My brother has never liked Tom Petty. He hated his voice. Whiny. Too high. Inflected with a Southern accent. But my brother is nothing if not a walking contradiction. As much as he hates Tom Petty and Neil Young’s high-pitched whining, he loves the extremely high voice of Geoff Tate from Queensrÿche and similar progressive metal bands. Perhaps the perception of “whininess” is a certain nasal quality that some singers possess, and it reminds my older brother too much of his bratty little brother: namely, me.
But these vocal qualities, inexplicably for my brother, are what made Tom Petty so appealing to legions of fans. Petty, throughout his decade-spanning career, was one of the most successful singers of all time. When you scratch the surface of the details of this man, you find a rich back story of hardship, dumb luck, perseverance, and, most of all, a damn fine musician.
Tom Petty was like the awkward kid on the playground who had long greasy hair, didn’t talk much, and got picked on by the jocks. This type of kid didn’t look like a nerd, but was one, and the type that was surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent. He was the geek who didn’t really inherit the earth, but rather worked his butt off to achieve it. He was the one who drove up in a sweet El Dorado after school, and blew everyone away.
He was a Southern kid, growing up in Gainesville, Florida. A high-school dropout who nevertheless worked at the University of Florida as a groundskeeper. Several of his coworkers, while planting trees and mowing lawns, assumed he was a college student. No, just a really smart guy who was in a band: the lead singer and guitarist of Mudcrutch. Petty’s band was actually fairly successful in the small pond of late 1970s Gainesville, the college town. At that time, the hipsters were all listening to Reggae, the foreign-yet-familiar sounds of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and other Jamaican artists. Petty’s brethren in the UK were discovering this music at the same time: see The Police and early Elvis Costello. Mudcrutch’s only single, “Depot Street” from 1975, has Petty’s distinctive nasality, but inflected with a faux-Jamaican accent. Similar to Sting’s use of the accent, this was not parody: it was simply part of the style.
Petty came of age as an artist right when “New Wave” was a new thing. The angst and anger of Punk had been mediated by the irony and clipped vocal style of The Cars and Talking Heads. Sarcasm and light-heartedness played better on FM radio than rage and noise. Although not really a New Wave band, Tom’s band, the Heartbreakers, combined Southern rock, the easy-breezy L.A. sound of the 1970s, and fierce gift for catchy melodies into an undeniably attractive mix. Just try and get “Don’t Do Me Like That” out of your head, now that I’ve reminded you of it. You’re welcome.
Another thing that Petty and his band took from New Wave (and Reggae, for that matter) is the concept of “space” in their tracks. The Heartbreakers first single (from 1976), “Breakdown,” is a great example of this. The Reggae-inspired groove incorporates silence as part of the rhythm. This gives Petty the room to lay his drawling triplet rhythm over it in the vocal. Part of being a great musician is knowing when not to play.
Petty technically made a couple “solo” albums, but he never grew estranged from any of his former bandmates. This speaks to his generally congenial nature: by all accounts he was simply a great guy. He even got his first band, Mudcrutch, back together in the 2000s: their most recent album Mudcrutch 2 came out in 2016. His most famous side project, however, was the Traveling Wilburys. This late 1980s supergroup was started as kind of a joke by George Harrison, and also included Jeff Lynne (Petty’s later collaborator), Bob Dylan, and the veteran rocker Roy Orbison. The band scored a couple of major hits in 1988 with “Handle with Care” and “End of the Line.”
The 1980s were probably Petty’s most successful decade as the leader of the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. A list of his songs almost reads like a Greatest Hits of the 80s track listing: “Free Fallin’,” “The Waiting,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (with the famously bizarre “Alice in Wonderland” music video), “Learning to Fly,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” The fact that Petty wrote or co-wrote all of these great songs is a testament to his staying power.
He was a familiar name on the pop charts all throughout the 80s and 90s, putting the rawness of his early material aside in place of a smooth, radio-friendly sound. Since then, Petty had often returned to his “roots,” (even though he is often characterized as a “roots rocker”). His 2010 album Mojo that he recorded with the Heartbreakers has that bluesy-swamp pop energy that would be called nostalgia if it weren’t so damn fun. By this time in his life, he was a confident frontman, able to push his band to where he wanted to go, while letting each of the members shine.
Tom Petty died when he was 66. At this point in Rock history, this is fairly young. Sir Paul and Carole King are both 75. Paul Simon is 76. Ozzy is 68. Petty’s death was not as shocking as Prince’s, but it was still a sad surprise when I heard the news a few weeks ago. When we read about someone’s death, especially someone we’ve never met but still feel a connection with, we feel empty in a way that is hard to explain. We grieve for the feelings that an artist created in us, and we are sad because there may never be a new feeling from that same source. There will never be another new Tom Petty song. And that just sucks. But we still have the old ones that will continue to drive my brother crazy, bless his heart. All we can do now is watch that El Dorado drive off into the California sunset, with the radio on, naturally.
Christopher Gable is a Lecturer at the University of North Dakota, where he teaches Rock History, Music Theory, and other assorted music classes. He has published two books on popular music with Praeger Publishers: The Words and Music of Sting and The Words and Music of Sheryl Crow. He is also a published composer, and has had compositions performed all over the world, including many here at UND.