I have always been a bit embarrassed by my weakness for Tom Petty. Though a prolific, popular songwriter--bankable enough to be this year's Super Bowl halftime performer, an honor recently wreathed upon fortified legends Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, U2, and Prince--Petty has never, except perhaps briefly in the late seventies, been cool. Unlike those artists, let alone contemporaries like Television or the Talking Heads, Petty hasn’t furthered rock ’n’ roll so much as attempted to preserve it. With his unironic trucker hats and fringed leather jackets, he's been a traditionalist since his debut. And as anyone who's seen a recent photo of Justice Scalia knows, there's a limit to the sexiness of tradition. Petty's charms, aside from the occasional display of mean wit, are those of commitment and sincerity. His legacy will not be his innovative guitar parts or Byzantine lyrics, but his fearlessness to embrace cliché as a viable recourse of expression, an embrace that has always been the unapologetic heart of rock 'n' roll.
Petty caught his first whiff of rock 'n' roll at the age of eleven, when Elvis rolled into his hometown of Gainesville, Florida to shoot a scene for his 1961 film Follow That Dream. Petty's uncle worked on the movie and snuck his awed nephew onto the girl-swarmed set to shake hands with the King himself. He would later recall in the book Conversations with Tom Petty: "It was nothing like I'd ever seen in my life. At fifty yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like ... his hair was so black, I remember that it shined blue when the sunlight hit it ... I thought at that time, 'That is one hell of a job to have. That's a great gig--Elvis Presley.' " While it would be Beatles '45s that turned Petty onto the guitar, and Bob Dylan who opened his mind to the possibilities of songwriting, it is telling that his first brush with the dream of rock 'n' roll (in Follow that Dream, no less) came from a vision of Elvis, his blue-black hair, and train of white Cadillacs. Petty's music, in its unambitious simplicity and bare hopes for the freedoms of the open road and sky, has always hearkened back to the music of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley--rock 'n' roll before it was burdened by the cultural weight of the sixties.
It’s easy to forget that the earliest rock 'n' roll existed to worship a thing called fun. Fun itself, especially as promulgated by black men like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, was subversive enough. Journalist Mark Jacobson once argued that Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" (1958) was the paradigmatic rock song, because it "has never ceased to imbue a mystic, sweet, sock-hop innocence, a dreamworld of adolescent longing, both roused and doomed by the 'grown-up blues.' " Petty has aligned himself quite firmly with this tradition of playful, only distantly somber, rock 'n' roll.
Take his first breakout single in the UK, "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll" (1976), with its insouciant strain: "Anything that's rock 'n' roll's fine." Or the infectious "Zombie Zoo" (1989), which closes his breakthrough Full Moon Fever, in which the potentially transgressive subject of cross-dressing is given the most innocuous treatment imaginable. Petty's own take on the song: "It's a very light-hearted song. Nonsense, really. There's no great statement. It was just for the fun of it." It is revealing how often Petty uses these terms to describe his own music. He calls "Into the Great Wide Open" (1991) his morality play about selling out, "light-hearted." Or the way he describes being lumped in erroneously with punk or New Wave acts: "In truth we were just a rock 'n' roll band. But that was far too simple for people."
Petty's lamentations and protests, when he makes them, are simple, too, appropriately so. His most celebrated drug song is not, like, Lou Reed's "Heroin," a claw-your-eyes-out suicide note, but a danceable so-long to marijuana, "Mary Jane's Last Dance." His greatest political stand is not, like Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, a somber accounting of a national tragedy, but a guileless concept album about the commercialization of American radio, The Last DJ. (Petty, it should be noted, has refused to license a single song for commercial purposes). These preoccupations might seem small-bore, but they reflect a humble estimation of his role as a rock 'n' roll singer that is as winning as ever an era of rock stars as saviors, overblown emo, and self-consciously abstruse lyricism.
It is its very simplicity, after all, that makes rock 'n' roll music what it is. In The Closing of the American Mind, the brilliant conservative Alan Bloom correctly identified the genre as a music of adolescence. The great lie of rock 'n' roll is that the complete range of human emotion is contained in the adolescent experience. It is a freeing lie, no doubt, and one that America, in almost every sense an adolescent country, has embraced with a characteristic mixture of denial and glee. In this sense, a rock star is a person gifted with a surplus of adolescence, a grown man or woman who can continue to delve into a teenager's disappointments and exhilarations long into his thirties, forties (and in Mick Jagger's case), eleventies.
This is precisely Petty's gift. In interviews and in song, Petty consistently refers to his audience as "the kids," and he treats them with supreme deference and respect. (Describing The Last DJ’s goal, Petty said, “I want to give the radio back to the kids.") To Petty, the kids hold ultimate authority. To believe this with any integrity, a man needs the courage, or courageous stupidity, to admit that what he feels--what we all feel--is no more grown-up than what kids feel: "Don't do me like that," or "I won't back down," or "God, it's so painful/when something that’s so close/is still so far out of reach." One must relish common sentiments--the freedom of the road ("King's Highway," "Runnin' Down a Dream"); the freedom of the sky ("Free Fallin'," "Learning to Fly," "Into the Great Wide Open"). One must have faith in clichés.
Of course, this is not to say Petty is incapable of turning a phrase. My favorite song of his, "American Girl," boasts not only a propulsive, antsy guitar part (later ripped off wholesale by the Strokes for their career-launching single, "Last Nite") but some truly incisive lyricism: "She was an American Girl/raised on promises," a pretty good summation of an admirable American hopefulness and not-so-admirable American entitlement. It's also descriptive of Petty's own body of work: He has been nothing if not a promise-maker. You will feel free, he keeps telling the kids, you will run down your dream.
What better forum for Petty, then, than the Super Bowl, that pageantry of promises? While advertisers pay millions to guarantee us happiness through lasting erections and fuel-efficient trucks, and football players get paid millions to promise us the glories of bone-crushing athleticism, Petty and his Heartbreakers will take the stage to dust off some old promises--to rock to the east, rock to the west--those of good ole dumb fun--that he himself was raised on.
Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City. His writing has appeared in Slate and New York and will be anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009.
By Jacob Rubin