Tom Petty Was Rock Star Of The People

I was never the world’s biggest Tom Petty fan but his death felt like a punch to the gut, and it’s still a bit sore a week later. At the rate Rock Greats are dying these days, it’s a feeling that I am sadly getting used to. It’s almost like when an acquaintance dies, and those irrational waves of regret start washing over you: I should have gone to see him last time he was in town. I should have listened to him more. I should have appreciated him more while he was still alive.

Well I’m not the only one who under-appreciated him. Tom Petty was under-appreciated and underestimated his entire career. For one thing, he was not really a Rock pioneer like many Classic Rock gods were. Nobody ever called Tom Petty an innovator. He never really explored uncharted musical territory or helped invent a new sound, and because of that he was seen in some circles as being just another derivative Rock artist from the 70s and 80s.

Well people in those circles need to take another tour through his musical catalogue like I did. You don’t need to be a pioneer to be brilliant. Tom Petty may have worked within the context of well-established Rock idioms, but nobody has ever sounded remotely like him over the past 40 years, and only the upper echelon of Rock Gods could surpass his estimable gifts for Rock songcraft. He’s a next-to Rock God.

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Petty occupies a unique point on the timeline of Rock History. He arrived on the scene around 1977, the same time that Punk and New Wave was emerging, but Petty was never associated with this new Rock Revolution because he was decidedly old school right from the start. He represented the tail end of the Classic Rock generation, and was in a sense the last Classic Rock artist to emerge before the winds of musical change swept through the Eighties. You might say he represented the Last Dance for Classic Rock.

This is not to say that Petty sounded anything like the Sixties giants or was a retro act in any way, because he kept changing it up and growing as a musician as time went on. A list of producers he worked with over his career is a testament to Petty’s desire to stay current while simultaneously reaching back to the past. His first producer was Denny Cordell, famed for Procol Harum and Joe Cocker’s biggest works. Jimmy Iovine worked with Springsteen and U2 and became a business mogul. Dave Stewart was an electropop pioneer. Jeff Lynne developed a distinct Beatley sound while Rick Rubin blurred genres as a production heavyweight. It’s like a 40-year who’s who of producers.

But beyond all of the music, another reason Petty’s death hits so hard is that he was just such a sweet and lovable person, being easily one of the most genuine and unassuming Rock Stars who ever lived. Most Classic Rockers had either a huge ego or else some kind of persona or performing schtick, and many had all three. Tom Petty had none of it. He possessed a naturalness and an honesty that made him very difficult not to like, and that makes it seem even more unfair that his number was called so soon.

He was also one of the most charitable Rockers ever, working tirelessly behind the scene for a variety of causes. Earlier this year he was awarded the MusiCares Person Of The Year by the Recording Academy in recognition of his “extraordinary philanthropic endeavors”. His speech from the ceremony really highlighted what a decent, honest, and humble man he truly was.

Not surprisingly, he was loved by some pretty special people. My lasting impression of Tom Petty is him hanging and jamming with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in those Traveling Wilburys videos. The fact that Petty had such a deep and enduring friendship with two of the biggest giants in Rock History – Harrison and Dylan, two people who had to choose their friends very carefully – to me spoke volumes not only about his musical gifts but also about the exceptional qualities of his character.

In their statement on his passing, Olivia and Dhani Harrison spoke for George when they said that Tom Petty had “a rocking chair wisdom that brought everything back down to earth”. Perhaps Petty’s wisdom came from the perspective of being 7, 8, or nine years younger than his friends among the Classic Rock Gods. He was one of them, but he was also the last member of the club to join. While the Beatles and the Stones drew their biggest inspiration from the Chuck Berrys and the Little Richards, Tom Petty drew his biggest inspiration from the Beatles and the Stones and the Byrds and Bob Dylan. Just like most of us Rock fans did.

I guess that’s why his death hurts a little more. In a way Tom Petty was one of us, a Rock Star Of The People who offered comfort and wisdom to The Gods. I’ll bet he and George are pulling out the ukuleles up there as we speak.

Photo credit: By Larry Philpot – (Larry Philpot) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

2 comments to “Tom Petty Was Rock Star Of The People”
  1. “Nobody ever called Tom Petty an innovator. He never really explored uncharted musical territory or helped invent a new sound, and because of that he was seen in some circles as being just another derivative Rock artist from the 70s and 80s.”

    Apparently, you are rather Ignorant of TP’s Deep Cuts!

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