The phenomena of public grief for public figures whom were not known personally to the mourner is not new, but often ridiculed.
Tom Petty was one of a handful who caused me to double take, and to feel, that just a little bit of my soul had been taken away.
Most eulogies tell of someone who was the greatest, the best. Curiously, Tom did not fall into that category. A very good songwriter, live performer, singer, band leader – but not the greatest.
I first became aware of him with the release of the first album, in November 1976, the eponymous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which is a traditional rock album. It contained diverse, well written, well- constructed, well played songs. In “American Girl” he had also written a song which would be their signature for an entire career. In Britain the highly influential Fluff Freeman radio show backed it for rock fans. All should have been good, but a big cloud gathered on the horizon, Punk. A British phenomena which stopped dinosaur rock acts in their tracks, and strangled traditional up and coming rock acts at birth.
In retrospect the solution was risible. For the second “You’re Gonna Get it” Album, released in May 78, the band wore biker jackets and shades on the cover and released the punk length, spiky, guitar driven “I Need to Know” as the single. The album was not as strong as the first, rushed to capitalise on the success of the first album, with only “Listen to Her Heart” enduring. But it worked. The trompe de l’oeil was pulled off. The single, and album, were a success, and was accepted by the all- powerful British music critics, they stayed the right side of the music press.
I saw them for the first time on June 24th 1978 at Knebworth supporting Genesis in front of a 100,000 fans. In retrospect it was an ostensibly monumental task for such a relatively young band, in practice it was easy. This was no fledgling band of wannabees washed up on the shore by the first wave of punk, instead a group of seasoned stage performers and practiced musicians. It was the biggest test of their careers to date- but one which they took in their stride.
With only two albums behind them, the forty- five minute slot suited them down to the ground. They just played their strongest songs, stretched out “Breakdown” ,and Tom, in his top hat tried to look overwhelmed by the universal mid- afternoon acclaim at the end of the set. Their “stadium” credentials instantly established.
I next saw them on March 7th, 1980 on the “Damn the Torpedoes” tour. Despite management/ contractual wrangles, they had produced their strongest album yet, and the 3.487 capacity Hammersmith Odeon, with its 192ft wide stage, was perfect for them. The place was packed with their fans who knew all the songs, the capacity was big enough to produce a vibrant atmosphere, yet small enough to bottle it. They were sensational, opening with a swaggering, searing “Shadow of a Doubt” , and the mid set quintet of “Refugee/ Listen to her heart/ American Girl/ Breakdown and Too Much Ain’t enough” reaching heights that few artists can match.
The last time I saw him live was on Oct 17th, 1987 supporting, and playing with, Bob Dylan. Roger McGuinn opened the show, but Tom joined him on stage to play “Tambourine Man”. Then Tom and the Heartbreakers backed Dylan. Dylan was awful. Tom tried his best, but Dylan was sloppy, the rearrangements poor, and for once the band were probably grateful that they were not in the spotlight.
Although England broke the Heartbreakers, a fact that Tom happily acknowledged, despite his professed Anglophilia, he was not a regular visitor to our shores, leaving me, and others, to watch from afar, no less interested or supportive.
Through the Travelling Willbury’s, a solo period, and then back with the Heartbreakers for good, his trademark was strong songs, great live shows ( albeit Stateside!) and a regular output of interesting new material. Mike Campbell’s guitar and Benmont Tench’s keyboards were essential. They were to Tom, as Miami Steve and Roy Bittan are to Bruce Springsteen. The extra space that Benmont was offered for live performances was always welcome, how I adore his stretched out piano breaks.
The curious thing about Tom is that he is undoubtedly up there in the American Rock n Roll Pantheon with Springsteen, Dylan, Young and Buddy Holly. Yet was there a cross-over, defining album? A “Blood on the Tracks”, a “Born to Run” a “Harvest”. Probably not. And how many standards did he write? “American Girl”, and beyond that a plethora of fine songs for his fans, but not much that reached beyond. It bothers me, because when I listen to “It’s Good to be King”, “Refugee”, “Crawling Back to You” and “Woman in Love” I hear songs I love and admire, but whose currency was limited.
So if he was not the greatest, where did his greatness come from? I believe it was from his forensic knowledge of the history of guitar pop from Buddy Holly and the Beatles onwards, and his ability to synthesise that with his arrangements and voice. He was a typical American Southern conservative, generous, genuine but not too bothered about what was happening way beyond. That meant that when he was playing with the Travelling Wilbury’s and on all- star bills, he shone by not shining. He was the alchemist, the oil, the glue, for whom the sum total was always more important than the constituent parts. My favourite clip of him is when he is playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in an all star band tribute to George Harrison. Jeff Lynne harmonises, Steve Winwood plays keys, Prince steals the show with an outrageous magnificent guitar solo, Tom smiles, holding it all together.
If you have never really delved much into Tom’s work, I thoroughly recommend the four disc live anthology. It isn’t a greatest hits record, but a compilation of his best live performances over the years. You cannot fail to be impressed.
And maybe, collectively, this all explains my sadness on learning of his death. It was not him personally. It was about owning every record he made on release, and realising that now there would be no more. It was about the distant figure with the top hat saluting the masses with his guitar at the end of his set at Knebworth, and the exhilaration and euphoria of his show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, memories now wrapped and sealed. It was about the four hour documentary “Runnin Down a Dream” (2007) which offered me the illusion that I “knew” him. It was about putting on one of his albums, any one of his albums, and smiling. It was about an American Great – who wasn’t, best summed up by these lyrics:
“There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country, the yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talking, but everything gets done
With a southern accent, where I come from”