I once got busted trying to steal a magazine from my hometown library. The 8/8/91 issue of Rolling Stone apparently had one of those sensors on the last page and it beeped from my backpack on the way out. I was gonna bring it back. I just wanted to take it home to read the Tom Petty cover feature and you’re not allowed to take periodicals home. It wasn’t even a new issue.
Petty’s songbook may not have been as groundbreaking as Prince’s or Bowie’s, but for many ’80s and ’90s kids his loss hits just as hard. The Heartbreakers taught us what rock ‘n’ roll was. We drawled along to our parents’ Wilburys tapes and waited for MTV to play “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (unless our mom was Tipper Gore). Petty’s no-fuss, everyman singalongs — with their open chords and storybook narratives — had a cross-generational appeal that made them an ideal soundtrack for road trips and beach days. I love Bob Dylan, but I’m not gonna put his greatest hits on at a BBQ.
I’m a Wildflowers guy, personally. When Petty was about to take the gritty roots-rock collection on his Dogs With Wings Tour, I was compelled to phone into a VH1 special on which Moon Zappa and John Fugelsang were shilling pre-release tickets. It was one of the first rock shows I attended without my parents and my first concert at MSG.
One could’ve assumed Petty was on top of the world then, but his marriage was falling apart and he was apparently battling a secret heroin addiction. Years earlier an arsonist set his house on fire while the singer and his family were in it. He was decades removed from the beatings his father delivered in their Gainesville home, yet you can see why even at the height of his fame Petty remained one of rock’s most sheepish figures. When asked by NPR in 2014 about having penned so many beloved tunes, Petty responded, “If I think about it very long, it frightens me — it’s kind of like, well, did I do that?”
MCA initially rejected his most enduring work, Full Moon Fever. That album’s got at least half a dozen easygoing anthems we now regard as part of the firmament of popular culture. It’s the reason why Jimmy Fallon can make a decent bit out of repeating an unremarkable Petty lyric we all know (much like how he mimicked an unremarkable Petty visual we all know). Gen X parents have turned “Alright For Now” into a lullaby. More than one generation has now grown up cringing while drunk bros strum “Free Fallin'” at house parties. It’s the American way.
Petty wasn’t for everyone, but he did seem to be a rock star’s rock star, a self-effacing throwback who dressed like a carny and sneered at, or at least was ambivalent about, showbiz. He used his clout to fight for the integrity of the business around him, battling his first label over an unfair contract then stopping his next label from raising the price of vinyl on Hard Promises. He was still grousing about the industry on a concept LP, The Last DJ, in 2002. When that didn’t get much traction he became a free-form DJ on Sirius XM.
Petty stayed true to his roots, shining a light on his heroes like the Byrds’ Chris Hillman (on an album just last month) and Roger McGuinn (watch Peter Bogdanovich’s Runnin’ Down A Dream for a great clip of Petty facing off with a label rep on his friend’s behalf). He was doing this stuff in between sold-out arena tours while his peers were releasing dance remixes and writing shitty Broadway soundtracks.
In the wake of his sudden passing, I asked a handful of songwriters to share a favorite Tom Petty song with us for this feature. Well, more than a handful. I honestly didn’t expect so many artists to participate, but I’m glad the wide response — and variety of selections — speaks to the greatness of Petty’s impact. One common observation among them is that Petty’s music always just seemed to be there waiting for us to notice it, like an extension of the environment in which we were discovering ourselves.
In responding to Stereogum’s call both Portland singer-songwriter Johanna Warren and NYC multi-instrumentalist/producer Thomas Bartlett recorded gorgeous Petty covers overnight, and you can hear those toward the bottom of the post alongside their blurbs.
I was so busy working on this feature I didn’t participate in the Stereogum staff list of favorite Tom Petty tracks. I probably would’ve written up “A Face In The Crowd,” but as echoed below, it’s nearly impossible to pick just one favorite.
“American Girl” was probably my favorite but the one I’d like to talk about as a songwriter is “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” When that song came out I was deeply moved and unsettled by it. The emotions he described were so complex, so unflinchingly true to life that I was startled by it being so successful in the mainstream. I didn’t know if people weren’t really listening, or if they couldn’t empathize, or if they were actually being moved to the extent that he intended. It made me respect the radio audience more for embracing that vulnerable portrait of a torturous relationship. Such distinctive, haunting production — forward for its time — and the vocalist who accompanied him was perfectly cast. The video for that song was pretty creepy, too. Needed hours of therapy after Alice In Wonderland cake slicing.😬Petty made me fall in love so many times. He wrote so many excellent, singable anthems, but the quality of his talent really shines when you take into account how masterful he was at voicing the confusing, unanswerable questions that we all privately struggle with. And all delivered with killer hooks, too! He’s top tier in my book. Doesn’t get better than Petty.
EL-P (RUN THE JEWELS)
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” has to be up there for me. It was my first exposure to Petty as a kid. The production was just such a bop. Heavy break and sitars and this amazing, creepy video with this mysterious guy in sunglasses dressed as the Mad Hatter. I was fascinated with him from that point on. Beyond that he was one of those people that oozed kindness and humor even from a distance (as it was for most of us). I’d always hoped to see him live someday. Fuck.
“Runnin’ Down A Dream” is probably my favorite of his songs. The song is about continuous travel, about a drive that after days of being grueling and overcast finally becomes a little clearer and more liberating. To me, besides my personal nostalgia for it as a travel song, it conveys a contentment and purpose in transience, and captures the feeling of what keeps a person moving towards an uncertain goal, or an elusive dream that we have to perpetually seek because it won’t quite come to us.
GEOFF RICKLY (THURSDAY)
“Refugee” was one of the first songs I truly loved. My parents took me to a lot of concerts, starting at the age of three. But Tom Petty was one of the artists that I begged them to keep bringing me back to. “Refugee” struck a chord with me. It had an energy, a melody, and a rhythm that was so different from what I was used to. It was one of the first lyrics that I appreciated the craft of at eight or nine years old: “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must’ve really kicked you around some” — that additional some at the end was a revelation. It exposed the seams of a song for me to dive into. The song holds up to this day. “Everybody’s gotta fight to be free.”
EZRA KOENIG (VAMPIRE WEEKEND)
Love “Don’t Come Around Here No More” because it shows Tom’s versatility. A departure from the “tasteful ’70s palette” of his early work, it’s super ’80s drum machines and synth sitars. He was a traditionalist in many ways but still open-minded. A lot of the ’70s rockers didn’t know what to do with themselves in the ’80s but he nailed it. It’s beautiful.
LAURA JANE GRACE (AGAINST ME!)
Spent the day in the back bus lounge smoking joints and writing out the lyrics and chords to every song on Full Moon Fever. I’ve listened to that album more than any other album in existence. It was my first compact disc (given to me by my dad) and I played it endlessly. Tom Petty had more than an impact on me, he is the foundation of all my songwriting. I can’t help but think my connection to his music was some kind of gift from fate, telling me what direction to go in life, from that first CD to then my first electric guitar being a “Traveling Wilburys Gretsch Mik Tw200 Model” (also a gift from my dad), to then eventually moving to Gainesville, to my love for Rickenbacker guitars. Back when I was still living in Gainesville I bought a ’64 Fender Jaguar off Stan Lynch, drummer of the Heartbreakers. It was an expensive guitar but I was willing to pay so much on the chance that maybe Petty had picked it up and strummed a couple chords on it, always liked the idea of having my fingers dance on the same fret board as my hero. I also bought a ’70s Twin Reverb amplifier off of Stan, the amp that I’ve recorded every single Against Me! album using. I am forever indebted to and thankful for the music Petty made.
In reference to what my favourite Petty track is… The Live Anthology album the Heartbreakers released back in 2009 is hands down my favourite live album any artist has ever released. The performances captured there are mind blowing great. I’m not usually one for listening to live albums but this is the one exception. It’s that good. In particular the song “Crawling Back To You” I go back to time and time again. I had overlooked the song originally when I first heard the studio version on Wildflowers and a friend insisted I go listen to the live version immediately when the anthology came out. It’s a truly stunning performance and a truly beautiful song.
I got the chance to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers play in Gainesville back in 2006. Stevie Nicks did a couple songs with the band and the Strokes opened. I never met Tom Petty but I thought the fact that he had chosen the Strokes as the opener reflected well on the kind of person he was. I don’t think most artists would chose to take a band on tour that rose to fame with a hit that so directly copied the sound of one of their own songs — especially when that song is a work of genius like “American Girl” — but sure as shit the Strokes played “Last Nite” and the Heartbreakers played “American Girl.” I guess if you wrote the song “American Girl” your self confidence is pretty solid and secure and you probably don’t feel too threatened by whatever comes along next.
BRITT DANIEL (SPOON)
Divine Fits played “You Got Lucky” at just about every gig we had. What an insane single. It’s got an intense lyric and the most powerful, creepy guitar riff and somehow Dan was able to tap into that attitude every time. It was the greatest feeling in the world to be in a band that could play that song and pull it off. But since yesterday the song I keep playing is “A Face In The Crowd,” a ballad that came out as I was graduating high school and leaving my hometown and most of the people I knew forever. I relive that moment in the song. The minor chords, the vocal, the melody — all haunting and timeless.
ZACHARY COLE SMITH (DIIV)
“Walls” is a country song, through and through, but what makes this song so singular to me is how any potentially cheesy sentiment or cliché gets repositioned by tom petty’s weird punk-rock tom verlaine voice and scrappy neil young delivery, where simple lines like “some days are diamonds, some days are rocks” suddenly read as extremely real and profound. a truly sweet and a truly sad song…
“Some things are over/
Some things go on/
Part of me you carry/
Part of me is gone”
CAMERON BOUCHER (SORORITY NOISE)
I believe I first heard Petty perform “I Won’t Back Down” from a live CD my uncle burned me of the 9/11 concert. I was in the third grade and I remember the lines “you can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down” vividly, in a way no other song had made me think of the words before. As I grew older I started to delve into the catalogue deeper and with that I began finding out what an enormous impact he had on musicians everywhere and the way we do things today. I am currently rolling up a joint for Tom as I type this, the man was a genius, fuck today.
GREG DULLI (THE AFGHAN WHIGS)
“The Waiting” was everything I was looking for in a song when I first heard it. It made me feel alive if only for that riff. One of the hottest bands who’s ever played turning you on, full on for four minutes. A perfect song.
TIM SHOWALTER (STRAND OF OAKS)
Thinking today that Tom Petty inhabits my earliest memory. My dad on his row machine in the basement watching MTV with “Don’t Come Around Here No More” playing. The smell of the row machine pistons, my older brother trying to break dance, the cold blue tile floor, my mom’s cross-stitch paintings, me in my Walter Payton jersey, Petty on. So I guess I’ve been a fan my whole life. It will feel very lonely in an already lonely world without Tom Petty. Sail on melody master and Rest In Peace.
DAN SHURE (CHARLY BLISS)
My dad plays piano and my sisters sing, so naturally my dad always loves to joke about getting some gigs for the “family band,” though it’s never actually happened. However we have played “Free Fallin’” as a family for years. There’s probably been about 50 separate occasions, with varying instrumentation. It’s the only non-Christmas or musical theater song to have this kind of staying power. I’m not sure why. We are scrambling to find the soonest time we can all go back home and honor Tom Petty with a spirited rendition.
EVA HENDRICKS (CHARLY BLISS)
One time my cousin threw up on me while “Free Fallin’” was playing on a camping trip, and I still couldn’t help but scream along. It’s so sad to say goodbye to such an incredibly gifted songwriter and performer.
SOPHIE ALLISON (SOCCER MOMMY)
I picked “American Girl” because it gets me more than any other Tom Petty song. Something about it hits you right in the heart. The song brings you back to your teenage years when you felt like the world revolved around a small town crush or the fleeting days of summer. The young, carefree feeling that it captures is relatable to pretty much everyone, and yet it feels like it was made just for you.
TYLER BUSSEY (THE WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND I AM NO LONGER AFRAID TO DIE)
I love “Don’t Do Me Like That,” such a cool and infectious song. I used to play it with some of my high school friends so it’s super nostalgic for me. That little “WHAAAA!!” at about 2:15 in always makes me think of my friend Mike, we were like 17 and whenever that part of the song would happen he’d do it and crack us up. That’s my favorite thing about Petty’s music, there’s like a very immediately recognizable kindheartedness and sincerity and fun in it, even in the sad songs somehow.
NATHAN WILLIAMS (WAVVES)
“Runnin’ Down A Dream” is probably my favorite Petty song. There are so many good ones but that one is almost sorta lighthearted and goofy in its delivery. But then he’ll hit you with a downer line like: “I felt so good like anything was possible/ I hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes/ The last three days the rain was unstoppable/ It was always cold, no sunshine.”
In 1994 I was 12. Already on a weird diet of Whip-Smart, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star. Fully committed to everything that felt “outsider” or “other” and as dumpy teens often do, I routinely turned my nose up at all else. But “You Don’t Know How It Feels” would come up on the radio or MuchMusic and there was just something irresistible about it. Songs like this do the impossible in some ways, they flow the way a river flows, or the way life flows. They just “go.” They’re not trying to take the listener by the hand and make them see or notice or experience this or that, they just roll out at their own pace, with their own sense of purpose, with their own logic and with Petty there’s a deep, unerring trust that you’re in good hands. And that, to me at least, is everything. He didn’t mess around and even my crusty, eyeball-rolling teenaged self could tell that he was a heavy and one of the finest songwriters around. RIP Tom and thank you for the beautiful music.
“Free Fallin’” was one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar. I was thirteen and mimicking a live version by John Mayer that I downloaded from FrostWire. This was always the way Tom Petty came into my life — without me knowing it. It always just sounded like community: cook outs, friends’ cars driving fast, heavy air, windows down, a sound of summer, of freedom.
TANNER JONES (YOU BLEW IT!)
There are Tom Petty songs that one might argue are better than “American Girl,” but I never would have heard any of them without it. Before I knew anything about anything, I knew I loved this song. With enough straight lines, every single artistic inclination I’ve ever had could be traced back to this man, his band, and this song — and I’m surely not alone.
BEN DANIELS (A SUNNY DAY IN GLASGOW)
“Free Fallin’” came out when I was a kid but old enough to start caring about music and this was one of my first favorite songs ever. A few years later I got my first guitar and the opening chord riff thing was the first coherent musical thing I could play (and the only thing I could really play for six months or so). So simple and utterly glorious — it’s the kind of simple most people (including me) forget how to do once they get smarter and learn how to play their instrument. Add that to, “I’m a bad boy cuz I don’t even miss her, I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart” and “I’m gonna free fall out into nothing, gonna leave this world for a while” and it’s all just too much.
GUS LOBBAN (KERO KERO BONITO)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was one of the very first albums to land in my LP box many years ago. I was just beginning my musical journey and my mum deemed Mr. Petty’s power pop one of the pieces of her childhood record collection most suitable for her newly Jimi Hendrix-curious son. Petty’s version of radio rock is more likable than anyone else’s (shout out to “Don’t Do Me Like That”) but I’ll rep “A Wasted Life” from Long After Dark now. It’s a bleary, atmospheric conga-synth jam offering poignant advice that, when all is said and done, Petty definitely heeded.
KEVIN DREW (BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE)
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” is truly an undeniable tune. The sitar and groove matched with his vocal sentiment came with such ease that it immediately became addictive. The group vocals had the urgency of what so many bands in today’s day and age have referenced in their own tunes. This was the kind of song that made you want to know what it was like to never want someone around again while still keeping the romantic memory of why they were there in the first place. A classic notion that made Petty’s lyrics stand out throughout his career. He had so many hits but this was always the one to play during the closing credits of the night.
TAMARA LINDEMAN (THE WEATHER STATION)
Tom Petty wasn’t famous for his image, his beliefs, his debauchery, or the role he played in this or that zeitgeist. He was famous because his music was just really really good. And that’s actually weirdly rare. As popular music moves further away from the idea of songcraft, from the idea that melody matters, and that it’s worth it to take the time to make a hook both catchy and surprising, Petty feels more and more relevant.
“The Waiting” is a really good chord progression, with many surprises and twists, and it sinks in your gut just right on the chorus. It’s like a really perfectly made car; where if you get in it and let it take you, you just sail, because someone put in the time to build it right.
I love “Free Fallin’” because the guitars are always rising like hope. I like it cause the plain-spoken verse contrasts with the kickass chorus and they intersect somewhere you don’t expect. It’s not the usual song of sun and fun in LA. The sun’s a dead stare and look, I have a dead stare too. Free to fall. Have always loved Mr. Petty and wish I could deftly write something that says so much with so little.
KIP BERMAN (THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART)
Tom Petty is an incredibly underappreciated lyricist, always the everyman outsider (tough combo) with an abundance of wit and heart. There’s a reason why Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison all answered Petty’s calls. Just listen to “Yer So Bad,” it’s a master class on being fed up with everything in the world — but Petty does it without coming off as a self-righteous prick. It’s sympathetic to the things he condemns. The yuppie he castigates in verse 1 (“My sister got lucky/ married a yuppie/ took him for all he was worth”), he takes pity on when “now he’s got nothin’/ head in the oven/ walks around dog faced and hurt” by the 2nd. Even the chorus concedes (“but not me baby/ I’ve got you to save me”) that were it not for love, Petty would likely be living a life as cynical, pathetic, and empty as his subjects (“Now she’s a swinger/ dating a singer/ I can’t decide which is worse”). He’s no better than these people, he’s just lucky. He knows that.
CHRIS HRASKY (EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY)
We’re in the midst of a tour and to wake up to the news of Las Vegas was nauseating and awful. It was all made a bit worse by the Tom Petty news a few hours later. Obviously these two events are not equivalents on the scale of tragedy, but they both added up to a particularly American kind of shitty day. He has so many great songs, but “Learning To Fly” is in my head right now. Probably not the coolest choice, but so be it. His voice just sounds so close, he’s right in your ear.
JORDAN SMITH (DIARRHEA PLANET)
My personal favorite Tom Petty song is “A Face In The Crowd.” I was always attracted to this song because it feels like a sigh after a long, hard day at work. The little wood block sound in the chorus really sets the whole thing off. I have listened to this song so many times when I have felt beaten down and overwhelmed by life. It’s so relaxing, I can literally feel the stress melt off each time I turn this track on.
IAN BUSH (DIARRHEA PLANET)
Tom Petty was the first show I ever saw. I grew up listening to Petty and the album Wildflowers has stuck with me forever. The album is flawless but the title track is the one I always come back to. The song plays like a lullaby and in every sense of the word — it is. It’s beautifully simple lyrics and melody sound like something you’ve known forever but isn’t quite familiar. With “Wildflowers” Petty wrote something so ingenuous and straightforward that few could compete with, let alone get away with. I love that song.
BRENT TOLER (DIARRHEA PLANET)
I was fortunate enough to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers this past April in Nashville. Joe Walsh opened the show, and absolutely owned the stage. I thought, there is no way anyone is topping that. First song of Tom’s set I thought my fears were confirmed. The sound seemed off, the band was stiff. Being a touring musician, I rarely watch any performance without a critical mind. Two songs later I was screaming every word to “Free Fallin’.” This pretty much continued for the rest of the set. By the end of the night, I was hoarse from singing (or shouting rather) along to every song. It was probably the only performance I’ve experienced recently where I was able to turn off the critic and become an embarrassingly enthusiastic fanboy.
I have so many favorite Tom Petty songs, but the one I’m selecting is “The Wild One, Forever” from the Heartbreakers’ debut album. It starts out a little slow, maybe even mysterious, but when the chorus drops it’s classic Tom Petty. Powerful and life affirming. You can’t help but feel free and just generally awesome when you hear it. Of course, that can be said of pretty much all of Tom Petty’s music.
PATRICK STICKLES (TITUS ANDRONICUS)
“You Wreck Me.” “D” / “A” / “E” — every young student of the guitar with any halfway competent instruction will likely pick these chords up within the first week of their practice, and the playing of them, in their first position inversions, in this sequence, will serve to reliably affirm that all six strings of the instrument are in tune (each of the forty-or-so Ted Leo shows I have attended have prominently featured this evergreen ritual), which would seem to relegate this particular configuration of these seven notes (E/F#/G#/A/B/C#/D, a misfit, unscholarly key we call E Mixolydian) to the island of rudiments, where academic exercises are absorbed only so that they may be forgotten, but for the self-evident truth that the thing we call Rock and Roll is the very opposite of an academic exercise — the thing we call Rock and Roll, dusty and rusty as it may appear today, is a deeply spiritual practice, and the crudest of its tools can, in certain hands, turn lead to gold before eager ears. Such was the strength of a spirit such as that of Tom Petty, that he could, roughly twenty-five years into his songwriting career, take these flat and facile fundamentals, with the timely addition of a “G” and a well-placed “Ooh-oh-oh” / “Yeah-eh-ah,” and produce an invigorating anthem that would elude ambitious rockers half or a third his age. This is an alchemy beyond logic which only faith can render sensible. The basest among us can strive towards scholarship, but only the blessed few can transmit this Holy Spirit in such a way to make the rudimentary revelatory and turn a grey and ashen world technicolor. Tom Petty was one such rare transmitter and our world is dimmer for his absence. It defies easy explanation, “but you move me, honey — yes, you do.”
“The Waiting” is like a mass of weird connective tissue for me. I *think* it’s the first Petty song I ever heard, but I honestly can’t say for sure. I heard it by seeing it — seeing the video — and up to that point, the only Rickenbackers I’d ever seen were played by the Who, the Jam, and the Byrds. And then there it was — this modern AMERICAN group. On a Mod-ish ’60s TV set, but with all the primary colored paint dripping down like … blood? And it could’ve been the Who or the Jam or the Byrds in some ways, but that wildly distinctive voice of the lead singer — presumably “Tom Petty” — soulful, strange, vaguely southern… It brought a lot of things together for me. The idea of influence, the idea of self expression THROUGH influence, the idea of TRANSCENDING influence. Personal and personality, a person and a band, SONGWRITING AND HOOKS, and a sense that someone is doing this because it is who they are. They’d be doing it no matter what. They happen to be exceptionally GOOD at doing it, so it’s good and right that the world is starting to pay attention; but yeah — even at that point, a true artist, a lifer. I will always sing along.
STEVE MARION (DELICATE STEVE)
“Time To Move On” is a song about returning back to the present moment. Propelled by a galloping Steve Ferrone beat and a sentimental Mike Campbell slide solo. One of the many effortless-sounding songs in the Petty catalogue, this one is also strange and beautiful and understated. Frozen in real time.
TYLER WILLIAMS (THE HEAD & THE HEART)
There is no way to pick a favorite Petty song for us, but in the current state of society, as things start to boil over and people lose their cool, we can’t help but want to echo his words in “Wake Up Time.” He was an honest songwriter and an amazing human being. We were lucky to share a few precious moments with him in the last year … into the great wide open.
Petty’s peerless career began around the same time as my life did, so I got to grow alongside new phases of his music that felt as natural and constant as any other cultural landmarks. In that way, I never imagined a world without Tom Petty. As sad and important as the recent passings of other music superstars have been, somehow they felt slightly more destined to ultimately leave us, where it somehow never dawned on me that there might come a day when Tom Petty would.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” was always my favorite song of his. It came out when I was seven or so, at the dawn of MTV, a strange outlying song with risky choices and a surreal video that no doubt helped sway me into a life of making polarizing music. In the years that followed other songs would match the emotional flow of my young development (“Jamming Me” adding to pre-pubescent confusion, “Free Fallin'” summing up angsty high school isolation and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” passing a joint as I spun into dusty early adulthood) but in 1985 I hadn’t heard anything quite so weird, impolite, annoying and painfully direct.
TIM KINGSBURY (ARCADE FIRE / SAM PATCH)
I’m so sad to hear about Tom Petty. I first became a real fan of his when I was a young teenager and was just about to start to play guitar and write songs. He has always been a big inspiration to me. “Learning To Fly” was probably the first song that really hooked me on him (along with the first Traveling Wilburys record) and it’s still one of my favorite songs of all time. The lyrics have such a great sentiment — especially when paired with the kind of easy, laid back vibe that Tom and the band deliver it with. His voice is so chilled out and reassuring and the recording and arrangement sound so lush and beautiful. It’s like the perfect, guilt-free comfort food. After discovering that album and song, I got really into Tom’s catalog and then anticipated new records from him more than I did most bands. It’s sad to say goodbye but he definitely left us with way more amazing music than we ever could have asked. RIP Tom — and thank you so much.
BETHANY COSENTINO (BEST COAST)
“Letting You Go” is one of the best breakup songs. It also has one of the coolest bridges ever, which I feel is something Petty specialized in — an awesome bridge that stands out but remains so simple. “It’s a restless world, uncertain times, you said hope was getting hard to find” are amazing lyrics that feel incredibly relevant to our current world. Petty was a genius, there’s no one like him and never will be another.
I remember when “You Don’t Know How It Feels” came out. I was 11. I saw the video on MTV. My brother had the CD. I used to steal his Discman and listen to it alone in my room. What it was about I don’t think I fully comprehended at age 11. Nah I don’t think I knew what a joint was back then. But I got the gist. I still don’t exactly know what some of these lyrics are about when I hear this song, but I feel something very specific. Something like being free at the end of a long day or a long week. Something like not giving a fuck. I’ve listened to this song since I was 11 and I keep coming back to it. I’ve listening to it in mastering studios — compared it to the sound of records I was finishing — because twenty some years later it sounds loud and clear as hell. A classic.
ROBIN EDWARDS (LISA PRANK)
I had heard “The Waiting” before, but it never really resonated with me until a few years ago when I was in a place in my life where all I could feel was the waiting. I fell in love with someone who lived in another state, and we would visit back and forth and talk on the phone every night in the in-betweens. When I wasn’t in the same city as my lover, I was waiting to see him. The anticipation was wonderful and aching and magical. He posted this song on Facebook during one of those phases of waiting, and I began listening to it all the time — waiting for him to call, waiting for him to move to Seattle, and driving to the airport, waiting for him to get off the plane with all of his things and not be waiting anymore. I don’t know exactly what Tom was waiting for when writing this song (it seems like something very romantic), but it will always remind me of living in that beautiful longing.
When I was really young the imagery and sound coming from the MTV video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” introduced me to Tom Petty. Later on I came back to that song and earlier albums to truly appreciate them. In elementary school Full Moon Fever came out and I fell in love. The video for “Free Fallin'” — it was Ventura Blvd, it was the older cool goth kids next to the Cadillac dealership, it shouted out Reseda (which is where my family was living at the time in the San Fernando Valley), it was the escalator in the West Side Pavillion (mall) right next to where I was born and spent so much time with my mom, it was skate boarding, happiness, nostalgia and also a sadness? He wrote these anthems that you would sing along to at the top of your lungs with your hands in the air, but there was a deep sadness. “Learning To Fly” came out when I was in middle school. This was another song that comes across as a euphoric anthem, but when you read the lyrics you see what he was really talking about.
“Well, some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out for God-knows-where
I guess I’ll know when I get there
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings,
coming down, is the hardest thing.”
More recently I read that it wasn’t about drugs? Maybe he just says that as to not put a bad example out there for young people? I know he battled heroin around that time. Either way, it looked happy on the outside, youthful, full of wonder. Beneath the surface it was dark, scared, lonely. This combination really connected with me at that age and would connect me to Tom Petty for the rest of my life. I miss him already.
SARAH VERSPRILLE & DANIEL HINDMAN (PURE BATHING CULTURE)
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” really feels like one of the great break up/heart ache declarations and also one of the great rock collabs of all time. We recently watched The Defiant Ones and when Tom is being interviewed about how he felt about Stevie asking him to write a song for her he says that he said to her: “I’d like to write a song for me, it’s not that easy.” This sentiment is so amazing to hear coming from him seeing that he wrote so many great, great songs and as artists striving towards our own version of great work, it’s super inspiring to hear such a successful and experienced one speak so honestly about the challenge (and inherently also the total thrill!) of it all.
PARKER SILZER IV (SLONK DONKERSON)
When I was a teenager I had a crush on a girl named Josephine. She was older and lived in Manhattan and dated rock stars. Despite the yawning gap in age and coolness, she’d invite me to hang on occasion. Once, as we smoked cigarettes on the fire escape of her Prince Street apartment, she told me about her love for Tom Petty’s music. Plus he was handsome, she said.
I didn’t think much of him back then, but over years I’ve learned that his songs act like a sieve: catching moments from my life and giving me a chance to get a better look at them. So much of my own writing is indebted to his winking yearning in songs like “Even The Losers.”
When I heard that he died, I thought of Josephine. Petty’s lyrics, both economical and poignant, summed up what a suburban high schooler and a cosmopolitan beauty had most in common: the feeling that “there was a little more life somewhere else.”
Like pretty much anyone my age, I’ve grown up with Tom Petty’s hits playing in the background my entire life. When I was a teenager, songs like “Free Fallin'” and “American Girl” didn’t really even register to me as music — more like permanent elements of Earth that had always been around and always would. I was always aware of Tom Petty the “rock icon,” but it wasn’t until his 2006 record Highway Companion that I really learned to appreciate his music.
Though this record came 30 years after his first album, it was my introduction to Tom Petty the songwriter, the musician, the real person. “Big Weekend” is an anxious, uptempo southern rock song over a driving country shuffle. The tag at the end of the chorus — “If you don’t run, you rust” — embodies Petty’s constant forward motion, a theme he employed often lyrically, and as a songwriter and performer; touring and releasing records consistently great his entire life. “Big Weekend” is not back-of-the-arena reaching ambitious like many of his well known songs, and it doesn’t try to be. It feels life-sized, like a real human made it. Rest in peace.
“Alright For Now” is so beautiful and simple and perfect. I was listening on YouTube, and most of the comments are about how a parent or loved one sang it as a lullaby before bedtime. I can’t help but imagine someone hundreds of years into the future singing it to someone they love. The greatest songs transcend music to simply become life, and Tom Petty blessed us with an infinite supply.
ADAM SCHATZ (LANDLADY)
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” grabbed me by the ears from a really young age, more than a lot of his other hits. It was so relaxed and driving at the same time, and catchy as hell. In it Tom Petty also successfully executed multiple elements that I usually can’t stand in music: lyrics about weed and a harmonica solo. You don’t know how it feels. He sings it again. Then a third time. And somehow the simplest “to be me” feels razor sharp. There’s no textbook reason for why Tom Petty could deliver, there’s a magic that just can’t be pronounced. That will live on, thank goodness.
Tom Petty left behind a body of work that’s both massive and unassuming. You don’t realize the depth of his catalog until you actually look at it from top to bottom; for every hit you remember he wrote, he’s got five that you forgot he wrote. His music felt ever present to me — it was just always SOMEwhere, be it radio, TV, grocery stores, coming out of cars, etc. I think it speaks to the universal appeal of the songs he wrote. He had a perfect “everyman” singing voice, one you could sing along to and always feel comfortable. One of my favorite songs of his is a tune that as a youth, I barely related to him, only later to realize “that’s the same guy who sang _____? wow”: “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I really liked drum machine-y, angular, synthy stuff from the ’80s as a kid, and this tune passed as such to me. The bizarre, stripped-down verses, the doubled female vocals, the whole song feels like a mish mash of 3-4 ideas that somehow work extremely well together. He left behind a catalog that will be played on rock radio until the end of civilization.
BRYAN DEVENDORF (THE NATIONAL)
I love “Room At The Top.” Super clean mix. And so resonant for the lonely traveler. His voice razory, defiant, and ultimately jubilant. Tom Petty will always be there for us, delivering the news from the perspective of the underdog, the alienated dreamer, the solitary seeker. Rest In Peace, dude.
DREW CITRON (BEVERLY)
My fave Petty song would have to be “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I love when guitar virtuosos branch out into the world of pads, synths, and drum loops. It’s obviously a huge hallmark of the studio world of the ’80s, but this is a particularly epic example of that phenomenon. The first minute of the song is so glorious and uplifting, great tom sounds, plus sitar! How can you go wrong? Listen to this one driving very fast with all the windows down. RIP to a genius songwriter, a master of his craft, and my third favorite Traveling Wilbury.
I was probably around eight years old when I got Full Moon Fever, my first Tom Petty LP. I’m sure I must have gotten it after seeing the “I Won’t Back Down” video on MTV. I mean, Ringo was in it, how could I not back this guy? The record was an amazing journey, I listened to it countless times. Towards the end of the record was a little thing called “The Apartment Song.” I’m not sure exactly why but from the first listen it was my favorite song on an album loaded with perfect 10s. It was simple but not stupid, the melody was impeccable, and even at that young age I could relate to a lyric like “I’m ok most of the time, I just feel a little lonely tonight.” Thank you Tom.
“Insider.” When I was young Tom Petty was always on the radio, I knew all the “Free Fallin'” lyrics and his music videos. Later, I was obsessed with the Wildflowers album and the first time I saw him in concert with the Heartbreakers I realized the scope of all the songs that I didn’t even know I knew so well. In the last 10 years I’ve had the pleasure of singing many of his songs at countless tribute shows and Petty fests all because he was just so awesome that people always want to play his songs and have a good time in his honor. They are some of the funnest shows I’ve ever been a part of and every time I was punched in the gut by the sheer beauty of his songwriting. So many gems. So many favorites that during the shows you could see and feel everyone thinking, “Oh! This is the BEST song! Oh wait… no THIS one is is my favorite!” You just can’t pick one. Heartfelt anthems that make you wanna sing loud. So many beautiful melodies. Complex and deep songs. His music makes people feel so much. The last time I saw him and the Heartbreakers play I got to briefly meet my hero and tell him how much I loved him. He was so cool, so disarmingly sweet and exuded such joy talking about music that I had the nerve to say, “We should jam sometime!!!” I just blurted it out. I was immediately embarrassed at my audacity but also so giddy and he was gracious and kind and it was all ok. I guess I felt like I knew him just through loving his songs. Maybe that’s what being a fan is, to feel like you really know what the person means after listening to their stories as if you’re having an ongoing conversation. Thank you for the music. My stereo is on loud and the conversation continues. Condolences to all who love him.
SCOTT HUTCHISON (FRIGHTENED RABBIT)
“Room At The Top” isn’t one of Tom Petty’s big hitters, but it’s got everything that, for me, makes him the greatest American songwriter of all. Lyrics that are tender, intimate and big-sky all at the same time. Chords thrown directly at your heart, breaking it and healing it in an instant. I admire his economy so much, giving everything that the song actually needed. The “not too much, not too little” ends up being way more than enough. I’m not ready to talk about him in the past tense yet. Tom Petty, you are THE MAN.
My favorite Tom Petty song is “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” I first heard it blasting on the family stereo when I was about 10 or 11. Up until that point, I’d never had my own significant connection to the music that my parents listened to. But that song, the whole album, became a place for my inner world to dwell and blossom. My friends and I would listen to it over and over, singing along. It made us feel cool and… understood. I always go back to that album when I’m feeling lost. Thank you Tom Petty, for carving out a home for me and so many others in music.
BART WINTERS (MELKBELLY)
Losing Tom Petty is rough. He’s the one artist who I can listen to and immediately feel like I’m back in high school. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar. I think I still have some pretty shitty versions of the song on tape somewhere. But the song I’d pick would probably be “Into The Great Wide Open” because he mentions “a roadie name Bart” and Barts don’t get shoutouts in songs too often (or ever).
It may not be the deepest Tom Petty cut, but “Don’t Do Me Like That” is without a doubt my favorite. In it, Petty so specifically and succinctly captures the feeling of being scorned and hurt while seemingly effortlessly rocking his way through it. Also that intro is just classic Benmont Tench, archetypal Tench, universal Tench — for me he was the magic weapon that really tied the Heartbreakers’ room together. The song is so tight and elegant, I can almost never listen to it just once through without putting it on repeat. All that aside, this song always takes me back to a specific time and feeling — when I was living in Providence, driving around town way too early in the morning on the weekends, shaking off the last night, and blasting this on my car stereo, rocking my way through it.
EVAN STEPHENS HALL (PINEGROVE)
“Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The first time I realized I loved Tom Petty I was at work, in the middle of a long afternoon. Then Tom said “Hey” and snapped me into the present: time to recapitulate your focus my dude. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re not gonna find it here. That song woke me up and put a spring in my step.
“I Won’t Back Down.” Petty was admirable in his simplicity, honesty, and sort of “I’ll do it my way” mentality. I love the driving rhythm of this song with those steady eighth notes. Put yourself in a car on the plains, windows down, music up.
I’ve been listening to Tom Petty since I was a small child and in the second grade I got a call home to my parents from my teacher telling them that I was singing inappropriate songs at school. I was singing “Listen To Her Heart” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I was seven or eight years old singing out, “You think you’re gonna take her away, with your money and your cocaine.” I have always been deeply in love with Tom Petty’s music and am devastated that he is gone. His music will go on forever and may he always be remembered.
PATTERSON HOOD (DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS)
Picking a favorite Tom Petty song is daunting as I have so many. My top five is particularly tight, but my favorite is “Something Big.” It’s got everything a great Petty song tends to have. It’s mysterious without being vague. A top shelf story song without the story. Kinda Raymond Carveresque with its details and blank spaces. A great hook and catchy chorus (but not a hit) sung with the drollest of delivery. Driven home by one of the greatest bands ever formed playing at the top of their game.
WILL SHEFF (OKKERVIL RIVER)
I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out how Tom Petty did what he did. He wrote simple, sometimes even sketch-like songs that felt like they had six more verses than were actually there on the page. His manner was playful and disaffected but he gave you the impression of earnestness and deep emotional investment. He could make bitterness and regret sound joyful and joy sound melancholy. I think this is a big reason he resonates across so many generations and with so many different types of rock fans. Each song is like a perfect little smooth stone that changes color depending on how the light hits it.
I’m sure a lot of other people will talk about the high notes, so I’d like to point out a later deep cut. The lyrics of “Crawling Back To You” are nothing special — almost perfunctory. It’s a kind of midlife LA monologue that drifts into a ’50s-style cowboy fantasy in a later verse. Nothing special on the page. But what a chord progression and what a feeling Petty and his band give us. A world-weary, bruised and romantic sense of doom hovers over this song like smog. It’s a song about repeating the same destructive patterns, dragging yourself through the motions. But there’s something radiant about it, this wide-screen sense of glory. Tom Petty made being an average, broken, unfinished person feel somehow heroic.
Also he had the best rock and roll “Yeah!” I can think of. I’ve wasted countless studio engineers’ time trying to get my “Yeah!” as good as that.
AARON GOSSETT (BLIS.)
The reason I pick “Learning To Fly” is that it represents overcoming obstacles in your life and the idea that no matter what happens to you there’s always a chance to bounce back from it. You have to accept that circumstances outside of your control will always have a role in determining the course of your life, but you have to learn to be okay with that. It also represents (to me) that no matter how good of a person you are life will always punch back. You can’t compare the amount of good that you do to the amount of goodness you receive. It’s a hopeful song about the human condition and the search for happiness. 11/10 for me.
CHARLES BISSELL (THE WRENS)
The summer of 1980 in my home/resort-town of Ocean City, NJ was soundtracked by side 1 of the B-52’s’ first album, Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks, the Motels’ Careful, Bram Tchaikovsky etc… and Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes, which because of the company, I heard as a ‘New Wave’ album and still sorta do. And for a long time, I think my default favorite song would’ve been one of those early ones like “Refugee,” “American Girl,” or “Breakdown,” like a lot of folks.
But once, about 20 years ago, we were set to play at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, a ridiculously big deal to us in hindsight, and as we’re setting up to soundcheck, there’s a kerfuffle of some sort at the door, with someone trying to get past the bouncer to get into the club for whatever late-afternoon reason, the bouncer having none of it. And from about three feet away, suddenly realize that it’s Tom Petty — who knows why — and in the instant it takes a vain art-ego to recalculate the world in their favor, I think, of course! Petty must’ve been one of the nearly 700 people who bought our first record and now he’s determined — driven, really! — to get in the club even just to experience the soundcheck, such is our talent… [shouting] “Tom, we’re right heeeeere…”
And of course he’d probably just left a coat there the night before.
But in my more sensible later years, when I thought about that, I thought more about that weird thing of celebrity/fame up close, where, for artists we’re moved by, a whole solar system of press and stories and personal attachments (not reciprocated directly) and the art itself, orbit through our lives. But that at the center of each of those, there’s always an actual real person, living the full 24 hours of each day, and having to be somewhere, moving west down Ventrua Blvd. or whatever. And so because I never hear it now without thinking of that, wondering how much of the verses was his day-to-day, my favorite’s been “Free Fallin’.”
BLACK THOUGHT (THE ROOTS)
I’m a huge fan. Impossible to pick a song though. Obviously “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’,” but it’s a tough one. Petty’s a brother to one of my brothers. Just trying to help him through this sad time.
KATHRYN CALDER (THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS)
Tom Petty’s music always feels great to have on. When I was a young musician learning to sing harmonies with my friends, his were our favourite songs to sing together. They were so fun to sing along with, he made us sound good. One magical evening many years back, I was lucky enough to catch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ set at Austin City Limits music festival, and it was everything you could want in a concert. The set was filled with his classic songs and the crowd was happily singing along with every word. I have so many favourite songs of his, I’m having a hard time picking one. But I’ll go with “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” It has the great drum beat, the harmonica, the chorus we can all sing along to, and of course, the great harmonies. Thanks for the inspiration Mr. Petty, you will be missed.
MARY TIMONY (EX HEX)
It’s hard to lose a hero and it’s even harder to imagine living in a would without Tom Petty. You could rest easy knowing that he was out there writing and playing and fighting the good fight. He gave us so much, and was such an inspiration.
I had a tough time choosing just one song since all of his songs are my favorites. He was a genius songwriter and could make an incredible song out of just three or four chords. For example, “Learning To Fly” has four chords and the progression never changes across the verse AND chorus! His vocal delivery and phrasing were amazing. He was truly one in a million.
I chose “You Wreck Me” because I keep coming back to it and playing it through trying to figure out how someone could write something that good with such few chords. A perfect example of doing so much with so little. It’s a circular chord progression and it feels like it plays itself. You just can’t stop! And the melody… It only has like three or four notes. Timeless in every way. It makes me feel like I’m flying. That’s true genius.
Thank you for everything you gave us Tom.
CARRIE MILLER (GREAT GRANDPA)
I have always loved the song “American Girl.” It’s a song that on the surface feels catchy, easy and familiar but with each listen you notice another poetic, carefully crafted detail. This song is timeless because it meets the listener wherever they are in life and carries with it exactly what they needed to hear.
I fell asleep listening to “Even The Losers” on repeat last night, something I’ve probably done on and off since the nineties. It’s amazing how at 38, I still get the visceral reward from his music that I did at fifteen but that’s what kind of gift he had. His ability to marry total triumph and carefree exuberance with total fragility and melancholy in all aspects — lyrically, melodically, his vocal delivery — were and are in my opinion basically unmatched in the history of rock. He is the yin and yang, and honestly probably a reason he appeals to such a broad group of fans. I recently moved from Tennessee to California; I’ve experienced all the ups and down of being away from “home,” falling in love and feeling terrified and exhilarated, being lonely and totally free in a huge city, all that. And his music and this song in particular speak to that kind of bittersweet miasma. It always made sense to me that he was a Southerner making some sort of peace with LA and California. His music is healing and earnest without ever being precious or preconceived
BRIGITTE NAGGAR (COMMON HOLLY)
My favourite Tom Petty song is “Only A Broken Heart” off of the record Wildflowers. Tom shows he has mastered the art of resignation with this one. He has the wisdom to recognize what heartbreak looks like — he’s seen it all before — and the tragedy of his wisdom is knowing that this too-familiar pain is coming his way again. And all of it is packaged in a perfectly simple downtempo acoustic ballad fit for a long sigh on a sunsetting hill. We all know the heaviness of that feeling. I know I do, maybe a little too well.
ALEX LUCIANO (DIET CIG)
I hadn’t even really heard any Tom Petty songs (maybe “Free Fallin'”?) consciously until I was 17 and had my first car, a red Saab 93, and “American Girl” came on the radio. I had failed my driving test too many times and FINALLY got my license that week. Hearing that song felt like freedom, and after that day I always put “American Girl” first on all my driving playlists. Even though Tom has some serious bangers, none of them make me feel the bliss of being a kid in their first car like “American Girl.”
BLAKE IBANEZ (POWER TRIP)
“Listen To Her Heart” is a driving, heavy, perfectly-constructed melodic rock ‘n’ roll song. Great representation of a lot of Tom’s/the Heartbreakers’ signature moves. Jangly chords, big lead hooks, great harmonies, and of course a killer chorus. The guitar leads in the bridge are beautiful. Tom was the master of lean, effective pop songwriting. “Don’t bore us, just get to the chorus!”
One thing we love about Tom Petty is that his songs are often upbeat musically and tonally, but contain darker themes in the lyrics. In that way, his songs act as coping mechanisms to confront difficult experiences and receive some level of catharsis. That’s something we relate to strongly with our songwriting. There are a lot of songs we could have chosen, but “Don’t Do Me Like That” is one of our favorites that fits that idea perfectly.
JENNIFER CLAVIN (BLEACHED)
There isn’t just one but I really love “Even The Losers.” I was driving up the west coast with my crush at the time and we had a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on repeat that we had bought at a Best Buy in some small, sad town. Every time I heard “Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon” it hit me hard. I love that line and the image it creates in my head. I admire how he brought so much meaning and beauty to such a simple sentence that will stick with me forever.
NICK HARMER (DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE)
It is simply not possible to for me to pick a single favorite Tom Petty song, his work solo and with the Heartbreakers just produced too many beautiful songs that are inseparable from too many significant moments in my life. One of those moments was at Bonnaroo in 2006 when Death Cab For Cutie played the same day he and the Heartbreakers were headlining. I’ll never forget laying in the grass looking up into the night sky, hearing Tom Petty’s voice sing song after song that everyone knew every word to and thinking, I want all his music to just lift up and up and up and leave this planet and float through all time and space forever. And take me with it too. Thank you, Tom, for everything.
I was shocked to hear of the passing of Tom Petty while driving back from Missouri to Tennessee. I broke into tears and cried for at least an hour as we rolled down the road. I have never met him but his music influenced so much of what I do. Hearing his voice come through my radio dial during my early childhood and teen years made the pains of growing up more tolerable. He was pure American rock and roll, he was raw, he was the truth, and he stood out among all the other bubblegum, pop bullshit that was being played at the time. His reach is broader than almost any other single musician. “Have Love, Will Travel” is really underrated in my opinion. I don’t think people know this one as much as his other hits. I love the opening line, “You never had a chance, did ya babe? So good lookin, so insecure.” It’s the perfect relaxed recording, Benmont Tench’s piano and organ are simple and flawless. Like all his songs, even if you’ve heard it before, it immediately seems familiar, like you’ve always known it. “And may my love travel with you everywhere, yeah may my love travel with you always.” The words are brilliant and the message is strong. It’s a beautiful statement to leave to a lover or the entire world.
The following two artists contributed their own cover versions with their selections…
THOMAS BARLETT (DOVEMAN)
What a nice trick, to sound so happy and be so sad. I used to cover “Free Fallin’,” whispering the verses but leaving the choruses to Sam Amidon, who would shout them, voice frayed, beyond broken, drawing the line from joyful abandon to total self annihilation. As a somewhat gentler creature, “Learning To Fly” has always been my jam, my very sad favorite.
“You Got Lucky” actually used to be one of my least favorite Petty songs because it struck me as kind of arrogant and slightly misogynistic, but at some point I realized the genius of the recording is that it’s got this slippery, layered psychological depth to it that is so human. There’s this overconfident machismo thing happening on the surface, in the performance and production, but when you get down to the emotional core of the song, what’s being expressed is really a lot of pain and insecurity, fear of abandonment, and a need to feel honored and special — all such deeply relatable, tender feelings that most us have a hard time expressing vulnerably without protective egoic shields.