The sly, charming, southern genius of Tom Petty

It was one of those moments when you are absolutely helpless. I was a young father. My daughter was probably 2½. She had long hair that needed to be combed out after her nightly bath, and I wasn’t very good at it. This specific night, there had been one too many tangles pulled a little too hard. She was crying inconsolably; the way only a two-year-old can when faced with that kind of pain. I was holding her on my lap with her face buried deep into my belly. Her tears had soaked through my shirt, but there was no end to this ordeal in sight. I had tried everything I knew how to do, but nothing helped. Finally I just decided to let her cry this thing out. My hand rubbed up and down her back, and I started to sing her a song I knew from Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever album:

Goodnight, baby

Sleep tight my love

May God watch over

You from above

Tomorrow I’m working

What would I do

I’d be lost and lonely

If not for you

So close your eyes

We’re alright

For now

I’ve spent my life travelling

Spent my life free

I could not repay all you’ve done for me

So sleep tight baby

Unfurrow your brow

And know I love you

We’re alright for now

 

It’s a simple lullaby, maybe two minutes long, but by the time I was done, she had calmed down and stopped crying. Every night, for the next five years, she would ask me to sing her that song (along with the Beatles’ “I Will”), and it created one of those bonds between a father and daughter that can never be broken.

My friends, behold the subversive power of Thomas Earl Petty.

Tom Petty died on Monday, from cardiac arrest, at 66 years old. I, of course feel the same feelings I have felt when we lost so many other of my musical heroes; I’m terribly saddened by the news, I’m incredibly grateful for the rich body of work he leaves behind, and I feel a need to salute him and acknowledge that his existence on Earth has made mine more enjoyable.

With his band Mudcrutch in the early 1970’s

But in a strange way, I also feel like I owe him a bit of an apology. I took Tom Petty for granted. He has been a ubiquitous presence in my life, in some form or another, for at least 35 years. I don’t think I ever thought, for one moment, that this would be a finite thing. Tom Petty had always just kind of been there, so why would I ever think he wouldn’t be? I’ve heard his music every week, and I’ll bet most days, of my life since I first turned on MTV in 1982. My band plays a couple of his songs. His music is in some of my favorite movies. I sang that song to my daughter every night. It’s really amazing when you think about it, because Tom Petty achieved something I’d never thought possible: his music saturated my life, but I never got tired of it, nor did I ever stop to think that this guy might be one of my favorite songwriters. He was so good that I just let him in – and let him stay there – with no questions asked.

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty carried his roots with great pride. Long after he had packed up his band Mudcrutch as a 19 year old kid and moved to Hollywood, he would identify himself as a “Gone Gator.” A lot of his songs would reflect fondly on the bayous, sunshine and characters of his home state. Moreover, his style was uniquely southern. He was slow, thoughtful, subtle and deliberate. He could write and record a song everyday when pressed, but he and his band preferred to work things out a little more organically. They would play with a song, talk about it, jam on it a little bit. There would be brotherly arguments, failed experiments, accidental discoveries, a couple mild adjustments, and then finally things would just fall into place where they were supposed to be. This was his way of doing things. What appeared to many outsiders as unorganized and lazy methods belied a deep confidence and trust in the process. The band would disappear into a cacophonic mess and then emerge with a rock and roll masterpiece.

 

It’s all right if you love me

It’s all right if you don’t

I’m not afraid of you running away, honey

I get the feeling you won’t – “Breakdown,” 1976

 

The You Got Lucky video, 1982

Petty’s songs were just sneaky that way. For me, they were a slowly acquired taste. I’m pretty sure the first Heartbreakers song I heard was “Refugee.” I couldn’t get past Petty’s nasally voice. Yeah, that was a great riff, but that dude needed to stop singing. And then MTV began playing the Heartbreakers’ video for “You Got Lucky” incessantly. It’s not a great song from Long After Dark, which is not a great album (the presence of “Straight Into Darkness” notwithstanding). So, I spent a year or two thinking I didn’t really like Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

But really I was just too young to appreciate his understated brilliance.

I don’t really know exactly when it happened over the years. I liked the song “Jammin’ Me” when it came out. I thought the videos he and his bandmates made for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and “Make it Better (Forget About Me),” as they terrorized poor Alice (of Wonderland fame), were hilarious. The Heartbreakers included “Rebels” in their set at Live Aid, and I loved that song immediately. Somewhere along the line, I started thinking that they were a pretty good band.

And then I woke up one morning, probably the fall of 1991, with “The Waiting” stuck in my head. This was a song I’d known for more than a decade, but somewhere in my dreams state I had just realized it was one of the best songs I’d ever heard.

I honestly went to my favorite record store and bought every Tom Petty album I could find that day.

 

I got my own way of working

And everything is run

With a Southern Accent

Where I come from – “Southern Accents,” 1985

 

The Heartbreakers are one of the greatest rock bands in history. The band had it all. The musicianship of Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and the late Howie Epstein would have been enough to make any band worthy of the Hall of Fame. But then add in those songs, from “American Girl” and “Breakdown,” to “Free Falling,” and “I Won’t Back Down,” to “Swingin’,” and “The Last DJ.” Now throw a charismatic front man into the mix who knows how to connect with an audience from the stage, through a recording studio, and in a video. It quickly becomes crystal clear that this was among the most irresistible bands we’ve ever seen.

He wasn’t a virtuoso like Freddie Mercury, and he wasn’t a bigger-than-life personality like David Lee Roth. Petty did it his

The Petty Grin on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1981

way. He had a sly, knowing grin that, when flashed to his audience, said “I know something you don’t, but you’re about to find out, and you’re gonna love it.” His charm was pure southern. It was slow and easy going, backed up with a comfortable, believable friendliness. You always felt like Tom Petty was your buddy.

When he passed away, he died as he lived – quietly, without a lot of drama (despite the conflicting is-he-dead-or-isn’t he news reports), and really he was gone before we knew anything was happening in the first place. There couldn’t be a more fitting way for him to go.

In today’s age of celebrity and fame, Tom Petty was one-of-a-kind. There had been no lightning bolt moment in his career. He and his band were the guys that showed up at the party and were drinking your beer before you knew what was going on. There were no big introductions, no era or genre-defining hits. There was just a ton of great rock songs.

We were slow to appreciate him, but we eventually grew to love him as one of the very best. And we might not feel the immediacy of his loss as we did with people whose style was stronger and more aggressive, like Prince or David Bowie, but in the long run this loss will be felt every bit as deeply. He was our pal, who drank our beer and sang us amazing songs. May his soul never stop grinning, and may his music continue to sneak up on new fans for generations to come.

 

Rich Larson is the publisher and managing editor of The Next Ten Words. Contact him at richlarson@nexttenwords.com. If you like what you’ve read here, please CONSIDER THIS.

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