He appeared on just about every rock documentary there ever was, eagerly discussing his musical heroes. It’s clear he was as big a fan of them as anyone, but it’s also clear that he was an easy guy for the documentarians to deal with. They called; he said sure, happy to help. He always showed up — for all of us.
His wry Florida drawl cut through all the pretentious, gimmicky crap on the radio. The regular-guy act would have gotten tiresome if it had been an act, but it wasn’t. Honestly, after all those years, all those albums, all those shows, he was so consistent, so faithful — there is just no way to say he was anything but genuine through and through.
His death hits me pretty hard. So did the deaths of Gregg Allman and Prince and a lot of the other great musicians we’ve lost, but I didn’t write about them because I wasn’t sure how many of you readers would feel the same way. I feel pretty safe to say Tom Petty, at least, was a unifying force.