This week would have been Tom Petty's 70th birthday. He was a kid who met Elvis and saw the Beatles on TV and as people like to say, the rest was history. Even though he died 3 years ago, it's not like he's ever really left us. His music is a constant presence on the radio and there's been 3 boxsets sets since, most recently, the excellent Wildflowers and All The Rest.
And there's a reason why his music still fills the airwaves. His songs had that universal appeal. It's the same way why John Prine was so beloved; both could effortlessly slip into our lives and put it to words what us mere mortals could not. The lead role in American Girl could have easily been from Iowa as Malibu or Gainesville. A loser could get lucky sometimes. Petty could crystalize the joy of seeing a girl walk down the street or the resignation of watching her walk out the door when you were too drunk to follow. You believed him when he sang about being lonely, living in a 2 room apartment. And you weren't the only one to roll another joint on the way to getting to the point. I know punk rockers to jazz heads that give him respect. Whether you lived in a trailer park or in a room at the top, you could probably relate to Tom Petty.
Petty seemed completely accessible, he was everybody's best friend. And, he could be sort of mysterious at the same time. But as Benmont Tench (long time keyboardist in the Heartbreakers) recently told Variety: "But with Tom, he doesn’t ever get to where you can’t find your way in. And when you’re in, you’re participating. He could write great, straight-ahead R&B songs like “Breakdown.” And then, “You belong among the wildflowers…” Good Lord, who’s he talking to? — this is a guy who clearly felt everything deeply, or you couldn’t write like that".
And it didn't hurt that Tom and the Heartbreakers soaked up the best influences, the blues of Chess Records, Elvis, Dylan, Beatles, Stones, and the Byrds. But at their core, they were garage rockers. Cue up the outtakes/demos collection Nobody's Children for proof.
Sure, his career had few missteps, yes there was the confederate flag back drop for the Southern Accents tour, which he later said was stupid. There was also a brief dance with heroin in the 90's. But he fought record companies over ownership of songs, prices of his albums and politicians that tried to co-op his music.
In the end, he leaves behind a formidable catalog of songs, hailing the underdogs and outcasts. A sonic influence that touched such disparate artists as The Strokes (the beginning of Last Night an almost complete lift of American Girl's opening) and Sam Smith (realizing Stay With Me borrowed heavily from I Won't Back Down, gave Tom a writing credit).
Who knows what's next. There's talk of releasing some sort of collection from the bands epic 20 night residency from 1997 at San Francisco's Fillmore West. There's also completely different versions of the albums Mojo and Hypnotic Eye. Those who know, say the vaults are endless with excellent music that's never been heard. But for the time being, as Lucinda Williams wrote shortly after his death, "You were born a rebel and it’s ok to go home now".