As musicians and lovers of music, it’s hard to stay silent about the recent loss of an artist like Tom Petty, gone too soon at a hard-rocking 66 years young. He seemed indestructible, and it hurts to see the mortal bubble burst on an iron man who amazed one generation after another for the better part of fifty years.
Those who saw Tom Petty live noted that songs in his sets—often from records released 25+ years apart—sounded like they came from one big album, and he never lost a step (or his edge) as a songwriter or performer along the way. No one can stop time, but Tom Petty came pretty damn close.
One positive thread to glean from the passing of icons like Tom Petty, Prince, and David Bowie is the way their music lives on long after they have left us. Great music has no lifespan, future Tom Petty fans are being born right now, and records are gonna keep on spinning.
A noteworthy characteristic of Tom Petty that will echo for many years was his respect and admiration for the artists who inspired and informed his own work. Fans of the brilliantly zany Tom Petty Radio show on Sirius XM learned the connective roots Petty claimed with both reverence and pride. He taught listeners to honor music as a community, sharing threads woven from one imagination (and generation) to the next. Tom Petty kept the dream alive and showed the rest of us how he did it. He didn’t want the magic to be a secret.
Tom Petty’s songs, declarative and heartfelt, blended uncanny lyrical creativity and killer melodies with narrative structures that spoke to individuality and character while leaving room for interpretation. He was fired up, decently defensive, casually stoned, and entirely sympathetic. The effect calmed the souls of us working stiffs while lending a much needed shot of adrenaline. Monday afternoons and Saturday nights were Tom Petty’s turf, along with most other times and occasions imaginable.
Tom Petty talked the talk and walked the walk. He showed the world that you can be fierce, gracious, fearless, and forgiving. He taught us that sometimes you don’t have to choose sides, and other times you must.
He valued creative control and artistic independence as a recording artist, yet displayed deep loyalty to three bands he worked with over a 40+ year span: the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, and his first group, Mudcrutch. Tom Petty was a dreamer with a rigorous work ethic, resulting in a prolific and dynamic career. As a human being, he defied ageism with fiery live shows, leaving audiences breathless until his final curtain call. Petty’s stage presence and vocal delivery were utterly rock and roll, yet the depth of his writing allowed for contemplative tenderness. When life broke your heart, Tom Petty would shine a little light on the gold in the cracks. Some days are diamonds. Some days are rocks.
As a presence/character/persona, he showed us that you don't have to be this or that, one thing or another. You can be a little ugly and a little pretty. You can be be a singer and a DJ. You can be happy and sad, lonely and loved, tough and kind, or anywhere in between. Tom Petty lived in a big, weird world, and his music left enough room for all of us to fit right in.
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