Tom Petty passed away in a Los Angeles hospital Monday night after suffering cardiac arrest at his nearby home. He was 66 and still thought to be in the late prime of his life. Exactly one week earlier he had wrapped a 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers a short drive away at the Hollywood Bowl.
Petty was one of the most beloved and respected figures in all of American music, as the countless eulogies and memorials have been quick to point out. He left behind a nearly peerless songbook and a sound that came to define rock ‘n’ roll for five decades. He played the biggest event this country has to offer, the Super Bowl Halftime Show, in 2008, but last year was back in 1,500-person clubs with his old blues-rock outfit Mudcrutch. The singer of pop culture lexicons like “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “American Girl” and so many others was doing what he loved the most until the very end.
After the shock and craziness of everything that happened Sunday night and Monday began to subside, the Behind the Setlist staff came together to reflect upon the career of Tom Petty and tried to put into words why his was one for the ages.
What was your initial reaction when you heard about Tom Petty’s failing health on Monday?
Kevin Carr: This may sound flippant, but it was the first time in my life that I thought 66 sounded young. Like anyone, I guess, I assumed I’d have at least another decade with Petty in my life. 66 is just too damn young.
Jonathan Bautts: I woke up to reading reports about Vegas, which was quite shocking and depressing enough, and then the Petty story broke shortly thereafter. It was another pit in the stomach, “Oh no…” moment we’ve felt far too often recently. The one small consolation I took was at least it was from natural causes and not a suicide or overdose.
J.T. Dawson: I was still reeling from being gutted by the news out of Vegas, and I honestly didn’t believe it. I literally thought, “That’s not true. He was just onstage last week.” It was so shocking.
Craig Manning: My first thought was, I can’t fucking handle this today. In addition to what happened in Las Vegas, Monday was also the three-year anniversary of my grandpa’s death. It was not an easy day to begin with, and I was not prepared to lose one of my favorite rock stars.
Colin Poulton: Monday was a ridiculously surreal day. I was wrestling with the same national anxiety, sadness and rage about gun violence that everyone else was when a TMZ report flashed across my Facebook feed shared by a musician buddy of mine. When it rains, it pours.
Jim Beviglia: I was crushed like everybody else, I’m sure. I held out hope for some sort of miracle, while fearing that I’d hear the worst when I woke up in the morning, which is exactly what happened. My heart goes out to his family and friends, of course. And, on the larger level, it’s hard not to think about how many music greats we’ve lost in the recent past.
How would you describe your relationship to Tom Petty and his music?
Carr: The first song many young guitar players learn is “Free Fallin’,” and that was definitely true in my case: D chord, add a pinky, take it off. It was simple, but resonant, like most of Petty’s music, I suppose.
Bautts: I listened to very little older artists or material when I was growing up. Just wasn’t into it at that time in my life. But when I got to college, I slowly started making my way through the classics I had missed out on, like the Beatles, Zeppelin and Springsteen. Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits was one of the first of those, and one of my main gateways to that older generation. That compilation is obviously a string of practically flawless hits and I was instantly hooked. I gradually picked up his actual albums over the years and have been a huge fan ever since.
Dawson: It’s always been there. The first time I remember sitting down and intentionally listening to his music, it already felt so familiar. Like my brain had come pre-loaded with Tom Petty. On any mixtape I’ve given anyone, there’s always been at least one Tom Petty song. His music has been a reliable staple throughout every phase of my life.
Manning: Not only do I love Tom Petty’s records, Petty influenced maybe more of my favorite musicians than any other artist. My favorite artist of all time is Butch Walker, and his favorite artist is Tom Petty, which you can hear all over his records. Beyond that, there’s Andrew McMahon, Brian Fallon/the Gaslight Anthem, Will Hoge, Matt Nathanson, Jason Isbell, Jimmy Eat World, Dawes, the Wallflowers, Taylor Swift and pretty much everyone in country music. It took me a long time to delve into Petty’s albums, but I feel like he has influenced me—both directly and indirectly—my entire life.
Poulton: I was a late bloomer on Tom Petty. I had friends that were really into him, but it took a while for my taste in music to be oriented towards good songwriting. I play a Petty song almost every gig as a working musician. I try to channel the correct emotions and expressiveness in my playing and singing whenever I perform his material out of respect for his craft. When it comes to artists that I come around to later in life, I always refer to the Duke Ellington quote that states there are only two types of music—good music and bad music. Tom Petty was good music.
Beviglia: One of the things that characterized Petty’s music most to me was how I could depend on it. I can’t think of too many artists as consistent as he was throughout the course of his career. No real flops or down periods. Whenever I heard there would be a new Tom Petty record coming out in whatever form, I expected a certain standard of excellence, because he never wavered from that standard.
What is your earliest Tom Petty memory?
Carr: Some of my earliest music memories revolve around MTV. Right now, a lot of people are reminiscing about Mad Hatter Petty from the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video, but that was a few years before my time. Instead, my earliest Tom Petty memory is actually his music video for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” (MTV used to censor the word “joint,” if you can believe it!) In the video, there is a single camera focused on Petty while the room spins behind him. There’s a ton of stuff happening in the background, dancers and what not, but most of it is out of focus. It’s a really cool idea that I still love. (PS: I’ve always wanted the hat he wears in that video.)
Bautts: I don’t remember the first time I heard Petty or about him, since I didn’t grow up listening to him and my dad was never a big fan of his singing voice, so he wasn’t around home, either. At some point, though, Petty’s music was just there. The earliest memory I can pinpoint is the scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise is singing along to “Free Fallin’” in the car. Cameron Crowe is (was?) the master of music cues, and that one always stuck with me.
Dawson: Wildflowers was one of the first CDs I bought with my own money. I remember lying on my floor with my best friend and listening to it over and over.
Manning: If I recall correctly, I had my Beanie Babies form a band, and “Free Fallin’” was their single. I don’t even think I knew Tom Petty’s name, but I loved that song. I am only slightly embarrassed by this memory. I was probably six.
Poulton: I had a friend in high school, who also played guitar, that would play “Free Fallin’” sometimes, but it didn’t quite take at the time. To me, it wasn’t technical or aggressive enough for my ear that was more conditioned to the likes of Dream Theater, Slayer, and the Misfits.
Beviglia: I was about eight when those songs from Damn the Torpedoes starting showing up all over rock radio, so it dovetailed nicely with me first becoming a big music fan. I became a huge fan right then and there. There’s never been a point since where my enthusiasm for his stuff has waned.
It’s hard to pick favorites from such a consistent 40-year catalogue, but what song/album of Petty’s sticks out the most to you?
Carr: Definitely Wildflowers. I can’t even begin to articulate how important that album has been to me. Over the years the themes have hit me differently, depending on which phase of life I’m in. Never once has it felt dated. “It’s Time to Move On” feels especially bittersweet today.
Bautts: Petty has a nearly unparalleled collection of singles and songwriting—in all five decades he was active, no less—that there’s so many options to choose from. It’s been cool to see how many different responses people have offered these past couple days. As for me, “Free Fallin’” will always hold a dear place in my heart, which I think is one of the most perfect songs ever written. Conversely, Full Moon Fever is among my favorite albums of all time, too. There’s a reason why it sold the most (discounting Greatest Hits) and had seven (7!) successful singles, and that’s because Petty was never better.
Dawson: His first solo album, Full Moon Fever, is one that has always stuck in my psyche. I return to it any time I need a pick-me-up. There are other songs from other albums that would certainly go on my “Ultimate Tom Petty Dream Album,” but as a whole, that album resonates with my entire being from start to finish.
Manning: Into the Great Wide Open is his best record, for my money. I love a lot of them but only that one has “Learning to Fly,” which is probably a top 20 song for me.
Poulton: “I Won’t Back Down” speaks to my punk-rock sensibilities as a song of defiance and standing up for what you believe in no matter the cost, even in the face of the gates of hell. There’s a contagious confidence in the song that speaks to the magical power of music.
Beviglia: My favorite Petty song is an unheralded one, “Insider” from Hard Promises. It’s a song he had originally intended to give to Stevie Nicks but decided he loved it too much to let it go, so she sings backing vocals on it. It’s one of the most profound descriptions of losing a love interest to someone whom you don’t think is worthy. My favorite album of his might actually be Echo, which is a record Petty kind of denounced because he thought it too dour and depressing. Maybe that means I’m dour and depressing, but the songwriting is absolutely piercing throughout. But you can’t really go wrong with any of the classic albums. I think I gravitate to Echo because those songs don’t get played as much.
No artist is perfect, but Petty seemed to navigate the pitfalls and downturns a career can take better than most. With that said, is there anything you wish he had done differently or a criticism you wish he had taken to heart?
Carr: I probably don’t know his catalogue well enough to answer this question, but nothing really comes to mind. I think he always stayed true to himself, whether that meant writing pop songs, rock songs or the fun space in between.
Bautts: My “criticisms” are minor. You look at his peers that started at roughly the same time and are still around today—Springsteen, U2, AC/DC, etc.—and Petty was probably more consistent without ever bottoming out as low as they did in their lowest moments. I will say that his later 15-track expanded albums could have benefited from the brevity of his earlier tracklistings, and I would have loved to seen him embrace more of a Springsteen-esque attitude of switching up setlists on a nightly basis. But that’s about it. Not every album or song of his was “good,” but he never phoned it in and always seemed to do what he wanted from the pure joy of being a musician. You have to respect that.
Dawson: It’s interesting—I feel like one of his biggest criticisms is also one of his biggest assets. I’ve heard some say his music is TOO likeable or that it has TOO much mass/commercial appeal. I think the implication there is that it’s not interesting or that it doesn’t have a unique voice. But that’s what’s so amazing about his music. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t like Tom Petty. He exemplifies excellent songwriting, and that’s why he’s had such a long career and why just about every musician lists him as an influence.
Manning: One of the things I’ve thought about since he passed is that he didn’t have an off decade in the 1990s. Springsteen did. U2 did. The Rolling Stones did. Dylan salvaged things toward the end with Time out of Mind, but didn’t have the best decade, either. Pretty much every act from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s stumbled in the ‘90s, but Petty made some of his best records. I guess his stumbling block was the 2000s—not because the albums weren’t good, but because he took forever between releases. But that’s a criticism I have of a lot of “legacy acts,” not just Petty.
Poulton: I don’t know Petty’s career well enough to comment besides to say that heroin is pretty much a lose-lose situation for any artist, despite the temporary escape it may offer.
Beviglia: I can’t really think of any. Maybe some people would find fault with the fact that he didn’t deviate too broadly from his rock and roll foundation. But he did it so well, and provided enough subtle deviations throughout his career, that I can’t complain about it. Again, the consistency is staggering.
Is there any of his work or parts of his career you feel is underappreciated or overrated?
Carr: The Last DJ is so solid. I’m not sure if it’s underappreciated or not, but in my opinion it sure doesn’t get enough attention and discussion.
Bautts: His final two Heartbreakers albums might be a little underappreciated, or at least less familiar to most. Mojo could have used editing but there’s some great stuff on there, and Hypnotic Eye is pretty fantastic. The thing about Petty is that even on his lesser works, there was always a pair of standout tracks to prove he hadn’t lost it. As for overrated, several of his older albums are fairly top heavy listening to them today. They probably were less so during their times, and that cream at the top is so tasty, so it’s easy to overlook.
Dawson: People tend to forget about the Traveling Wilburys, which is funny to me because they were such a powerhouse of talent. And you can clearly hear Petty’s influence on their songwriting. With five huge stars all in one room, I would’ve loved to been a fly on the wall to witness their creative process. That had to have been challenging, getting all those egos to cooperate with one another. As for overrated? No. I don’t recall any phase of his career feeling overblown or overplayed.
Manning: Here, I feel the need to stump for Hypnotic Eye. Artists like Petty can so easily become greatest hits acts, especially in the eyes of concertgoers. Their latter albums rarely get the credit they deserve. But Hypnotic Eye is so good, full of crunchy riffs and interesting songwriting. “Full Grown Boy” is his attempt at a smooth jazz song, and it’s amazing.
Beviglia: Like I said above, Echo needs more love. In addition, and this applies to many of his contemporaries, all of his more recent albums should get more attention from fans who might not have dug into them too much. I read an interview with Petty where he bemoaned the fact that albums by artists he loved tended to be like trees falling in the woods these days, where they might be great and no one even knows they’re out there. And I feel like that applies to albums like Hypnotic Eye and his recent Mudcrutch albums to an extent. If they had been released in his heyday, they would have been filled with hits and songs that became evergreens. Seriously, listen to “Forgive It All” from his last Mudcrutch record and tell me it isn’t a stunner.
Were you ever able to see Petty perform in person? If so, what was it like?
Carr: Only once, unfortunately. 2005 at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, California. I was 18. I had terrible seats (to the left and behind the stage), but I still loved it. I remember hearing so many hits that night. One after the next. You take that sort of thing for granted when you’re young. True story: My friend and his mom high-fived during “Handle with Care,” but I didn’t know the Wilburys at that time. I pretended that I knew the song. (I would later listen to and absolutely adore the Traveling Wilburys.)
Bautts: Yes, but only once. It was in 2014 during his tour in support of Hypnotic Eye. The set was very professional and workmanlike, as he was often described, and I had a blast. I had tickets years before that to see him earlier, which unfortunately I ended up having to sell because I couldn’t get the night off work. And then I actually flirted with going to see him last Monday at the Bowl, which turned out to be the final show he would play, but ultimately decided not to. I wish I had chosen differently.
Dawson: I wasn’t. It just never quite worked out. I know a few people who were at his last show at the Hollywood Bowl, and from the videos they shared, it looks like he was in top form. Not seeing him live is high on my regret list, for sure.
Manning: I wasn’t, which will probably prove to be one of my biggest regrets in terms of live music. My brother caught him in the summer of 2014, but we weren’t living in the same state at the time. Wish we had been now.
Beviglia: Sadly, no.
There has been a large outpouring of personal anecdotes in the wake of Petty’s passing. What made him a special songwriter and figure that resonated with such a diverse number of people?
Carr: Longevity and consistency certainly have something to do with it. But my personal opinion is that he wasn’t afraid to write pop songs—that is, songs with the audacity to appeal to everyone. All ages, all backgrounds, all hearts welcome. He did it better than any other rocker I can think of.
Bautts: He was a great storyteller, first and foremost, and then he had this innate ability to turn complex emotions and thoughts into simple turns of phrase. Combine that with his gift for bursting melodies and you knew his songs, even if you didn’t remember every word. Having been around professionally for 41 years, he was also a constant soundtrack in many people’s lives, and in pop culture had ascended to the role of old, beloved relative at a family reunion. You didn’t see him every day, you might have fallen out of contact with him a little bit throughout the years, but when his face did show up, it was one of the most lovely things in the world.
Dawson: One of the things that his biographer has said about him that I think must be such a huge factor in how deeply he touched people is his unbridled passion for music. Music was his lifeblood, and the love for the craft was always his driving force. When someone loves the art so purely, that can’t help but resonate. Musicians, of course, are drawn to his love of music, but even non-musicians are drawn to the simple fact that he had so much genuine passion for what he did. We all look for that in our lives. It seems obvious he found it.
Manning: I think it’s a lot of things. He had a way with hooks that not many rock songwriters do. He had a band that could really bring his musical ideas to life. He was the torchbearer for a certain sound—heartland rock—that a lot of people relate very personally to their lives. He wrote a bunch of the archetypal summer songs, and who doesn’t love a summer song? And then I think he was just a genuinely great dude, which made him easy to root for.
Poulton: It’s hard to write music that people from all walks of life and backgrounds can relate to, but he cracked the code. Part of his craft that makes his stick out as an artist is authenticity. His music is simple and universal in nature. The stoned teenage nihilism of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is late twentieth century Americana.
Beviglia: He espoused certain universal qualities, like resiliency and integrity, in his songs that are difficult to put across. It was rather effortlessly, and he did it over and over again throughout his career. It sounds basic, but when you realize how few people have been able to pull that off, you also realize what a rare talent he was.
In addition to the Heartbreakers, Petty’s career also encompassed multiple side bands, iconic music videos, film and TV appearances, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Super Bowl and sticking up for artistic control. What do you remember most?
Carr: To me, there isn’t one defining moment that sticks out about Petty’s career, which accurately captures how successful his career really was.
Bautts: That run of his from 1988 through 1994, where he enjoyed this gigantic mid-career renaissance, was my favorite incarnation of Petty. That was arguably his most creatively fertile period, and though my younger self had no idea who he even was during that time, it’s what I remember him most for. Secondly would be him turning back into a muddy blues rocker in the years after reforming Mudcrutch in 2007, the decade I was most actively a fan of his.
Dawson: He’s the guy. He’s the reliable guy whose music is always going to be great and who’s always going to show up and do the job well. It goes back to what I said about his music being a staple throughout my life—his presence has been much the same, almost to the point where I took it for granted. That’s why I didn’t see him on this last tour. “He’s Tom Petty. He’ll be around.”
Manning: One of the things that sticks out to me is the use of his music in Cameron Crowe films. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Jerry Maguire to We Bought a Zoo, Crowe just got Petty, and knew where to use his songs to color the lives of characters. Two of my favorite song-in-movie moments ever are in Elizabethtown with “Learning to Fly” and “It’ll All Work Out,” which might be Petty’s most underrated song. A lot of people dismiss that movie, but the music gives it life for me.
Poulton: Ultimately, he’ll be remembered as someone who talked the talk and walked the walk. Standing up for yourself as an artist or in life in general can be scary as shit, but he stuck to his guns and won out.
Beviglia: Probably the period in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when he had that bit of a renaissance with the Full Moon Fever album and the Wilburys. I loved all the music that came out of that time period from those guys, so that’s a fond era for me. But, again, there are so many positive associations with Petty’s music that I couldn’t possibly list them all.
Petty, along with Bruce Springsteen, are usually credited as the defining forefathers of American rock ‘n’ roll. Why do you think that is and would you agree?
Carr: I would agree, but I’m not sure forefather is the best term. I would set that title aside for someone like Chuck Berry. Tom Petty did carry on Berry’s legacy, however, by writing compact, resonant pop rock that always seemed to hit culture at the right moment. The Ringer called his music “classic rock in real time,” and I think that’s just about right.
Bautts: In retrospect, I phrased this question a little poorly. Instead of forefathers I meant more in the way of pillars, and in my eyes there’s little question Petty and Springsteen are the two tallest pillars in the annals of American rock ‘n’ roll. Having grown up an underdog in northern Florida and living most of his adult life in Los Angeles, and crisscrossing the country endless times in between, he spoke to this quintessential idea of an American dream, and experience, and identity that people of all walks of life related to, whether you lived in the south, on the coast, in the mountains or in the desert. One of the eulogies I read described him as an ambassador of America to the world, a notion Petty himself was quick to scoff at. But Petty was able to tap into the well of America’s soul and express it musically to a degree where he will forever be one of the first examples people go to when describing what this country sounds like.
Dawson: I do agree—I’d be tempted to also add Billy Joel to that list. What they all have in common is they are writing songs for the people. They’re writing songs people relate to, regardless of what they do, where they’re from or who they want to become. Lyrically, they’re talking about ordinary human, American things, but in an extraordinary way. And musically, the songs are accessible and palatable to musicians and non-musicians alike, which makes the lyrics and the stories that much more powerful. But at the heart of it, it’s still rock ‘n’ roll. It’s guitars and drums and keyboards—just enough to provide what the song needs. No more, no less.
Manning: When I think of American rock ‘n’ roll, I think of songs that evoke wandering and wide-open spaces. Those two did a better job of capturing the myths and magic of the American road than any other artists. There are other American rock ‘n’ roll giants, from the pioneers (Elvis, Chuck Berry) to the masters of craft (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix), but Springsteen and Petty are the ones who really seem to speak to the American experience.
Poulton: I would disagree on that specific title. Every American rock and roller needs to cede the title of forefathers of the genre to early electric Chicago blues and R&B groups. That said, he’s definitely a giant in the style of American rock and roll. In 100 years, Tom Petty will be one of the names people talk about when they talk about music from his era.
Beviglia: I guess, if you’re going to make that claim, it’s probably because they were able to distill all of their influences into music that was absolutely their own and reflected what a lot of their fans were going through or thinking about. And they were able to do that at a level of popularity that a lot of their peers could never achieve.
Tom Petty’s lasting legacy will be…
Carr: The D chord. It’s always been the cornerstone of American music—the open, breezy sound of dirt roads and summer nights—but Petty made it his. In doing so, he made it ours.
Bautts: Of an artist who went about it the right way. He was a Southern gentleman with California swagger, who left behind a body of work set to stand the test of time. They don’t make them like him anymore, and America will never see another Tom Petty.
Dawson: Last night my friend said this, and I thought it summed it up perfectly: “He was a universal artistic adhesive that connected every musician to a common inspiration.” That’s his legacy. Every musician I’ve ever met lists him as an influence. That will be felt for generations.
Manning: One of the last cross-generational and cross-genre musical titans. He influenced everyone—young and old, rock and pop, country and folk, even punk. We’re going to be hearing echoes of his sound for a long, long time.
Poulton: A cheesy devious smile, a Rickenbacker guitar and damn good songs.
Beviglia: The songs never go away, even though the artist has to split sometimes. The old records are all there for you. So if you’re feeling down about his passing, put ‘em on. His is a legacy that isn’t going anywhere, and that’s reassuring in tough times.