By Stu O’Connor
The generation of musicians who were highly influenced by the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 is long and illustrious. There are great singer-writers who were all witness to and have made reference to, that watershed musical moment their careers including the recently deceased Tom Petty. The interesting thing about Petty, is, of course, that he actually got to play in bands with such icons, as well as with a couple of the Beatles themselves, bringing that early life inspiration around full circle for him.
One of the great underrated heroes of American Rock n’ Roll, Petty leaves us, sadly, too soon, with an extremely impressive body of work that will most definitely stand the test of time. Here are some of the highlights of that career, as we remember the man and his music:
America’s Bi-Centennial year was an apt and propitious time for Petty’s debut album with the Heartbreakers. He burst upon the American rock scene with the solid hit “Break Down,” and the less initially impactful “American Girl,” which has grown into a standard barroom cover tune for many American bands working the circuit performing covers.
Broke and close to bankruptcy, Petty named this album after the famous Navy slogan; it was either make or break. The rest is, as they say, history, as the album went platinum and spawned no less than five hit singles, including “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Also notable was Petty’s fight with the record companies at this time to keep album prices at an affordable level. He chose to accept less money for his efforts in order to keep the price of this album lower.
One of the more unusual albums by Petty and his Heartbreakers, Southern Accents was originally planned as a concept album that changed its stripes after Petty co-wrote a few songs with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, including the hit song “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” featuring very psychedelicized imagery in the song and the video, both of which allude to Alice in Wonderland.
Another platinum album with multiple hits, Petty and the Heartbreakers are in fine form and streamlined their sound, writing, and approach to their music.
In Petty’s first (out of three) solo outing without the Heartbreakers and the further development of his songwriting with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra (also destined to be a fellow Traveling Willbury). Petty hits his stride in a big way here. Boasting seven (yes, seven!) successful hit singles, including “Yer So Bad” and Free Fallin’,” Petty hit a grand slam with this one.
Four discs of live material, including all the hits, some fine versions of deep tracks from his albums and some surprising and very well-delivered covers, Petty and the Heartbreakers deliver their entire career on this collection. Not to be missed are the covers of “Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and Willie Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.”
In addition to all the above work, Petty also collaborated with Bob Dylan on his 1986 tour and as a member of the Traveling Willburys (along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison), backed Johnny Cash on the extraordinary American II: Unchained album produced by Rick Rubin, and of course the hit song “Stop Dragging my Heart Around” with mystical “preistess” Stevie Nicks. I had the great pleasure to see Nicks perform this with Petty at a Heartbreakers show at the Philadelphia Spectrum in the early 1980s. Nicks was charming and druidic, as expected, and the crowd ignited in approval of this superstar pairing that was all over the radio dial in those days.
To lose a musician and writer of Petty’s caliber is both sad and regretable. However, sooner or later, Death comes for us all, and when our number is up, it’s time to go. We can be thankful that even though we have lost a fine American voice, Petty had a good run (67 years), and left a bountiful body of first class work behind that should only serve to increase his legacy considerably in the years to come.
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.