Tom Petty was a true rock star but he didn’t act much like one.
Sometimes he wore a top hat or some other outlandish fashion that implied he was the leader of a hall of fame rock ’n’ roll band, but mostly, Petty, 66, who died Monday in Los Angeles, came off as humbled and congenial and appreciative of his fans — with no glam or flash or salacious behavior.
I saw Petty and the Heartbreakers 10 times or so, the first time at an outdoor amphitheater outside of Chicago in 1989.
I owned all of his albums by then, and they’d become a favorite band, one that fused catchy melodies and indelible rock guitar riffs with memorable lyrics. Live, Petty came off as approachable, blue collar and middle class, more like one of us — a reluctant rock star.
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His death has touched an inordinately widespread population of music fans, at least in my circle, including dozens of songwriters and musicians (some jazz musicians among them), all of whom have been touched by his songs and by the modest personae he projected for more than 40 years.
Petty was a son of the South who loved the Beatles and the Byrds and Bob Dylan and he fused his heritage with their sounds and along the way became their friend and respected colleague (“I thought the world of Tom,” Dylan said Monday).
He was beloved because he wrote timeless songs that described our lives, our everyday moments and tribulations, our aspirations, our humaneness. Songs like “Here Comes My Girl,” which, in typical Petty fashion, opens with a signature guitar riff and blossoms into a love song from a guy living in a hopeless town to the girl in his life who makes everything all right, who embraces him, looks him in the eye and says “We’re gonna last forever.”
Because he wrote songs like “The Best of Everything,” a eulogy and an autopsy for an expired romance: “Yeah and it’s over before you know it / It all goes by so fast / Yeah, the bad nights last forever / And the good nights don’t ever seem to last.”
Because he wrote classic rock songs like “She’s Gonna Listen to Her Heart” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “It’s Time to Move On” and “The Waiting,”
Because he wrote savvy lines and verses like “I started out for god knows where / I guess I’ll know when I get there” (“Learning to Fly”); like “All around your island / There’s a barricade / That keeps out the danger / But holds in the pain” (“Walls”); like “Sometimes life will beat you down / Break your heart, steal your crown” (“Learning to Fly”); and like “I’m so tired of being tired / Sure as night will follow day / Most things I worry about / Never happen anyway” (“Crawling Back to You”).
Because he co-wrote “Free Fallin’,” a lovely, subversive ballad about a bad boy who callously breaks girls’ hearts that became his most successful single ever.
Because he stayed together with lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench for 42 years, no modest feat, and because the Heartbreakers, like the E Street Band, always looked like a deeply bonded family.
Because every time I saw him and his band live, they played every song like it was both the first time they played it and could be their last.
In a recent review of a Petty show at the Hollywood Bowl, cultural writer and commentator Bob Lefsetz called Petty the “last rock star.”
He will certainly go down as one of the last of his kind. But I’ll think of him as a musician and poet whose deepest and primary love was for rock ’n’ roll and all its power and possibilities and the connection it provided with his audience, not the stardom it brought him.