The rock star, age 66, has suffered a severe heart attack.
Petty has always been a favorite of mine. He was never quite a genius (the word “ditty” about his melody-writing tendency is hard to shake), but was a full fan service all-around rock star for a long time. Highlights of his career have included “American Girl” in 1976 and “Free Falling” in 1989, which is a long time to be near one’s peak in the rock business.
I believe I’ve seen him five times, in Santa Monica in 1978, perhaps twice in Houston over the next couple of years, headlining Steve Wozniak’s US festival in 1982 (the only less than exhilarating performance), and with Bob Dylan in 1986. That tour grew out of their collaboration in the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne of ELO. It seemed like a good idea at the time for Petty and his excellent Heartbreakers band to both open for Dylan and then back him as his own band. But Dylan was an awkward performer while Petty’s natural rock star appeal tended to upstage the legend.
I suspect that the success of Petty’s career grew out of his combination of amiability and orneriness.
Most everybody liked Petty. For example, he showed up a lot as an actor in sitcoms by brilliant comedy writers like Garry Shandling and Mike Judge, either playing himself or a character based on himself.
Beavis: [watching a Tom Petty video] Hey Butt-head, how come Tom Petty is famous?
Butt-Head: Because he’s on TV, dumbass.
Beavis: Yeah, but like… but how did he get on TV?
Butt-Head: Uh… because he’s famous.
Beavis: Yeah, but, I mean, like, how did he get famous?
Butt-Head: He got famous because he’s on TV.
Beavis: YEAH, YEAH, BUT HOW DID HE GET ON TV?
Butt-Head: Because he’s famous, Beavis! Now shut up before I smack the bejesus out of you!
Cameron Crowe wrote both “American Girl” and “Free Falling” into his movies.
To be a female pop star, you have to be good looking or a good singer or both. But to be a male rock star, you can look like the Mad Hatter in Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and sing like, well, I don’t know what Petty sang like.
But much as everybody liked Tom, Tom didn’t necessarily like everybody else all the time.
Petty’s career included feuds with his usually superlative band (thus some albums are by “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” and others by “Tom Petty”) and legal struggles with his record companies, such as the ordeal that preceded his breakthrough 1979 third album “Damn the Torpedoes,” with its sensational production work by Jimmy Iovine:
(“Damn the Torpedoes” was, in my recollection, a big step forward in recording drums. Iovine and his engineer spent huge chunks of time carrying out science experiments with where to put microphones to make Stan Lynch’s drums sound like they did live.)
In recent years, Petty and Lynne amused themselves suing young stars for plagiarism.
Petty was an artsy redneck. Here’s his 1985 video “Don’t You Come Around Here No More” combining an ominous Scots-Irish warning with Petty’s Mad Hatter resemblance:
If you are too polite, you get pushed around like Elvis did. An 11-year-old Petty got to shake Elvis’s hand in 1961 and was set on being a rock star ever after. But Tom didn’t make Elvis’s mistake of being too nice for his own good.
A life well lived.