From the moment he saw Elvis, Tom Petty wanted to be a musician. But his unassuming style would make him the antithesis of rock’n’roll.
His melodies were so classic they were easily overlooked; his lyrics so straightforward they suited everyone and no one in particular.
But somehow, in a career spanning more than four decades, Petty’s greatest hits have gradually become the soundtrack to our lives.
“When I met Elvis, we didn’t really have a conversation. I was introduced by my uncle, and he sort of grunted my way,” Petty said, of the moment he decided he wanted to be a rock star.
“I was really young and impressionable. Elvis looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual.”
He was everything Petty wasn’t.
Petty’s weird, delicate features made him look more suited to walk the streets of Camden in the 1970s than his hometown of Gainesville, Florida.
His love for The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones made him a classicist at heart, while his American roots made him a troubadour of his nation’s fading dream.
“The rock and roll star is probably the purest manifestation of the American dream,” Petty said upon his 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It’s a blessing beyond belief.”
Petty was born in 1950, when rhythm and blues was taking over America and spreading to Britain.
He grew up listening to rock’n’roll’s pop aftershock during the 1960s and used his inspirations to co-create a sub genre which sang of rebels and refugees in an authentic way.
Heartland rock – as it became known – was later immortalised by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp.
Like Petty himself, it was a mixture of the southern American sound with 1960s British rock. Its motifs, though, had neither the fatalistic sadness of country music nor the defiance of classic rock.
It was blue-collar music for the everyday man. The antithesis of rock’n’roll.
From his time with Mudcrutch in the early 1970s to his decades with the Heartbreakers and even his solo career, Tom Petty dedicated his songs to bad boys and girls with broken hearts.
In the late 1980s, when his first solo album came out, Petty came aboard the wave of MTV’s music videos, famous for featuring celebrities like Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.
His videos voiced a pure 1990s vibe, and songs like Free Fallin, I Won’t Back Down and Learning To Fly became anthems to a generation 30 years younger than him.
“Free Fallin is a very good song,” he told Esquire.
“Maybe it would be one of my favourites if it hadn’t become this huge anthem. But I’m grateful that people like it.”
Before that, he had influenced older crowds by teaming up with his good friends Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the 1980s king of superbands The Traveling Wilburys.
“The great thing about the Wilburys was that none of us had to take the heat by ourselves,” he said about his time with the super group.
“I was just a member of the band. Nobody felt like he was above anybody else. We had such a good time.”
With the Wilburys, Petty was a little bit country, a little bit folk.
His Americana roots never managed to leave him – even through his Britannia phase – and would later resurface in his final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion.
But it was during his peak of fame in the 1990s that his personal life began to fall apart.
A heroin addiction succeeded a failed marriage, and Petty saw himself living in a “chicken shack”, alone and miserable.
He had just fired one of his Heartbreakers, drummer Stan Lynch, and chosen to distance himself from another one, Howie Epstein, who later died after years of heroin abuse.
Lynch never forgave Petty for bailing on Epstein, but the Heartbreakers’ story was far from over.
“I don’t think Stan knows what we went through with Howie,” Petty told Rolling Stone.
“Nobody does. I owe Howie more than to tell those tales. But I will say that I miss him all the time. I hear his voice on records, and it just kills me.”
Steve Ferrone would replace Lynch after the fallout, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would continue to tour right until 2017 and the final night of the British Summer Festival in London’s Hyde Park.
Year after year, Petty built his soundtrack alone and with friends, mixing his influences and creating a unique, pleasant rock.
“As you’re coming up, you’re recognised song for song or album for album,” he said.
In the end, Petty’s discography was more than a sum of its parts. A mixtape of classics which may never top our own personal charts, but will follow us wherever we go.
“And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask.”
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