If I were tasked with explaining Tom Petty to someone who didn’t know him or his music, say, a preteen or teenager who was just starting out on his or her journey as a music fan, the anecdote I would cite is, ironically enough, about a song he did not sing. The song in question was being foisted upon Roger McGuinn, the Byrds frontman whose own inimitably nasally vocals and 12-string guitar provided one of the main influences for Petty’s sound on his earliest records. The time period was the early 90’s, when McGuinn was trying to get his recording career up and running again as a solo artist.
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In a scene from Runnin’ Down A Dream, Peter Bogdanovich’s exhaustive documentary about Petty’s career, the artist is in the room when the song is pitched to McGuinn by a record executive. Petty makes no secret of his disgust for the song, reading the lyrics with a sneer and ripping into the exec for disrespecting an artist of McGuinn’s stature in this manner. “Are you getting a kickback on this?” Petty asks incredulously to the exec, suggesting there can’t be anything but an ulterior motive for this lousy material to be forced upon McGuinn.
At that point, Petty was riding high in the rock world, while McGuinn was trying to work his way back. McGuinn probably didn’t have the heat to be picky and might have performed the inferior song had Petty not intervened. And, just to put his talent where his mouth was, Petty wrote McGuinn a killer track called “King Of The Hill” and duetted with him on it, garnering the veteran a comeback hit of sorts in the process.
Integrity. Honesty. Authenticity. They are words that have become ideals of sorts in today’s society, which is odd because you would think they’d be matter-of-fact qualities. Everybody should have them, but they seem to be in scarce supply. Tom Petty’s record catalog is a nearly inexhaustible source of those ephemeral traits, which is just one of the reasons why his passing on Monday was so devastating.
I didn’t know the man, so whether or not he exhibited those qualities in his personal life is something I can’t personally confirm. Certainly the evidence offered throughout his career, like the aforementioned incident with McGuinn, or the time he filed for bankruptcy to help shed the terms of what he thought was an unfair record deal, or when he refused to allow an album to come out because he thought the sticker price was too high, certainly speaks pretty favorably of his bona fides in these departments.
In his music, however, these qualities were eminently clear. You could also add dependability to this list. It is difficult to think of a major artist who made it through such a long career without any swales in popularity or quality in the way that Petty did. Quick, can you name a Petty album that flopped, either in terms of sales or as determined by critical appraisal? Not really any. He navigated the changing times and tastes of pop music with stunning deftness, and yet never capitulated to any trend in a way that sacrificed his identity. He even took videos in stride for a while, producing some of the most memorable clips in MTV’s heyday.
The other quality which describes Petty’s music the best, and he in turn wrote about this better than anyone else ever has, is resiliency. It was obvious in some tracks, whether he was delivering it with a defiant snarl in “Scare Easy” or a wry shrug in “I Won’t Back Down.” But it can be found in subtle pockets of so many of his songs, as Petty inherently understood from the beginning that you needed to honestly portray the low points and pitfalls before the character’s rising above them could truly have an impact.
And there are so many of these characters to be found in Petty’s work. Think of the runaway in “Swingin’” who refuses to let the sordid circumstances of her life get the best of her. Or the stumbling ne’er-do-well mourning the loss of his Mom but still proud of his heritage in ”Southern Accents.” Even in his first major piece of work, it was there, as that “American Girl” could only be celebrated amidst the ringing guitars after acknowledging all of the heartbreak she had suffered.
Examples like this abound, too numerous to mention here, but I know I’ll be listening to as many of them as humanly possible in the coming days. He once sang “Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.” Today is an all-time rock, for sure. But, if his songs taught us nothing else, it’s that a little resilience goes a long way.
The reason we are hit so hard by the deaths of musicians, particularly songwriters, is that they can articulate to us things inside ourselves we didn’t even know were there, and that’s something that our deepest friends or most cherished loved ones, despite their best efforts, can’t often accomplish. Tom Petty was better at that articulation than most, and for that we owe him so much. Maybe we could repay him by displaying as much as possible those qualities we all associated with him and his music.
So rest in peace, Tom. Or, as you might prefer it, take it easy, baby.