When he emerged from Florida in the late 1970s, Tom Petty quickly rekindled what he later termed “the Big Jangle,” at a time where rock ‘n’ roll was fighting a civil war between excessive virtuosity and punk’s raw emotion and rejection of musicianship. Petty was right in between, returning rock to its classic sounds but rooting it again in blue-collar characters who were relatable to most fans.
Petty, who died Monday at the age of 66, was such a permanent fixture in rock, not to mention someone universally liked across the entire spectrum of the genre, that it’s difficult to honor him without leaving out something vital. His career spanned 40 years and concluded just last week with the last stop on his final concert tour at the Hollywood Bowl—which, perhaps ironically, was a famous tour stop for The Beatles around the time a young Petty saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show and decided, against his father’s wishes, to become a musician.
What’s odd about this is that despite his Beatles-indebted origin story, Petty’s musical influences were almost all American: the Byrds for his arpeggiated guitar sound; Bob Dylan for his vocal styling; Bruce Springsteen for his ability to make his lyrics relatable to ordinary, as well as for the interplay between keyboards and guitar.
Petty is unquestionably a quintessential American artist, but one who also famously partnered with two iconic British artists. Jeff Lynne, to the chagrin of many longtime Petty fans, reshaped his sound into something ELO-like in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The result was a rare second act as a popular artist with hit albums and songs. And his friendship with George Harrison led him to embark on one of rock’s most charming side projects, The Traveling Wilburys.
To pay tribute to this singular American talent, Let’s start at the beginning with the help of the Paste Vault, which has an abundance of great, rare Petty recordings. In the last show ever at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Dec. 30, 1978, Petty & the Heartbreakers were just starting to break through. Here they are singing “American Girl,” which would become indelibly imprinted in the minds of millions over a decade later when it provided the soundtrack for the Buffalo Bill kidnapping at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs.
You can’t mention Tom Petty without mentioning the Heartbreakers, arguably the greatest backing band ever assembled, right up there with The E Street Band. Longtime lead guitarist Mike Campbell nails the solo at about 3:20—a solo that millions of us can’t even keep up with on our air guitars. “We want to dedicate this song to all the girls in San Francisco tonight,” Petty tells the crowd.
“I Need to Know,” from 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It, was a hit in its own right, cracking the Top 50 while fully stripping out the excesses of 1970s arena rock as deftly as did The Ramones, clocking in at a crisp 2:30.
Despite his recording success, Petty may not have ever escaped Florida and become a star so bright that he’d get a Super Bowl halftime show without a hardball negotiation of an onerous record contract that’s the bane of every young rocker’s existence. Petty declared himself a free agent when the label that signed him was acquired and went into bankruptcy, paying $500,000 to record “Damn the Torpedoes,” which quickly catapulted him to FM rock stardom. Petty played the then-unknown song “Even the Losers” at Winterland because he was in recording limbo.
By July 1980, Petty’s songs needed no introduction. Listen to the rapturous response from a Philadelphia crowd at the Spectrum in 1980 as soon as the opening chords of “Refugee” ring out.
Let’s stay at the Spectrum on that summer night in 1980 for “Here Comes My Girl,” with its romantic notion of love conquering all but its open eyes about the messed up world it must somehow vanquish. Petty’s Lou-Reed-narrator-meets-Roger-McGuinn vocal is so inspired.
Petty’s crowning achievement with Jeff Lynn was 1989’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (from his smash record, Full Moon Fever), with its unforgettably propulsive lead-guitar riff. Here, we get a semi-acoustic version at the 1994 Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Calif. Campbell’s iconic solo is both literally and figuratively electric, though.
After the Traveling Wilburys project, Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Bob Dylan and rekindled in Dylan what had become an often forgotten performing career. Backed by a band that rivaled the The Band at its peak, Dylan came alive on 1986’s True Confessions Tour with the help of Petty, as you can clearly see in this compilation:
While Petty had many Top 100 hits, his biggest chart score was as a collaborator with Stevie Nicks on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which you can see performed many years later with Petty charmingly introducing Nicks as the fifth Heartbreaker and his little sister.
But there’s so much more. Live Aid, with that awesome outfit, sideburns and glasses. And his moving tribute to George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was joined by Prince on “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s hard to believe Prince and Petty are both gone now.