The Wild One, Forever grew up to be the wise one in the end. It was that journey that Tom Petty took – as a man and an artist – that really drew me to him.
Obviously everybody liked the hit singles. Petty was one of the few artists who signified to sectarian Punks, jammy hippies and snarky New Wavers, macho dudes and soccer Moms and Bohemians, grown-ups and kids alike. I’m not sure if any American act has come as close to being The Beatles in that respect as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did — and still do.
But like the Beatles, beyond the burnished sing-alongs and the car radio gems, there was a deeper artistic journey going on with Petty. As many have observed, including Petty’s biographer Warren Zanes, for someone with three Grammys and a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was still somehow underrated. I believe that’s because his hits were so huge a presence in the culture, they’ve kind of overshadowed the incredible non-stop evolution he made as an artist.
I thought of Petty as a bit of a guilty pleasure in my youth, but as I stopped worrying about keeping up with the Cool Joneses, I just unabashedly embraced my love for those great singles. Wore out the greatest hits CD. Sang along loud and strong and reached for it in the car all through the early ’90s. But apart from the first three and maybe Southern Accents, I hadn’t really gone deep into his albums.
In the late ’90s, adulthood came crashing into my life with a vengeance, as childhood friends and family started to die; as I settled down with the woman I’d wind up marrying and having kids with; as I started trying to come to terms with the demands that this heavy and relentless world makes on our tender hearts.
It was somewhere in there that I heard some songs from the She’s the One soundtrack. These caught my ear but in a different way: he was writing deeply personal and pain-wracked songs. He covered Lucinda Williams. The guitars and the delivery showed a reckoning with the generation of post-punk songwriters coming up behind him, especially Elliot Smith and Aimee Mann, both of whom I sensed as influences. It was different from Free Fallin’.
I went back into the hits but started noticing that even there, he had always had a depth and a subtle way of weaving heavy themes into his work. The longing, the struggle for integrity, the fight to be a good man, the empathy for his characters…. I heard the hits through adult ears and appreciated them the way I appreciated Raymond Carver short stories: as minimalist, slice-of-life nuggets that carried, somewhere in their seeming plain-spoken-ness, a corkscrew to the heart. A moment or a turn of phrase that stops you cold with the shock of recognition, with the holy jolt of our shared humanity.
And like Raymond Carver’s stories, these songs, I started to realize, were unbelievably generous — because they let us fill in the blanks. No bathetic over-writing; not too much connecting the dots, just laying them down artistically, in a pattern where we might discover for ourselves the emotional intensity implicit in them. They were, in a word, art.
And that focus on our shared struggles and joys in Petty’s songwriting extended across gender lines that other rockers had a harder time or a lack of interest in traversing. Without sacrificing an iota of classic rocker lustiness, Petty nonetheless wrote convincingly and with emotional depth to, for, and about women. On the very first album, the American girl raised on promises stands on the balcony contemplating lost love and what to do next. When Petty clenches his throat around the deathless cry, “God it’s so painful when something is so close, and still so far out of reach….” well, he’s as close to embodying that woman’s anguish as any singer, male or female, could really get.
Was it perhaps that same American Girl who turns up as the protagonist of “Swingin’“, a decade or two down a rough road from her balcony scene, now “standing by the highway in her boots and silver spurs,” hitchhiking?
From his tribute to a sexually harassed former waitress declaring her independence in Free Girl Now, to his heartfelt hat tip to his Mama, who “never caught a break,” and had to “pay for big mistakes,” his deft care for real people surely extended to “everywoman.”
As a woman I know put it, “He just got people.”
Petty persuading a lover she doesn’t have to live in fear and pain — doesn’t have to “lay there and revel in her abandon” — sure has more depth and soul than his contemporary Billy Joel begging a schoolgirl to have sex with him because “only the good die young.” And the appeal of Refugee as a women-centric anthem was perhaps cemented when Indigo Girl Amy Ray made it a staple of her solo shows in the 1990s; I carry fond memories of pumping my fist and singing along with a club-full of out, proud 90s lesbians. Shared humanity indeed.
Once I came to hear Petty that way, I was hooked, and so my journey deep into the corners of his music began in earnest.
I feel that that newfound appreciation of Tom’s artistry took me to places I really needed to go to grow — as a human being, as a man, as someone who survived childhood traumas and adolescent addictions, and eventually as a songwriter myself.
What was it about Tom Petty that made me feel like he was my big brother, or my spirit guide?
Something kindred in the search for simplicity. Something unflinching in the face of the world’s cruelties and debasements. Something sympathetic in our connections to our fellow travelers through this veil of laughter and tears.
If you’re lucky, you get a few artistic inspirations in your lifetime who stick to your soul.
I’ve been lucky that way. But none has really stuck with me like Tom Petty.
Photo Credit: Associated Press