Tom Petty wasn’t the flashiest rock star out there, or the most innovative. But he might have been one of the most widely liked – which is one reason why his death is so hard to take for those of us who grew up with him.
Petty died on Monday at age 66, after suffering from cardiac arrest. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone, given that he had just finished up his most recent concert tour last week.
If you came up in suburban America between the late 1970s and the early ’90s, Petty accounted for a lot of what you heard in the air in the high school parking lot. At a time when America was beginning to fracture along cultural and political fault lines, Petty was the increasingly rare consensus artist – a rocker whose undeniable jingle-jangle catchiness made him a good-sized pop star in his day.
From the eight-track era to the present, Petty’s popularity cut a wide swath, with a likability that extended to manner as well as music. Petty seemed equally at home collaborating with legends like Del Shannon to Bob Dylan as up-and-comers not yet widely known to the mainstream.
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For many bands, opening a Petty tour would be a career highlight. More than once over the years of attending his shows, I’d catch a glimpse of Petty in the side stage wings during his opening act, watching them play.
Petty always seemed like a fan first, somebody you could imagine working a day job and playing in a weekend-warrior bar band. But he was bound for greater things than that. It was Petty’s good fortune to be a great songwriter with the Heartbreakers, one of the best backup bands of his era, and it took him all the way to the Hall of Fame.
But he never stopped being the relatable everyman rock star, either. The last time I reviewed one of his shows was in 2006, when he was already hinting around about retirement while playing a show structured as a career retrospective.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have believed that, of course. He last performed in Raleigh Sept. 18, 2014, at PNC Arena with Steve Winwood in support of “Hypnotic Eye,” his band’s latest release at the time.
Petty always seemed like too much of a lifer to give up the nomadic musician’s life, and he soldiered on to the end. His last show was at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles barely a week ago, and it was by all accounts a triumph.
So was his entire career.
From the N&O archives
Petty shows how rock is done, Sept. 12, 2006
By David Menconi
RALEIGH – Tom Petty should teach the “Rock Star 101” tutorial at the School of Rock, because he doesn’t play concerts so much as put on clinics. You want to engage a large crowd in a big outdoor shed like Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek? Do what Petty did Sunday night: Come onstage in crushed leather, flowered shirt and cowboy-boot finery, and crank out a two-hour set of 21 songs, perfectly paced between hits, obscurities and covers.
Of course, it helps to have a band as good as the Heartbreakers to get your point across. Guitarist Mike Campbell, whom Petty introduced as “the co-captain,” played impeccable leads that invoked the sound and spirit of the songs’ recorded versions without getting overly slavish. Benmont Tench was tastefully restrained on keyboards, and the rhythm section of bassist Ron Blair and monster drummer Steve Ferrone never wavered. Then there was multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, who had the toughest assignment of the night: covering the late, great Roy Orbison’s vocal part on the Traveling Wilburys’ hit “Handle With Care.” He pulled it off admirably.
This tour marks Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 30-year anniversary, and Petty has suggested in interviews that it will be his last major outing. The show was certainly structured like a home-run trot. You’d have hardly known Petty has a new album to promote, “Highway Companion” (American Recordings), because he played only three songs from it.
Instead, the set was more of a back-pages trip, which isn’t to say it was a hit parade. Some of his biggest hits went missing, including “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Breakdown,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “The Waiting.” In their place, Petty went deep into the songbook with covers that showed his roots -- Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and Them’s “Mystic Eyes.”
The covers placed Petty within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continuum (he’s a member himself, remember) as the logical inheritor of the mainstream-rock tradition. They also established what a supremely likable musician he is by underscoring his accessibility. If you’re of a certain age and have any tolerance at all for mainstream rock, you probably like Petty. Saying you don’t would be like saying you don’t like ice cream – and everybody likes ice cream, at least a little.
Back to that rock-star class, it also helps to have a hits list like Petty’s to close out a show with. A quiet rearrangement of “Learning to Fly” was a nice touch, and an expert set-up for a raucous “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Then came the inevitable “Refugee” and “American Girl,” both great; and a three-song encore of “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Mystic Eyes” and a curfew-busting “You Wreck Me.”
If this really is Petty’s last waltz, he’s going out in style. We shall not see his like again.