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American Standards: Why Everybody Loves Tom Petty

Tom Petty wrote great rock ‘n’ roll songs for 40 years. His 1993 Greatest Hits album has 18 tracks, and you know at least 16 of them. He could play a two-hour-plus concert and have the audience singing along with every song, and still not manage to fit in all of his hits.

Very few artists achieve omnipresence and near-universal respect, if not love. There are bigger names in rock than Tom Petty: U2 are bigger, Bruce Springsteen is bigger. But U2 and Springsteen have as many people who fucking hate them as people who love them (I’m in the former group, for the record), and I don’t think anybody hated Tom Petty that way. Some people love his music; others just hear one of his many, many hits on the radio and say, “Oh yeah, that’s a really good song.”

Critics and rock historians often connect Petty to Bob Dylan and the Byrds and generally treat him like a ’60s rocker who mysteriously emerged in the ’70s. That makes a kind of sense. He toured with Dylan in 1986, with the Heartbreakers serving as the older man’s backing band. He produced an album for ex-Byrd Chris Hillman this year. And he was in the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. But to me, Tom Petty’s always made a purer, edgier strain of rock ‘n’ roll; he’s part of the same lineage as Chuck Berry and Lemmy.

Petty was a guy who understood the power of a three-minute, three-verses-and-a-chorus single with lyrics just sharp enough to make you nod your head in appreciation. In fact, he’s always been a low-key genius songwriter. The song “Listen To Her Heart,” from the second Heartbreakers album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, is a perfect example. “You think you’re gonna take her away/ With your money and your cocaine” — that’s an entire short story, in two lines. And Petty tells that story with a melody that’ll stick in your head for the rest of the day. His songs are simple three- or four-chord structures, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but the hooks are absolutely impossible to deny.

When Petty And The Heartbreakers were first breaking out, they were lumped in with New Wave. But when asked to comment on his putative peers, Petty said, “Some of those guys are all right. Costello’s good, but I wouldn’t call him Elvis.” He was a classicist, a garage rocker who loved the craft of songwriting. And with one or two notable exceptions (in Warren Zanes’ Petty: The Biography, an incredible book I read just a month or two ago, he said of 1985’s overproduced and conceptually half-baked Southern Accents, “When I hear that one, I can taste the cocaine in the back of my mouth”), he played to his strengths for 40 years. Try to imagine Tom Petty recording an album with a string quartet, or writing a concept album and then turning it into a musical.

Honestly, I was a Greatest Hits-level fan of Tom Petty’s music until 2009, when he put out The Live Anthology, a four-CD box that cost something like $20. I bought it on impulse at Target. The Live Anthology gathered recordings from three decades’ worth of shows, but somehow they fit together seamlessly into one monster concert. Listening to it, it was impossible to tell what year a given track was recorded — Petty and the band had never lost a step. The thing hit me like a hammer. All of a sudden, I started thinking Tom Petty was kind of amazing.

It helped a lot that he was fiercely loyal to the Heartbreakers, making only three lineup changes since 1975. In 1982, original bassist Ron Blair left, and was replaced by Howie Epstein. When Epstein’s drug problems got out of control (he died of a heroin overdose in 2003), Blair came back. Original drummer Stan Lynch left in 1994, and was replaced by Steve Ferrone. And in 1991, guitarist and keyboardist Scott Thurston, who’d worked with Iggy Pop in the mid to late ’70s, was added to the band. Everybody else was the same — the Heartbreakers were a gang, and once you were in, you were in.

Just over six months after The Live Anthology came out, Petty And The Heartbreakers released Mojo, their first studio album in eight years. It was a raw, hard-rocking disc steeped in the blues. (It was recorded more or less live in the studio, too; the booklet tells you the day each song was tracked and exactly which instruments each band member played.) I saw them at Madison Square Garden on that tour. The album had only been out for a month, but when they played five songs from it, two-thirds of the way through a 16-song set, nobody moved.

Ever since that show, I’ve been a serious Petty fan. I’ve listened to almost every album, and like Mot├Ârhead, ZZ Top, or AC/DC, each one has at least four or five songs that are flat-out great, and a bunch of others that are just better than most everything else out there. Sure, he’s got some that aren’t great — Southern Accents is too synth-drenched, Into The Great Wide Open too much of a Jeff Lynne album, and he let himself sound old and cranky on The Last DJ. But in the last decade, he came surging back; 2006’s Highway Companion was thoughtful but more alive, he and the Heartbreakers played the Super Bowl in 2008, Mojo fucking rips, and his final studio album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, was a strong, sardonic collection of tunes about growing old in an America that wasn’t looking so great these days, either. (“Burnt Out Town” had another glorious Petty couplet: “This is a burnt out town/ New emperor, same clothes.”) It was his only album to hit #1 on the Billboard 200.

Tom Petty was a pure product of America, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriters and performers this country’s ever produced, and as far as I can tell, he’s the end of the line. I mean, who’s gonna pick up the torch?

In his obituary for Elvis Presley, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote, “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Bangs himself died in 1982. He didn’t live long enough to see people agree on Tom Petty.