Tom Petty, rock hitmaker for four decades with his band the Heartbreakers, passed away yesterday of a massive heart attack (on my birthday, no less). I always liked Tom Petty and bought many of his records, but it wasn’t until I heard a Tom Petty cover band play in Marin County over the summer (with the perfect name of “Petty Theft”) that I took stock of his impressive catalogue of hits.
Like many in my generation, Petty’s music was a constant throughout my life. As a middle schooler, I did my math homework with MTV on in the background, playing his wacky Alice In Wonderland-themed video for Don’t Come Around Here No More. After high school graduation, my friends and I rocked out in the car on the way home from a Yosemite backpacking trip to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” In college, I checked email to his newly released greatest hits CD, bobbing my head to “Even The Losers” while I mastered this then-new form of communication. I played guitar at numerous party sing-alongs to “Free Fallin'” and “American Girl,” and most recently my family and I drove on the dirt roads of Carrizo Plain during an epic superbloom, listening awe-struck to his acoustic “Wildflowers.”
He was not without his detractors. Some turned their nose up to his pop-everyman songs. He certainly didn’t aim for high-minded poetry, as his tunes were mostly about relationships. He told an interviewer that listeners can spot a phony lyric from the “back row.” And I remember a college classmate of mine remarking that she found his lyrics sexist, with many references to “little girl” and the like. But listening to his Tom Petty radio channel yesterday, it was clear from the callers that many women (and men) found his message inspiring, as they escaped close-minded small towns for a better life elsewhere.
Petty was also funny. One of my first CDs ever was his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever. Halfway through, in his Florida drawl, he informed us that we had reached the point on the CD where those listening on cassette would have to remove said cassette (or LP) and turn it over to Side 2. And in one of his final concerts in August in Berkeley, he told the audience he was going to play a song by request. “And the request,” he deadpanned, “was by me.”
The recent HBO documentary The Defiant Ones, about record magnate (and my former employer) Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured interviews with Petty, too. Jimmy was a hardscrabble, son of a New York longshoreman who had just moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to produce the up-and-coming Petty’s new record. Jimmy asked Tom to play some of the songs he wanted to record for the album. After previewing what would become numerous hit singles on Damn the Torpedoes, Petty remembered Jimmy exclaiming, “We’re going to be rich!”
Petty was also an icon for Los Angeles. Although he was famously from Gainesville, Florida, he moved to Los Angeles early in his career and sung about the place often. He even rhymed “Los Angel-eeze” (as my grandparents’ generation pronounced it) with “knees” in Crawling Back to You.
But it was probably his biggest hit, Free Fallin’, that cemented his Los Angeles home in the minds of the public. The video featured him in the Westside Pavilion and apparently on a crane in the San Fernando Valley. True to the auto-oriented character of the city, he sang about its freeways and boulevards, from Mulholland Drive along the Santa Monica mountains to the harsher roads below:
It’s a long day livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart
And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’
All the vampires walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd.
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
All the good girls are home with broken hearts
My favorite song of his though was not his biggest hit, and I was pleased to hear that at his Berkeley concert he told the crowd it was his favorite song of his, too. The last lyric of Crawling Back To You is probably the one that has stuck with me the most, a good reminder to all of us to take it easy and enjoy life as we can:
I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway
Rest in peace, Mr. Petty, and thanks for so many memorable tunes. You belong somewhere you feel free.