Tom Petty performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., in 2006. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)
We should not let Tom Petty’s death go unremarked and uncommemorated here on the VC. Petty was a true giant. Aside from having written and performed anywhere from 10 to 20 true masterpieces — way beyond his quota, and surely enough to put him into the very top rank in the pantheon — and for having given us what is in my mind the best Super Bowl halftime performance ever — there were two things I really loved about Petty. The first was that he seemed, from everything I could tell, to be genuinely and sincerely into the music, above all else; the money, the celebrity, the adulation, the “lifestyle” of the rock superstar were all fine, but it was, for him, fundamentally about the music, and one can only imagine that if he had never caught on and made it big that he would have gone on making the music he loved.
The second was the sound. Petty created — with, to be sure, the help of the Heartbreakers, especially the magnificent Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench — a truly unique rock sound, instantly identifiable as his/theirs. It was a sound that was somehow inseparable from the songs themselves; he/they somehow managed to get a kind of deep meaning into the sound of the band. I often think that even if he hadn’t written “even the losers get lucky sometimes,” or, in “Learnin’ to Fly”:
“They say that life will beat you down/It’ll break your heart and steal your crown/So I started out to God knows where/Guess I’ll know when I get there.”
those meanings, and those messages, (and many others) were already somehow already embedded in the sound of the band. It’s a terrific achievement. He was making music up until the end, and he was taken from us too soon, and he’ll be missed.