Oh man, I wish it didn’t take the death of one of my Rock & Roll heroes to get me back to Fish & Bicycles after a six month break, but it’s just the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Tom Petty was a quintessential rocker.
More than that, he was a prototypical rocker.
He was a Chuck Berry, a Jerry Lee Lewis, a Buddy Holly, an Elvis Presley.
He was a prolific songwriter and a natural, charismatic frontman. He was cool without flash, and onstage he always looked like he was doing the only thing he really wanted to do.
He was a bandleader in the most important ways. Not an egomaniac who demanded obedience, but a consummate musician who built one of the tightest bands of the era, a band that he could command with just the nod of his head or the wave of his hand. He was to The Heartbreakers what Bruce Springsteen has been to the E Street Band.
Rock & Roll has an intoxicating power. As someone who has had the privilege of performing in a rock band, I can tell you that it is incredibly easy to let the music take over, to entirely lose control of it.
Imagine all five members of a band experiencing that at the same time, imagine doing this in front of thousands of fans who are on their feet and grooving to the music, and then imagine Tom Petty, with his back to the rest of the band, just raising the headstock of his guitar in the air and then suddenly jerking it back down, stopping this freight train in its tracks.
Yes, he was that powerful.
I remember when The Traveling Wilburys happened, and many people wondered what Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne of ELO fame were doing in a band with legends Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. I might have even held that belief momentarily when first hearing about the “supergroup”.
Now, Jeff Lynne still seems the odd man out, a successful songwriter for sure, but for all his success he was mostly there because he’d become good friends with George Harrison after producing George’s comeback album Cloud 9. I don’t really give a shit, he’s a great musician and talented producer, but it’s true that he just didn’t have as impressive a resume.
Tom Petty, on the other hand, by the time the Wilburys came together, had released one of the most impressive string of records ever over just 10 years.
Seriously, their first three albums are frickin’ incredible…
(Yes, there’s some great stuff after that, like Telegraph Road, a very Springsteen-ish song from their 4th album, Love Over Gold, and some of the stuff on Brothers In Arms.)
…and I think it’s stunning to think about them in the context of what was going on in music at that time, the late 70s and early 80s, so dominated by punk, post-punk/new wave, etc., and there wasn’t much else out there that sounded like Dire Straits. Maybe Tom Petty and a few others.
Early Dire Straits was like a great early to mid 70s Rock & Roll band, full of American roots music influences, who stubbornly decided to just keep making great early to mid 70s Rock & Roll.
Tom Petty also made it through the entire 1980s without abandoning his roots, which is a considerable accomplishment.
I wasn’t the biggest Petty fan. I didn’t buy every record and see him on every tour. But, his influence on me was huge. Like Tom, I play rhythm guitar and I sing, and when I’m at the mic, singing and strumming my six string, I often think of him, as I did just a few weeks ago, when me and my band played our medley of George Harrison’s Beatles-era If I Needed Someone and Petty’s Listen To Her Heart.
Tom, thanks for all of the wonderful music and the great fun you brought into the world. You’ll be missed, brother!
I’ll always think of you like this: