Some people, and especially critics, never learn that you don’t have to live like a referee. Thinking that this has been the right week to announce you’ve never thought much of Tom Petty’s music just means you’re a troll. But since we came around to the man later than some, describing how we went from being TP skeptics to TP converts is our idea of a fitting tribute to this born proselytizer for ornery—and then placid—stubbornness.
Whether it’s genuine or artfully faked, nonchalant-sounding equanimity—the kind that seems full of unforced wisdom about what matters and what doesn’t—is a gift denied to most performers, no matter how talented they are otherwise. Bill Murray and Willie Nelson both have it in spades. Bob Dylan has always known how to turn it into just another facet of his slippery old self. And once upon a time, the fast and furious Petty, who made his mark with the Heartbreakers 40 years ago was just about the least likely rock-and-roller we’d have bet on to ever acquire it.
He did, though. His arrival at that state of grace was what turned his music from some of the most unfailingly catchy, assertive stuff on the radio to some of the most unfailingly catchy and unexpectedly transcendent. The great breakthrough was his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever, which kicked off with “Free Fallin’”, hands down the most beautiful song he ever wrote. Even though the younger Petty might have cooked up a similar tune about a girl he used to know and his recognition of time’s ache, he’d never have been able to infuse it with such ruminative, almost idle serenity and acceptance. Nor would he have trusted the melody to settle into place the way it does without trying to kick-start it here and there.
Fans identified Petty’s aspirations with their own, as if the same enemies were somehow obstructing both.
By then, of course, he’d already scored enough hits and racked up enough album sales to satisfy the ambitions of two or three less driven rockers. Released in 1976 and 1978, respectively, the first two Heartbreakers albums had given us Callow Tom, an eyes-on-the-prize craftsman whose knack for punchy roots-rock hooks and disciplined arrangements more than made up for his music’s lack of a discernible subject. Then 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes introduced Anthemic Tom and became the first Heartbreakers album to go platinum. But even on “Refugee” you can hear how he hadn’t quite shaken off his worst youthful vocal tic, a vaguely mean-spirited petulance that made his simulation of compassion a mite dubious. With sweet exceptions like “Here Comes My Girl,” hostility was much more his comfort zone.
If his new awareness of injustice seemed to derive mostly from his battles with record companies, he was hardly the first rocker of whom that’s true. Yet the difference between his early wrangles with his label(s) and going to the mattresses when MCA wanted to jack up the price of 1981’s Hard Promises was that Petty was no longer fighting for his own rights, but on his audience’s behalf. That created a sense of defiant solidarity with his fans he never lost, partly because he was canny enough to keep cultivating it. From then on, they identified his aspirations with their own, as if the same enemies were somehow obstructing both.
Eventually, though, he learned to do without conjectural enemies, one reason being that he’d largely vanquished them. The best explanation for Full Moon Fever’s pleasurable ease and humor—aside, needless to say, from “I Won’t Back Down,” Anthemic Tom’s last hurrah—was the influence of his near contemporaneous busman’s holiday with the Traveling Wilburys, aka himself, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and (on the group’s first album) Roy Orbison. Among other things, realizing he was now their peer must have been a great inducement for Petty to decide he didn’t have a damn thing left to prove anymore. The Wilburys were all about making music for the pure, mischievous fun of it and the overlap with Full Moon is most audible in the latter album’s totally irresistible “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” in which Petty confronts the mystery of existence, only to indolently decide that chasing it down is a fool’s errand and he’s got no problem being that fool.
No doubt, some fans will always prefer Petty’s hard-assed early incarnation to the dude with nothing left to prove, who stayed in the saddle—both with and (ostensibly) without the Heartbreakers—on 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open and 1994’s Wildflowers. After those two, we admit, we got less convinced he had much that was especially urgent to tell us, which may very well have been our loss. By then, however, he’d accumulated such a catalog of undeniable tunes that his live shows could have gone on packing in both old and new fans until hell froze over. He played his final one at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, and we are kicking ourselves for missing it? You bet. We figured there’d always be another chance, and it’s still hard for us to accept that he won’t come around here no more.