In the video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Tom Petty dresses up a dead woman, played by Kim Basinger, as his bride. It’s a pretty revolting video, but its also a reference to the stint that Petty did as a gravedigger in his youth. Strangely enough, Joe Strummer of the Clash and Dave Vanian of the Damned also worked as gravediggers. Rod Stewart is reputed to have dug graves in Highgate Cemetery (where Marx is buried) but in fact he just marked them out. “You didn’t have to look too sharp,” Tom Petty said about that particular job. Today he died at 66 years old.
I never heard of Tom Petty qua Tom Petty growing up in England. There are a few American megastars who never quite became solo-famous internationally. But I did know him as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup formed in the late ‘80s by him and George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison.
“Handle With Care” was the Traveling Wilburys’ greatest hit. It’s a melancholic banger, and each wobbly-necked megastar reedily sings his way through the lyrics. George Harrison opens with the sweet tone he developed on Cloud Nine: “You’re the best thing that I ever found,” he sings. Next comes Roy Orbison with his characteristic warble. It’s so rich and swoopy that when Bob Dylan and Tom Petty come in next they sound like a couple of ducks. George Harrison does that cute dance he liked in the ‘80s, leaning forward from the knees. “I’m so tired of being lonely / I still have some love to give,” Orbison sings, while beside him Petty strums steadily on a guitar.
Tom Petty was born in 1950 and raised in Gainesville, Florida, which somebody once told me is home to a supermarket that is famously good for picking up girls in. His father beat him. He saw Elvis on TV as a kid and decided rock and roll was his calling; Don Felder of the Eagles later taught him the guitar. Petty’s first band, Mudcrutch, took him out of high school, and he never went back.
Mudcrutch broke up and reformed as the Heartbreakers with most of its members intact in 1976. They rumbled about for a few years, producing an eponymous album and the pretty good You’re Gonna Get It!. Their third album, Damn the Torpedoes (1979), got very big, very fast. That’s the one with Petty on the cover in a red tee shirt looking skinny and somehow edible. At this time he looked strangely similar to Tom Verlaine; they both had that strung-out farmhand vibe.
The Wilburys happened in 1988, before the 1989 solo Petty record Full Moon Fever. These years proved difficult for Petty’s relationship with the other Heartbreakers. But during the decade of their heyday, The Heartbreakers released songs that define American classic rock: “Breakdown,” “American Girl.” The comparison to Tom Verlaine of Television is an oddly telling one. While Television and other bands on the avant-garde side of the late 1970s pushed into post-punk, Tom Petty was melting into the gloopy masculine soup we call Heartland Rock, along with Bruce Springsteen, Seger, John Mellencamp, and Steve Earle.
But he remained distinct from those peers, and his sound remains distinct now. Unlike any of those artists, you can’t call Tom Petty corny. It’s hard to say why, but it’s something to do with the economy and sadness of his humor. Take “Yer So Bad” one of the best hits from Full Moon Fever. The video is ridiculous: he wears a silly hat and sits on a shelf like an elf. The chorus refrain (“Not me / Baby / I’ve got you to / Save me / Yer so bad”) is not complicated. But with something of the same chest-tugging, sad sweetness of Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” Petty just keeps it, well, musical.
In that song and many others (“Freefallin’,” “Learning to Fly”) Tom Petty did two paradoxical things: defined a sound we might now call “normcore Americana” and transcended it at the same time. Listening to these songs reminds one just how much his voice sounds like George Harrison in the same era; change the accent and a song like Blow Away could be by Petty.
In the end, that kinship—between Harrison and Petty—gives the lie to the “heartland rock” association. In life and in death, Tom Petty was more than simply American in his sound. Instead, his musical identity was to its deepest core about high quality pop and about the particular generation in music he belonged to. There was only one round of music stars who were allowed on MTV into their middle age (Sting might be the only one left, now). They were the boys in bands who somehow still managed to be leading men well into what television would call their decrepitude. Petty was allowed to flip his hair in the “Freefallin’” video because without stars like him there would be no central pillars left in pop music.
Big, sad eyes. Goofy smile, another stupid hat. “I Won’t Back Down” was playing in the bar and I was deep into a fourth beer the moment that I started to feel like America was the place I wanted to stay. “I’ll stand my ground / Won’t be turned around / And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down / Gonna stand my ground.” “Hey baby,” he yells. Cute boys around me were playing pool, girls in blue jeans walking past. Something about Big Buck Hunter made a little sense to me, finally.
“Here Comes My Girl” came next. Whether or not Petty was more of his time or of his place in musical history, there’s no doubt that his music has been folded into the steel core of the American myth. And it’s a very particular segment of the American myth: the one that smoothed the transition from classic ‘70s rock heroism to the televised stardom of the ‘90s. Like beer and girls in jeans and the very idea of playing music loudly while driving your car down a big straight road, Tom Petty’s ringing acoustic guitars was the final piece of the puzzle of my new self. Here’s a dream I can subscribe to, I felt. There’s a solid core to what Tom Petty meant to American culture, and what he meant to me as a becoming-American. Now he’s dead, maybe waiting at the gates of hell for the girl who stood him up, refusing to back down.