I started writing this the night Tom Petty died. I was sat in a quiet office when the news broke on social media, swirling for a few hours in a vacuum of facts. I didn’t want to believe it. We clung to the notion of a miraculous recovery. It didn’t come, and I sank a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Dog and Fox , appealing to colleagues for some sign that they felt like I did, before heading home. I left it unfinished, but this week’s announcement of the coroner’s report sent me back to it, and back to his music.
Tom Petty’s death hit me a great deal harder than I expected it to. After last year, you’d think we were all used to the idea of being suddenly grief-stricken by the death of someone we never met, but this one bothers me more than Prince or Bowie. Musing on death as one does at these moments, I’m hard pressed to think of many artists I’m going to miss more.
I’d spent much of last year grumbling about the ticket prices for his only European date, and the fact that it was in Hyde Park in London, renowned for mediocre sound brought on by overzealous local noise restrictions. I’d tried to get tickets to the Royal Albert Hall a few years before, but it sold out half an hour after going on sale and well before I got to the front of the queue. And now I never shall.
One grasps for ways to personalise the tragedy. He was too young. He was looking forward to spending time with his granddaughter. Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell will never play with their friend and co-conspirator of 40 years again. But really, it’s the gut punch of knowing I’ll never see them play, a combination of living too late and in the wrong place, too broke or too stubborn. I’m not ready to live in a world that doesn’t have Tom Petty in it.
His songs are so timeless, so imbued with a kind of rock and roll immortality descended straight from Elvis and the Beatles, that it seemed glorious that their creator still walked among us; I grew up expecting bands I discovered in my parents’ record collection to be dead, disbanded or distinctly past their best, but Petty was real, alive and consistently producing high quality work. That’s why it hurts, I think; it’s one thing to be born too late to see the Beatles, it’s another to know in your heart of hearts you probably should have forgone something in order to see someone play while you had the chance.
Full Moon Fever is part of the soundtrack to my childhood; there’s grainy 90s home video of me jumping up and down to “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. The Wilburys albums on tape were part of the soundtrack to long car journeys in the back of my Dad’s old blue Volvo.
Eventually, probably via the DVD of the George Harrison memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I rediscovered the Heartbreakers. That led me back to my dad’s copy of Full Moon Fever. I’m far from alone in holding “Free Fallin’” dear; that is, after all, what makes a classic. The moment it became the soundtrack to a moment in my life, I was on Navy Pier, a gaudy strip of lightbulbs and what America calls cotton candy jutting out into Lake Michigan from the north side of Chicago. I was drunk on Americana, realising that the line between fact and fiction is blurry, eating chilli dogs from Bubba Gump, an actual restaurant chain branded after the one Tom Hanks’ titular Forrest Gump founded. There, probably to this day, plays a band doing something they call live band karaoke, and a quick scan down their song list led me to “Free Fallin’”, without fully appreciating how high the chorus is. My vocal inadequacies aside, it functioned as the perfect three-minute user manual to Americana.
I returned, and worked my way voraciously through the Greatest Hits, Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises and Into The Great Wide Open. By then I was playing bass and guitar in bands, and I developed a keen appreciation of Petty’s songcraft and Mike Campbell’s guitar playing. (Later, I spent a long time studying first Ron Blair and then Howie Epstein, but that’s for another, more bass-centric day…).
Songs weave themselves into the fabric of your life. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a scratch band of friends, playing some of my favourite songs, and we opened with “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. I’m about to put most of that band back together for my wedding reception, and it’ll probably stay in the set. Highway Companion will now always be the soundtrack to clearing out my great uncle’s’ house; Wildflowers the soundtrack to a recording session where we kept accidentally re-writing “Crawling Back To You”.
In time, perhaps this is going to wear off, the urge to seek out the saddest parts of his catalogue, to wallow there, rage against the dying of the light, grasp at straws and insist that someone, some succession of someones, must have screwed up pretty spectacularly to prescribe that cocktail of opiates to a former addict with chronic pain and a renowned work ethic. I’ll get back to the pure, rock and roll joy of “Listen To Her Heart” or “The Waiting”, “Honey Bee” or “You Wreck Me”. And once the immediacy is gone, once the pain fades away a little, probably when my fiancee is out, I’ll sit down with the full 4 hours of Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary and the accompanying coffee table hardback book. Right now, I’m not sure I could.
I could wax lyrical about the universality of popular song, about the sheer rock‘n’roll bravado you need to call your band the Heartbreakers, about how that seems to have been coupled to a generous spirit and a true anti-establishment sensibility. Instead, here’s three songs you might have missed.
As Jack Harris and anyone who’s heard him set a pub quiz knows, my all time favourite Tom Petty song is “Listen To Her Heart”. A gem on the otherwise-underwhelming second album, it features the opening couplet “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine / Keep thinking that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is OK.”
Zombie Zoo is the best Halloween song ever written, and captures something about watching teenagers queue up outside nightclubs that is near-universal. Best/worst lyric: “Sometimes you’re so impulsive, you shaved off all your hair / You look like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care.”
Room at the Top is Petty mid-divorce, bitter, unbending. Mike Campbell wields a Gibson SG with a rare vigour, slicing through the slow, determined groove. Campbell and Benmont Tench trade off uncharacteristically busy solos.