Music by VICE

Tom Petty Was an All-American Anomaly

Petty's career spanned five decades, yet he never made sense in any era.

by David Anthony
Oct 3 2017, 1:59pm

Crédito: Richard E. Aaron / Colaborador Getty Images, circa 1976

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers entered the world in 1976, no one knew what to make of them. On the cover of the band's self-titled debut, Petty is found sporting a crisp leather jacket with a bandolier peeking out, his playful smirk portraying a hint of danger and the slightest air of cool. This image, paired with the blunt force of the songs on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, would see the band get positioned as punk, with Petty telling Spin in 1989 that they would regularly play at CBGB and share stages with the Ramones, Blondie, and even the Clash. "Then people started saying, 'Well they're different, but they're not punk,' so they called us new wave. I think we were the first band to be called new wave, not that it's any honor you'd want to hang on your wall," Petty told the magazine. It's strange to think a record with songs like "Breakdown" or "American Girl" would ever be considered punk—or even new wave—but that dichotomy would come to be a defining part of Petty's creative life. Tom Petty was always an anomaly.

Over the course of a career that lasted nearly five decades, Petty never became anchored to one specific scene, era, or cultural trend, but his songs always slipped into the cultural consciousness, even if few of them actually topped the Billboard charts. In 1978, "Breakdown" barely edged its way into the Top 40, and "American Girl" wouldn't even chart. But somehow these songs became part of the fabric of American rock music. And with each new release, a couple more would get added to Petty's version of the Great American Songbook. And that happened routinely for decades. Because Petty never stopped doing the work.

Petty's songs are deceptively simple, the kind that could be plucked away by kids first learning to strum their way around a guitar or seasoned players studying how to make music and lyrics feel uncomplicated. The opening riffs to "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," and "Runnin' Down a Dream" (along with countless others) work because they are simple, effective stabs, never meant to be grandiose but somehow achieving it. They take basic ideas and routine chord formations, and hammer them in ways that feel newly exciting. They become the kind of songs that sound good when blasted in a sports arena, when heard faintly in the background of a crowded bar, or coming through headphones. There's no place these songs don't fit, feeling a part of our shared cultural history yet still personal and evocative.

To look back on Petty's career, it's easy to overlook what made him stand out from his peers. Though he may not have truly been a punk, he was a vocal opponent of major label shenanigans that were running amok at the time. After the release of his breakthrough album, 1979's Damn the Torpedoes, his record label planned to increase the price of its follow-up. This price-gouging was disguised as the newly implemented "superstar pricing," raising the cost of albums from $8.98 to $9.98. Petty was outright appalled, lambasting the price hike in the press and considered changing the album's title from Hard Promises to Eight Ninety-Eight. Eventually, as Petty began threatening not to deliver the album, the label caved.

Similarly, Petty was one of the few rock artists to embrace MTV, helping make music videos a fully artistic endeavor. In 1982, a full year before Michael Jackson would release "Thriller," Petty was one of the first to incorporate narrative elements instead of the standard thrust-your-hips-and-look-at-the-camera stylings with "You Got Lucky," the band's take on Mad Max's postapocalyptic wasteland. It'd see the band decked out in full road warrior garb as they attempt to make sense of how they ended up in this deserted universe. Subsequently, "Don't Come Around Here No More" would similarly evoke a deranged take on Alice in Wonderland, and "Runnin' Down a Dream" would be a fully animated fever dream of a cartoon, showing that Petty wasn't as out of touch as his classic rocker status may have suggested.

But even though Petty backed up Bob Dylan on a tour, and counted him as a bandmate alongside Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys, Petty didn't belong fully to the elder generation. While he came of age in the 70s with Damn the Torpedos, 1989's Full Moon Fever—his first solo outing—was packed with his most hits per square capita. Opening with the one-two punch of "Free Fallin'" and "I Won't Back Down," the record revitalized Petty's career, as well as that of the Heartbreakers. Though the 80s were hard for the band he fronted, he'd come into the 90s with a new kind of heat, one that allowed him to release a greatest hits record with one of his most iconic songs ("Mary Jane's Last Dance"), back Johnny Cash on the country-music legend's second installment in the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series Unchained, and produce what is easily his best album, 1994's Wildflowers. He'd even have a post-Nirvana, pre-Foo Fighters Dave Grohl drum for him during a Saturday Night Live appearance, showing Petty wasn't some old rocker resting on his laurels.

Even with Wildflowers begetting an artistic peak—going triple platinum in the years that followed—Petty would subsequently go through a divorce and battle a heroin addiction, creating his bleakest work on 1999's Echo and his most indignant on 2002's The Last DJ, an album-length airing of grievances about the state of the music industry. But just as he did when faced with struggles in the mid-80s, Petty once again reinvented himself. He continued to move concert tickets even as record sales slowed and, in an attempt to get back to the simple pleasures of playing music, in 2008 he reunited Mudcrutch, the band he started in 1970 and ended in 1975, just before the launch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Though he'd still be a songwriter and vocalist in Mudcrutch, his role was diminished, singing on fewer songs and playing bass in other sections. The reactivated Mudcrutch allowed him to take a step back, playing smaller rooms across the country while settling into the role of a guy in a band instead of a multi-platinum rockstar.

The Heartbreakers would continue to release records and tour, finally scoring a number one album with 2014's Hypnotic Eye, and hitting the road in support of it. After a few years off the road, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers announced their 40th anniversary tour which would take place throughout the bulk of 2017. But from the outset, Petty was positioning this as his final go-round. "It's very likely we'll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don't think so," Petty told Rolling Stone. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one."

Petty slipped away on the evening of October 2 at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest in his Malibu home, making that 40th anniversary tour—which saw the band offering up a celebratory greatest hits set every night—the last we'll get of one of America's most iconic rock musicians. For fans, they were given one last chance to belt out the words to their favorite songs, and Petty was able to soak in the love that he'd built up after decades spent writing, recording, and touring. Through it all, he never tried to be anything other than Tom Petty, turning in some of the greatest rock songs the world has ever known—the kind that, somehow, have felt like they've been around as long as rock music itself. Tom Petty never made sense in any time period because what he created was timeless.

David Anthony is on Twitter.