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Style | Perspective

Tom Petty’s Americana felt stranger than the rest

By Chris Richards

October 3, 2017 at 12:38 AM

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Legendary recording artist Tom Petty died at a Los Angeles hospital on Oct. 2 at the age of 66, after being found unconscious at his Malibu home. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

"My musical quest [is] to get more and more purity into the music." That's something Tom Petty told me over the telephone once. Years later, I wonder if he died — on Monday in California at age 66 — pushing that boulder uphill. Because it was always the impurity of Petty's music that made it feel so sublime. Even back in the '70s, when he was just a blond smirk in a black leather jacket, Petty's brand of Americana was already exuding its own mood, its own smell. As handsome as they were, his rock-and-roll songs came coated in a thin residue of psychedelic strangeness. And they still glisten in the light.

Some of it had to do with Petty's thing for electric guitars that jangled and wheezed, and the rest of it had to do with his voice — an unmistakable mewl that could sound vaguely sinister, gently pleading or stylishly aloof. All the while, his songbook seemed to move across the map like a vagrant weather system, fluctuating from heartland warmth to California cool to whatever dank vibes must have been hanging over Florida when Petty first marched his Heartbreakers out of Gainesville in 1976.

His songs were well suited for ubiquity, meaning they often found their way to you. Maybe you first encountered his voice while hot-boxing to "Refugee" in the passenger seat of your buddy's Camaro circa 1979. Maybe you found Petty loitering in Wonderland when the video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" landed on MTV in 1985. Maybe you heard "Free Fallin' " on the radio 10,000 times in the autumn of 1989. Or maybe — and pity your soul — you first heard 1976's "American Girl" more recently, once boomer politicians made a habit of pumping it on the campaign trail. Which is all to say, we probably consider Petty's music to be quintessentially American because it wafted so easily across so many different American moments.

Related: [The abstract beauty of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’]

Petty rose to renown alongside similar American boys making similar American noise — Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp — but unlike those blue-jeaned alphas, he used the powers of MTV to burnish his image as a troubadour burnout whose closet happened to be overflowing with cool sunglasses and freaky top hats. Looking different helped make Petty a superstar in the '80s, but sounding different is what made him last.

Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, Tom Petty Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in concert, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK - 15 May 1977 (Rex Features via AP Images)
Tom Petty holds up his award for the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for his overall career at the 1994 Video Music Awards show on Sept. 8, 1994 at New York?s Radio City Music Hall. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, who performed at the show, were voted best male video for ?Mary Jane?s Last Dance?. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Tom Petty makes a peace sign after winning the award for Best Male Video during the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York Thursday, September 7, 1995. (AP Photo/ Bebeto Matthews)
Rock star Tom Petty signs autographs after his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, were honored Wednesday, April 28, 1999, with the 2,133rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has sold over 30 million albums, won Grammys and MTV awards and produced over 25 classic hits. Their latest album "Echo" which was released on April 13th debuted this week at number 10 on the Billboard album chart. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rock band members, left to right: Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein, Tom Petty and Benmont Tench pose for a photo, as they are honored Wednesday, April 28, 1999, with the 2,133rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have sold over 30 million albums, won Grammys and MTV awards and produced over 25 classic hits. Their latest album " Echo" which was released on April 13th debuted this week at number 10 on the Billboard album chart. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
06/17/99 - Tom Petty, left, and The Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein jam during their concert Friday, June 18, 1999, at Pine Knob Music Theater in Clarkston, MI. Petty and The Heartbreakers launched their current U.S. tour earlier this week in Grand Rapids, Mich. - Photo By Paul Warner AP
Tom Petty, of the rock band "Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers," gives his speech after being inducted at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday, March 18, 2002, at New York's Waldorf Astoria. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Tom Petty, third left, stands with his band the Heartbreakers after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Monday, March 18, 2002, at New York's Waldorf Astoria. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)
IRVINE, CA - AUGUST 14: Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers perform at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on August 14, 2005 in Irvine, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Tom Petty
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., on Friday, June 16, 2006. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tom Petty, center, and The Heartbreakers perform in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden Tuesday, June 20, 2006, in New York. Petty's third solo album 'Highway Companion' is scheduled to be released on July 25, 2006. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Rock singer Tom Petty and his wife Dana arrive at the world premiere of the documentary film "Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Tom Petty performs at halftime during the Super Bowl XLII football game between the New York Giants and New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform during halftime of Super Bowl 42 between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, U.S., on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008. The Giants beat New England 17-14 to win the National Football League's Super Bowl and end the Patriots' run at an undefeated season. Photographer: Tom Hauck/Bloomberg News
Slug: ST-TOMPETTY Date: August 15th, 2010 Credit: Evy Mages/FTWP Location: Bristow, VA, Jiffy Lube Live/7800 Cellar Door Drive Caption: Tom Petty performs at Jiffy Lube Live
FILE PHOTO: Musician Tom Petty speaks to guests after being inducted during the 47th Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in New York, U.S. on June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs at The Hangout Festival on Saturday May 18, 2013 in Gulf Shores, Alabama.(Photo by John Davisson/Invision/AP)
Tom Petty of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seen at KAABOO 2017 at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, in San Diego, Calif. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Photo Gallery: Petty?s hits such as ?Free Fallin?,? ?American Girl? and ?Breakdown,? with their early-rock sound, won millions of fans.

Even when he tried to straighten his edges, his music refused to give up its bends and curls. The mild warping on 1994's "Wildflowers" is the very thing that keeps such an expertly understated solo album from sliding into an exercise in tastefulness. And how close were you listening when Petty sang "I Won't Back Down" at the Super Bowl in 2008? Go find the footage and you'll hear his voice do something impossible: It quivers with certainty.

For a rush of the known and the unknown, it's hard to beat "A Thing About You," a hard-charging love song from 1981 about intense yearning, plus all of the obscure feelings that haunt that kind of desire. "I'm not much on mystery," Petty sings in the opening line, but it's already too late. The mystery is all around him. From that point forward, the harder he tried to blast through it, the more of it he seemed to gather.


Chris Richards is The Washington Post's pop music critic.

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