Last week, the world lost an American rock icon, someone who helped shape rock music for 40 years.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Tom Petty died of cardiac arrest on the early morning of Monday,Oct. 2 in Santa Monica, California. His death was sudden and a heartbreaking shock to his millions of fans around the world. He was only 66.
Petty’s career was prolific, impressive and far-reaching, and as an icon, he was larger than life. His unusual, nasally singing voice made him instantly recognizable, and his ability to write enduring and beloved songs made him one of the biggest rock stars of the last 50 years. In 2002 his accomplishments were officially recognized when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist, Petty sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best selling musicians of all time. He had three Billboard Top 10 songs, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “Free Falling” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Other Top 20 songs included huge hits like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee,” “You Don’t Know How it Feels” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
Aside from a knack for writing hit songs, Petty also mastered the art of the rock album. His various bands and solo albums reached the Billboard Top 10 a dozen times, finally reaching the No. 1 spot with the Heartbreakers’ 2014 album “Hypnotic Eye.”
The fact that he was making No. 1 albums just three years ago, nearly 40 years into his career, is a testament to Petty’s enduring creativity and mass appeal. His songs were equal parts catchy pop perfection and deep, meaningful statements about life in America.
Petty rubbed shoulders with some of the best known musicians of the 20th century. Beatles guitarist George Harrison asked him to join Harrison’s supergroup Traveling Wilburys, alongside Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. He remained close personal friends with Harrison, memorably performing some of the Beatles’ most beloved songs at the “Concert for George” after his death.
Petty’s music was quintessentially American, best enjoyed behind the wheel of a convertible with the top down, screaming down a U.S. interstate. He epitomized a certain spirit of our culture, often writing about the experiences of average Americans and raising them up out of their small lives to the level of heroes and legends. Unlike so many musicians whose careers span decades, he never took a hiatus from recording and touring, and he never had a period of mediocre creative output.
Just days before his untimely death, Petty had wrapped up a huge four month national tour with The Heartbreakers, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band’s first album. It had been three years since their last tour, the longest break they had taken in 25 years. Petty was one of the hardest working, most consistent musicians of the last century, but despite some big hits, a star on Hollywood Blvd. and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Petty was never considered to be at the level of a Bruce Springsteen or a Mick Jagger. He was truly a working man’s rock star.
“This year has been a wonderful year for us,” he told the LA Times in his final interview after the tour wrapped. “This has been that big slap on the back we never got.”
It’s touching to see that Petty essentially died doing what he loved, after four months on the road performing his most beloved songs to arenas of screaming fans. Time will tell what his final place in American culture and rock music will be, but his body of work cannot be denied. He gave voice to at least one generation, and the airwaves of the country have vibrated to his unique voice and Fender Stratocaster countless times. Hopefully, that never changes.
R.I.P. Tom Petty, 1950 - 2017
Jonathan Baca is managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JonGabrielB.