The titles of his greatest songs tell the story of Tom Petty: “Refugee,” “Rebels,” “Even the Losers.” He boasted (“You Got Lucky”), he pleaded (“I Need to Know”). All of these were songs to yell and stomp to, and all of them mirrored the adolescent urgency that shapes and fuels rock. Yet Petty’s sound was more than that, a miraculous blend of raw southern attitude and impossibly pretty melodies. He was the link between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Beatles.
When Petty first arrived on the music charts, in 1976, he seemed to be trolling every trend in the business. The charts heaved with bubblegum pop, slick R&B, and the first stirrings of disco. Yet here came a band with the ridiculous retronym Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — a handle straight out of the dorky, black-and-white early 1960s, when girls still danced in poodle skirts on American Bandstand. Their first single, a slow-burning, bluesy number you definitely couldn’t dance to, was “Breakdown.” It barely showed any life, peaking at number 40 on the charts.
The second single did even worse: “American Girl,” recorded on July 4, 1976, borrowed the Byrds’ overlapping guitar sound and distilled it into a lean, tight rocker that built up to a guitar solo so geometric it could have been written by Bach. That one didn’t even make the top 100: In an era of “Play That Funky Music” and “Undercover Angel,” “American Girl” seemed irrelevant, an uninvited guest speaking a language no one else at the party could understand.
What took years to emerge was that “American Girl” wasn’t built for 1976: It was built for all time. Like Bruce Springsteen, whose Born to Run appeared in 1975 and who also stood athwart the pop charts yelling “Stop,” Petty simply kept on until taste caught up to him. Today the big hits of the 1970s sound embarrassingly dated, but “American Girl” is timeless, a perfect song untraceable to any era. It’s a track that seemingly had always existed in the rock subconscious, waiting for someone to come along and pluck it out. When The Strokes ripped it off to make their hit “Last Nite” in 2001, it sounded just as current.
Petty had to wait only till 1979 to hit it big, with the album Damn the Torpedoes, in which he and the Heartbreakers enlarged their sound to make it big and brash enough to fill an arena with the hard-rocking tracks “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “Even the Losers,” setting them off with the most gorgeous ballad Petty would ever write (together with guitarist Mike Campbell): “Here Comes My Girl.” Petty wasn’t a rock god like Mick Jagger or Bono but a relatable redneck with ordinary-guy looks and a curious, quavery, wheedling voice.
It wasn’t a voice that you could hide mediocre songwriting behind. So Petty kept writing brilliantly, uncorking one great hook after another: In 1981 he and Campbell came up with another classic, this one a duet Petty sang with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Still another level of stardom accompanied Petty’s unexpectedly wry Alice in Wonderland–themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” in which he played the Mad Hatter against a hypnotic combination of a drum-machine loop and a sitar that recalled the heady days of Beatles/Byrds psychedelia.
Summing up the rock impulse as neatly as anyone ever has, he called it ‘one foot in the grave / and one foot on the pedal.’
Yet the highlight on the album upon which it appeared, Southern Accents, was “Rebels,” which begins memorably with the kicked-around narrator crying, “Honey don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow.” The Florida-bred Petty, in keeping with the theme of the time, drew a straight line between the wayward young badass, with his self-destructive need to act out, and the history of the South: “I was born a rebel,” he sang, or wailed. “Down in Dixie / on a Sunday morning.” Summing up the rock impulse as neatly as anyone ever has, he called it “one foot in the grave / and one foot on the pedal.” More plaintively, he sang on the album’s title cut: “There’s a southern accent where I come from. The young ’uns call it country. The Yankees call it dumb.” Petty’s sense of place was as grounded as Springsteen’s.
Petty was deeply shaken in 1987 when an unknown arsonist poured lighter fluid all over his stairway and burned down his house while he was having breakfast in Encino, Calif., and some combination of age and wisdom produced a songwriting style less boisterous and exigent. He rolled more and rocked less. Still he attracted even more fans: Rare is the pop or rock star whose greatest success comes in the second half of his life, but his solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), released when he was 38, sold more copies than any other on the strength of the songwriting craftsmanship of “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Steady, reflective numbers like “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” displaced the younger Petty’s scrappiness, yet at some point in the 1990s, despair crept in and Petty turned to a rock cliché: heroin.
He seemed to have beaten that as surely as he’d beaten the arsonist who tried to kill him, though, which is why Petty’s death this week at 66 was just as shocking as the death of Prince or David Bowie. Petty had settled into an elder-statesman phase that would just push on forever, as his late-1980s Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan’s has. Rolling Stone calculated that he had played “American Girl” more than 700 times as of September 25, when he closed the show with it at the Hollywood Bowl, wrapping up yet another triumphant tour. It would be the last song he ever publicly played. “God bless ya. Goodnight!” he told the crowd, and then he was gone.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.