I’m a little late on this one but it was a damn hard one to process. I expected him to be eternal, like Dylan. Then again, smoking a pack or two a day when you’re in your mid-sixties isn’t a pathway to longevity. I guess it was just another way he wasn’t going to back down.
I have probably about three-quarters of Tom’s output. The first half of his career is all on vinyl and the later on CD. I’ve got the superb Live Anthology box and jaw-dropping Playback box, which had three treasure trove discs of unreleased tunes. Live covers, stomping rockers, heartbreaking ballads, and collaboration with the Bangles that’ll stick in your head for days.
Tom never broke any new treads and didn’t really adhere to any either. He kept brewing a stew of Byrds jangle, Stones impudence, rockabilly exuberance, Beatles power pop, and Southern defiance that never deviated too far because it never had to. The art was in the songwriting, the crafting of the perfect lyrics to a hook that would stick in you for days on end. Remember “Free Falling”? Of course you do, the radio stations and MTV played it to death. The opening lines give us a picture of the ultimate American good girl. But this isn’t about the girl. It’s about the boy who broke her heart. Think about that chorus. The bad boy protagonist, who broke the heart of the good girl, says three words over and over. “I’m free/free falling”. Three words that capture a ton of regret. That’s some serious minimalist writing right there.
It’s easy to take a Petty song as your anthem. Hell, I think a third of America views “I Won’t Back Down” as their own. But mine is from the Wildflowers album, a song that I play when my ADHD and other failings get me down. It captures all my futility and then pushes me to get back in the ring. It pushes me to wake up.
Thanks for that one Tom. It will live with me forever.