The Gospel of Tom Petty

Personal Truths in Universal Pop Music

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So I’ve been giving more thought than usual (for me) about Tom Petty’s death. I’ve ridden the spectrum of apathy to dislike to acceptance to outright loving his music over the past couple of decades. I had a chance to see him at an Austin City Limits music festival in college, but left early that day to beat traffic home. I’ve come to regret that shortsighted decision. More recently, I kept thinking I’d see him the “next time” he came through Dallas. If only…

Over the past 10 years I’ve come to really appreciate his music. He is definitely among the best all time among American pop/rock songwriters. There is something disarming in how his music captures the depth of the human experience in such subtlety and simplicity. Also, the hooks that Mike Campbell and he have come up with over and over are unreal and unfair to anyone who ever tries to write music.

Aside from appreciation of his work, Petty’s music and death are on my mind for really personal reasons. Honestly, we’ve had a rough couple of months, and some nights it’s been hard for me to easily get to sleep. Sometime during the summer I stumbled on the “Running Down a Dream” documentary on Netflix, and on many days it has been the only thing that has gotten my mind to slow down and take a deep breath. Consequently, I feel like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have become this strange piece of furniture in my daily life.

As I started watching this documentary over and over, I also started listening to his music all of the time. I tend to gravitate to his last 2 solo records (the Gen-X/older millennial favorite “Wildflowers” and the mortality and time-focused “Highway Companion”). However, I also love his first 3 or 4 albums that have so many of those iconic hits where you forget that you know all of the words. During this season Petty’s lyrics have incessantly and succinctly spoken truth my heart and mind couldn’t articulate.

I don’t know if I have a favorite song of his. Some days it’s the longing and expectation of “The Waiting.” I love the performance the band gave on SNL:

Other days it’s playing the first 4 songs of “Wildflowers” and getting lost in the harmonica and rhythm section of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (obviously without endorsing any of Tom’s personal recreational proclivities):

Or lately it’s been a lot of rolling the windows down as “I Won’t Back Down” rolls from the speakers out into the sky:

We played that one at church on the Sunday after he died, as we grieved the shooting in Las Vegas, and as we grieved the loss of this seminal American artist. It was moving, and makes such obvious sense that this song would speak to our country as we seek to heal after violence and pain. That plainspoken nature is part of what makes Petty’s writing so influential to so many of my favorite artists-Counting Crows, Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, and basically any folk or rock group since The Heartbreakers started making music in the 70's.

It’s not only the lyrics, but also the quality of the music Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers make that shapes so much of our musical landscape. Like I said, I play music at church, and I wish every worship band would just rip off the Heartbreaker sound instead of trying to mimic whatever genre may be popular in any given moment. In my opinion they have the ideal band setup. Bands just don’t need much more than a solid rhythm section, some good harmony vocals, a good lead guitar, and great keys. It’s simple and locked in, everything has room to be heard, there are great arrangements, and the melodies and lyrics get to speak for themselves without gimmicks.

While I love this music and have been moved by it, and while so much has been created in the wake of such a force of nature, I’m not sure that Petty’s music is there to offer us surface-level lessons from which we can learn and grow. Instead, my experience lately with this unique voice (not the prettiest in music history by a long shot, but always distinct) is that this music is there to show that he’s walked the road that so many of us travel. Tom Petty’s writing is an exercise in empathy, offering that “me too” that people crave as we search for connection and companionship. I hate that he won’t be able to speak new words from his perch, that he will no longer reflect from his experienced life and speak more simple truth into our place on the map. Now we face the reality that he offered in 2007 as he sang on “Flirting With Time”:

“I’ve done all I can do, now it’s up to you…”

Thank God he gave us so much of himself for the road we still have ahead.