There are so many reasons to admire Tom Petty. Forgive me, in the wake of news of Petty’s death, at 66, if I start off with a personal one.
The greatest concert I’ve ever been to was really two concerts. On September 10, 2010, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the world’s most famous arena: Madison Square Garden in New York City. I saw them again the very next day – September 11 – this time at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. Yes, they ended the September 11th show playing “American Girl,” and yes, American flags were being waved, and yes, everyone was tearing up, and yes, it was transcendent.
The whole story goes something like this: Back in 2008, a huge group of friends had gotten together in our buddy Chris’ basement for Super Bowl XLII – you know, the one where my Giants ended the Patriots’ undefeated season? Well, it was also the one where Tom Petty played the halftime show. At one point during his 4-song set, someone insisted that we need to see Tom Petty if he ends up in our area on his next tour (because at that time, who could have imagined the legend would continue touring for another nine years?!?).
My generation loves Tom Petty, which is odd considering we’re also the only generation that can’t lay claim to a specific genre or period of music we associate ourselves with. I was still in elementary school during the rise (and fall) of grunge, so by the time my classmates and I were buying our own CDs, the music industry had already branched off in infinite directions: If you were walking up the street leading past our school’s parking lot after the final bell, you’d likely be treated to a mix car stereos blaring anything and everything, from Nelly, Incubus, Britney Spears, and 112, to Linkin Park, Blink 182, Blackstreet, T.I., and Destiny’s Child.
And, without a doubt, you’d definitely hear some Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Tom Petty died Monday after suffering cardiac arrest in the early morning; his family confirmed his passing in a statement. As an American, or as any human anywhere with the slightest interest in the theoretical greatness of America—you likely know roughly 25 Tom Petty songs more or less by heart. The band’s eponymous debut Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers came out in 1976, and somehow, managed to save “American Girl” for the very end.
That was the start of Petty’s career. In the band’s first 11 years, they made seven albums, each firing off an all-timer (or three) high-school-yearbook quotes and tombstone epitaphs at the ready, from 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes (“Even the losers get lucky sometimes”) to 1981’s Hard Promises (“The waiting is the hardest part”) to 1982’s Long After Dark (“You got lucky, babe, when I found you”). On 1985’s Southern Accents, Petty slowed down and got both a little strident and a little homesick: “I got my own way of talkin’ / But everything is done / With a Southern accent / Where I come from.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits was released in November 1993, and some 10 years later, still managed to become the soundtrack to the majority of road trips we took in high school. The 18-track collection was both the backdrop to beach-bound summer drives down the east coast and the sing-a-long campfire staple for our post-prom cabin parties.
But by then, he belonged to everybody everywhere, defining and uniting America as well as (and more casually than) anybody. He was classic rock in real time, the songs already monuments to themselves. It was perhaps Petty’s greatest achievement, surviving and prospering amidst the overcrowded early 90’s radio boom.
But who could have imagined that Petty’s most inspired and emotionally charged music would have come some twenty years after his debut, and after a near-perfect greatest hits record had already been released?
Tom Petty released the Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers in 1994, which has, in my opinion, the finest five-song opening run I can remember. And while the rest of his band was not credited to the album, most of The Heartbreakers were involved in the session recording work.
My single favorite moment of any song he ever did came some two years later when movie star Ed Burns approached Tom Petty to contribute to the soundtrack of his yet-to-be-released film She’s the One. During the discussion, it was Petty who suggested he write and perform the entire soundtrack.
Even as a college student in thrall to all manner of far more blaring and visceral angst, nothing ever hit me quite as hard as the lyrics to that album’s single Walls, a hint of the exquisite joys and pains of love to come (it also didn’t hurt that Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham chipped in to provide the song’s iconic syncopated backing vocals during the chorus).
Although Tom Petty was already a cemented fixture without our musical monoculture, it wasn’t until the post 9/11 “America (A Tribute to Heroes)” concert that Tom Petty (along with Bruce Springsteen) would likely become the musical symbol(s) most synonymous with “America.” In the wake of the attacks, Tom Petty’s first single from 1989’s Full Moon Fever re-emerged as an American radio staple and mantra for many Americans. Ironically, then-candidate George W. Bush used the song at campaign rallies in 2000 until Petty forced the candidate to discontinue its usage.
One of Petty’s finest 21st-century moments was in a decidedly supporting role. The 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is famous for its all-star jam on the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Petty on lead vocals, paying tribute to George Harrison as well as anyone alive could. But Prince, of course, leaps onstage halfway through and fires off what might well be the single best guitar solo of the past 20 years, a volcanically uncouth tirade that blows away everyone onstage by design.
Back to Super Bowl XLII. Giants, Patriots. Tom Petty performs at halftime, we promise we’d go to see him if he ever ended up in our area, Eli Manning, Plaxico Burress, David Tyree… Giants win. You know the story. Anyway…
Tom Petty did end up in our area. Two years later. For two nights in a row. I was fortunate to catch both performances, which were largely similar as far as the setlists went. But the atmosphere was entirely different each night. The Madison Square Garden concert was quite simply a celebration of the band performing at Madison Square Garden, and like most performances by legendary artists there, it was magnificent.
But the 9/11 show one night later was something altogether different. The band members were aware of their responsibilities to dually entertain while paying tribute on the anniversary of the greatest American tragedy of our lifetimes. Petty provided inspiring-yet-measured narration between numbers, especially during a mid-Won’t Back Down instrumental in which the frontman led an on-stage candle lighting that set the tone for the rest of the night.
As mentioned earlier, they finished the night with an encore set that finished with American Girl, as you might imagine on such an occasion. Just as the breakdown ended, and the drums and electric guitar re-entered with the most famous droning of a D-major octave I can think of, the usually mellow Petty became emotionally broken, transported back nine years along with the rest of the audience.
And for possibly the first time ever, Petty understood what his music meant – not just to those in the crowd – but for everyone, all across America.