Two years ago today we lost one of the great rock musicians – Tom Petty. He was 66, the same age I now am, and his death was sudden and surprising. I wrote about this at the time, in a #SaturdaySongs post, and as Tom’s music meant so much to me – and still does – I thought I’d share those words again, with a little updating. Those of you who follow my Facebook page will see a few videos there today – I’ll be doing more than one #SongOfTheDay!
Tom Petty started his band, the Heartbreakers, in 1976, and I was fortunate enough to be introduced to his music from the beginning – their first album was released at the end of that year. Since then, I’ve got every album he has made and play them often. In the mid-1990s I spent a lot of time driving to and from work around the dreaded North Circular Road in London, and Tom’s music was the ideal accompaniment for this. He carried on making albums throughout his career, and these add up to an amazing body of work. His style is described as ‘heartland rock,’ and is representative of the quintessential American rock style: consummate songwriting, brilliantly played with guitars that twang just like the Byrds (another favourite of mine). All being done in his own unique style: when a Tom Petty record comes on the radio you know instantly that it’s him. In style and subject matter he is often bracketed with Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp: I’m not a great believer in labelling music and musicians but I can see the justification for the comparison. It’s no coincidence that I have every album by both of those two gentlemen as well!
As I said, Tom was only 66 when he died, taken by a cardiac arrest exactly a week after the end of his 40th Anniversary tour. He had described this as his final tour, and said that he wanted to spend time with his family and grandchildren. He deserved more than a week of doing that, but it wasn’t to be. I guess it’s because my musical tastes were formed when I was in my teens, so the artists are now many years older, like me, but a number of my musical heroes have been taken in the past few years. I can’t explain why, but none of them seemed to affect me quite as much as Tom. I usually find myself revisiting the artists’ music when they pass, as part of the process of mourning their loss, and I tried to do this for him too. But at first I couldn’t: it was too painful. That, to me, is the measure of how much his music means to me. It seems that I wasn’t alone in this, either: there were many tributes by fellow musicians, both in words and by playing his songs at their own shows, and the front page of Tom’s website was turned into a huge tribute wall from fans.
I did manage to listen to his music again and, as I did two years ago, I’m posting a few of his songs in his memory and as my own small tribute. The difficulty was where to begin. He has so many well known songs to choose from, and a great many hits. But I’ve chosen as the title piece a track from his Wildflowers album. It is, to me, a typical Tom Petty song, and the title feels very appropriate. This is where he is now:
Possibly my favourite Tom Petty song, even after all these years, is the opening track from the band’s fourth album, Hard Promises, which was released in 1981:
That Mike Campbell guitar solo still gets me every time, and I just think that is one of the all-time great rock songs – by anyone.
My next choice isn’t actually a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, or even a Tom Petty song. For a couple of years Tom was a member of the most stellar supergroup ever when, with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne he formed the Travelling Wilburys, and this is one of George Harrison’s songs. Sadly, Tom became the third member of that band to have reached the End of the Line:
If you look closely you’ll see their tribute to Roy Orbison, who died before this video was made. The photograph on the side, and the gently rocking chair and his guitar, are a poignant salute to their friend. I hope that Roy and George were waiting to get the beers in with Tom when they were reunited.
I was never fortunate enough to see Tom play live, but anyone who is a fan will know that he closed his shows with the song that was the closing track of their first album, all the way back in 1976. This footage, shot by a fan in the audience, is the final song from the band’s show at the Hollywood Bowl on 25th September 2017, which turned out to be their last show ever:
The sheer enjoyment and exuberance of the band is wonderful to see, and is how I will remember him. Those fans who got autographs at the end really do now have an especially poignant memento.
Shortly after Tom’s passing, his local college football team had a game, and the fans paid their own tribute to him. This is incredible, and still moves me:
Thank you Tom: we’re still heartbroken, but we have your music to treasure for always. I hope that you’ve found your Higher Place.