Tom Petty, me and a lonely winter’s night in Pittsburgh, 1979
An early encounter with Elvis Presley set Petty on the road to rock’n’roll stardom
You could call Tom Petty, who died on Monday aged 66, a used-car version of Bruce Springsteen, but that would be doing the man and his music a huge disservice. Springsteen may have been the heroic voice of blue-collar America, but Petty was the more nasal voice of America’s ordinary guy, just doing his job and getting on with his life. It’s no surprise to hear he was the son of that quintessentially regular guy, an insurance salesman.
Petty may not have achieved the godlike status of Springsteen, but he became a true American rock icon (and a rock’n’roll hall of famer) thanks to his straight-ahead musical style and his sharp songwriting, which appealed to music fans across the spectrum, from country and punk to grunge and all points in between. With his trademark stovepipe hat and waistcoat, Petty became associated with the rootsier side of American rock, but the slight sneer in his voice – and his unpretentious, riff-based tunes – also endeared him to fans of punk and new wave. In the same way that punk allowed UK pub bands to get in the door of mainstream chart success, it gave gritty US bar bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers an opening into the big-time.
I first heard Tom Petty on a lonely winter’s night in 1979 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The song was Refugee, his hit single from his breakthrough third album, Damn the Torpedoes. The album had torpedoed up the US charts, spending seven weeks at number 2, only kept off the top by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Petty’s raspy voice reassuring me that I didn’t have to live like a refugee was just the balm I needed at that time.
Petty grew up in the university town of Gainesville, Florida, far from the epicentre of the US music scene, but his rock’n’roll dream was sparked by an encounter with America’s biggest rock idol, Elvis Presley, who was making a film on location in nearby Ocala. Petty’s uncle was working on the set, and brought his nephew along to meet the King.
Elvis may have spurred him into rock action, but it was The Beatles who became the biggest influence on the young Petty. He formed his first band, The Sundowners, with some high school friends, which evolved into Mudcrutch. The band featured Tommy Leadon, brother of Bernie Leadon of The Eagles, and Mike Campbell, who would remain Petty’s guitar-toting sidekick throughout his career.
Armed with a bunch of demos, Petty headed off to LA, and after being signed up by Denny Cordell’s Shelter Records, he formed The Heartbreakers. The band’s self-titled debut album featured the Petty classics American Girl and Breakdown, and their second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, featured another Petty classic, Listen to Her Heart. He eagerly embraced the MTV age with videos that conjured up rootsy dustbowl Americana.
For many, the real sign that Petty had made it was when he joined his childhood hero George Harrison’s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, along with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Being in such eminent company proved beneficial for his creativity. His next album, Full Moon Fever, featured hits such as I Won’t Back Down, Runnin’ Down a Dream and the mighty Free Fallin’.
Petty was also a man of principles. A bitter dispute with his record company in 1979 brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. In more recent years, he slapped down former US president George Bush, who tried to use I Won’t Back Down in his 2000 presidential campaign, and Michele Bachmann, who tried to co-opt American Girl into her 2012 campaign. He’s advocated on behalf of artists’ rights, and also refused to play at concert venues where Greenpeace have been denied access.
I caught him at Dublin’s then O2 Arena in 2012, and he and the band were in flying form, performing hits from right through five decades, including his own Learning to Fly and The Traveling Wilburys’ Handle With Care. This year, he was on the road again, celebrating the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary, but had dropped a huge hint this would be his last tour. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can,” he said.
“I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”
The band had just played three nights at the Hollywood Bowl, and were due to play two nights in New York in November.
Petty’s death means there are now just two Traveling Wilburys left to carry the flame. “It’s shocking, crushing news,” said Bob Dylan. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”