Another empty rocking chair in the Wilbury household this week, sadly, as Charlie T. rode the late train out of town to join Lefty and Nelson at the end of the line.
Tom Petty was a hitmaker on the volume scale of Motown’s song factories, and the “was” in this sentence is doing a lot of grim work, because, in contrast to some other mourned celebrity passings, Petty, at sixty-six, remained an active and strong performer. We saw him in concert just this spring, my first time, and he was just as good and strong as I hoped. There’s a real loss here.
A 2009 Wall Street Journal article published in conjunction with the release of Petty’s career-retrospective Live Anthology memorably made the case that Petty’s slightly lower situation in the proverbial Rock Pantheon was due, in my reading, to the irony that his songs were too popular. It’s funny because it’s true, but it says more about the fans than the artist. We hold Springsteen, to borrow the foil from that WSJ piece, in higher regard because he had fewer hits? I don’t know why, or if that’s how it really works, but at some point it misses the mark to parse the greats like this.
It also misses the mark on Petty, who always seemed to belie his deep catalogue of radio-friendly tunes with his ability to wink at that great big world of entertainment with a sly smile worn by one who could take or leave the trappings of celebrity that pop stardom can offer. As he told the Journal in ’09, “We were never really Boy Scouts, you know. My vision of a rock and roll band wasn’t one that cuddled up to politicians, or went down the red carpet. That kind of thing you see so much of today. I felt like once that stuff starts happening your audience doesn’t know whether to trust you or not.” That article continues:
Mr. Petty set himself apart in other ways. While Dylan and the Stones have licensed their music to advertisers, Mr. Petty says, what for? “We don’t really need the dough that bad.” The singer has sought keep his concert tickets affordable. And unlike, say, Mr. Costello, who has collaborated with string quartets, Mr. Petty says he’s satisfied with being a workaday auteur: “To write a good song is enough. That was the loftiest ambition I had: to write a song that would endure.”
Or you could just take a look at his perfect initial interaction opposite Kevin Costner in 1997’s The Postman. Or his appearance as the Mad Hatter, forever my envisage of that character, in his own music video:
While we’re here, let’s do a few more: