So I kind of missed out on Tom Petty.

I always loved “Refugee,” “You Got Lucky,” and his epic duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” But when he really hit his stride, both artistically and commercially, in the mid/late 80s, I was off listening to other stuff. Hip hop and R&B. When I got to college I shifted to alt rock. All genres that stood in stark contrast to what Petty was doing. Even then, his songs were so big you couldn’t miss them – “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” are two notable examples – and I enjoyed them. But I just never counted myself as a huge fan.

That began to change a few years back. First, I realized that “American Girl” was written and recorded in 1976, which fucking blew me away. Released in the magical music year of 1977, there wasn’t anything else that sounded like that song. It was at least five years ahead of its time.

WTTS, the radio station down in Bloomington that is our lake soundtrack, plays tons of Petty in their regular rotation.[1] Two summers ago I heard one of the secondary tracks from Damn the Torpedoes, either “Here Comes My Girl” or “Even The Losers,” and made a mental note to listen to that whole album when I had a chance. God damn that album is a beast. The first six songs are all classics, an entire career for 90% of artists. I was mad at myself for not getting beyond the album’s two biggest hits for nearly 30 years.

Then there was the modern music I’ve been drawn to in recent years that has been influenced by Petty. Ryan Adams’ last three albums have a ton of Petty in them. The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel has been likened to The Heartbreakers Mike Campbell in his guitar playing style and prowess.

For a few months I’ve been thinking, “Man, I should really dive into Petty’s music some day.” I’ve finally been doing that the past couple days, sadly because of his passing rather than me finally pushing aside other music and devoting some time to his work.

Here’s what strikes me most about his music. It’s timeless. Those 1970s songs sounded ahead of their time. His most recent music doesn’t sound all that different. His songs never sounded of a specific era; they just sounded right. His genius was finding some sweet spot between Top 40 and rock, 60s jangle pop and Southern Rock, Florida and California, that sounds perfect no matter what kind of music you normally like. He wrote these amazingly simply pop songs full of hooks and riffs that got stuck inside your head forever. His lyrics lend themselves to multiple interpretations, sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic, depending on your mood.

Some music will be played on the radio forever because they were massive hits and wove themselves into our cultural fabric. Tom Petty’s music will be played forever – big hits and small – because it is just so perfect. I’ve focused on his bigger songs and albums the past few days. But when a song I’ve never heard before, a deep cut off a lesser known album pops up, it sounds just as great as the hits.

One more thing: no one I know who has ever gone to a Tom Petty concert has ever complained after. I know folks who saw him this summer, or even over the past 10 years, and while my first thought was “You paid how much to see a guy who hasn’t had a huge hit in 20 years?” their first comment is always, “Man it was a great show!” There’s something to be said for touring deep into life not just to make money, but to also put on a hell of a show.

Petty’s death didn’t hit me as hard as Chris Cornell’s, or certainly Prince’s. I was never a big enough fan to be unsettled by his passing. But this week has driven home the point that he was one of the finest artists of his generation. His legacy is a catalog of songs that will be delighting listeners until we stop listening to music. Here are a few of my favorites.

“American Girl” – So far ahead of its time it didn’t become a hit for years after its release. What a perfect pop song.
“Refugee” – As I said, I could include any of the first six songs from Damn the Torpedoes. But the first track remains the best. Like many of his best songs, there’s just a hint of disgust in Petty’s delivery.
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” – Written by Petty and Campbell for the Heartbreakers, producer Jimmy Iovine convinced them to share it with Stevie Nicks. It was an incredible way to begin her solo career. Again we hear disdain in Petty’s delivery.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” – One of the greatest road trip songs ever. That acoustic guitar in the chorus will never get out of your head. And the solo at the end may be the best of Campbell’s career.
“You Wreck Me” – Another song I’ve fallen in love thanks to WTTS. It was just this summer that I heard it at just the right time of day and I thought, “Damn, that’s a great freaking song.”

“You Got Lucky” – I’m kind of proud of myself for always liking this song. A lot of folks weren’t so sure about it when it was released back in 1982. The lack of guitar and reliance on synths didn’t please many people. But I was just 11 and enjoyed its very 80s sound. And while some found the video cheesy, I thought it was cool as hell. And another great kiss-off line from Petty, “You got lucky, babe, when I found you.”

  1. I’m guessing he’s second only to Mellencamp in terms of breadth of songs by one artist they spin.  ↩