If it seems like classic musical heroes are dying off in greater and greater numbers these days, don’t blame the apocalypse. Given the inexorable passing of time, musicians who would have been 20 or 30 in the ‘70s or ‘80s are just now entering the lower end of the average human’s life expectancy range; that the death rate has become frequent enough to be noticeable is an inevitability. But the loss of Tom Petty stings, not least because he was the sort of grizzled rock lizard that one vaguely assumes will live forever. Just this summer he was filling arenas across the country. Catch “American Girl” or “Don’t Do Me Like That” on the radio and he’s unmistakable: a voice filtered through the material emoluments of the rock star lifestyle until the gnarled whine that remains suggests a man who can survive anything, take any punch. Men like this don’t die — they roam, perpetually, through the airwaves and the backstreets of American myth. He won’t back down.
To probe Petty’s aesthetic, look no further than the cover of his first album, the self-titled Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976). Beneath a cartoon logo depicting a big red heart punctured by an arrow that happens also to be a guitar, Petty gives the camera his most obnoxious smirk, an expression supplemented by his mop of blond hair and black leather jacket. The image checks off the operative tropes: love, youth, leather, guitars, probably a motorcycle somewhere — lookee, rock & roll! Anything further in the way of genre identity is left blank. The image implies rock & roll in the general sense and nothing more; in 1976, punk or metal or updated rockabilly would all plug in fine. The album, too, sounds generalized, as only an album including the frantically strummed “Rockin’ Around,” the horn-augmented shuffle of “Hometown Blues,” and the giddy power riffage on “Strangered in the Night” can. Thereafter, Petty persisted in this vein. His is a large, sprawling catalog, almost frustrating in its consistency. Every Tom Petty record — yes, every one! — is small, tight, expertly crafted, assembling familiar tropes into a novel yet familiar-sounding strain of ostensibly paradigmatic rock & roll. Adaptability is key to this project, as the broadness of Petty’s style subsumed with equal elegance the raw, snarling Damn the Torpedoes (1979), the polished, jangly Full Moon Fever (1989), and further modes. The band was crucial, too, and Petty so loved the Heartbreakers that they also played on his three solo albums as the archetypal backing band, committed to playing as straightforwardly and unpretentiously as they could. Nobody else sounded generic in this way.
Traditionalism and formalism intersect intriguingly. Petty’s urge to continually refine his craft is matched only by his stubborn faith in the good old rock verities. As a songwriter he’s not particularly inventive; he writes about rebels, tattoos, guitars, recalcitrant trains, and runaway girls, because that’s what rock boys are supposed to write about, and his various celebrations of youth freedom inflect familiar narratives without changing them. He looks askance at the big statement, the grand gesture, the heroic expressionist pose — to him rock & roll means playing a good show for the crowd every night, every week, every month, indefinitely. The famous hits shine brightly, and fans make grand claims for Damn the Torpedoes, his commercial and critical breakthrough, but what most impresses is how he kept going for so long at such a quality standard. Year after year, album after album, he abided, and if anything his reputation grew as he continued to score hits into the ‘90s. He evolved sonically, thanks largely to Jeff Lynne’s poised, glossy production on Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open (1991), and vocally, as relaxed restraint replaced callow yowl. Always his dogged persistence, his cautious exactitude, and his need to keep churning out product prevailed.
In the ‘80s, his MTV ascendance prompted the need to differentiate him commercially from synthpop, eyeliner, and England, inspiring the “heartland rock” tag. Thus did critics signal that Petty, Springsteen, Mellencamp, and whoever else, were old-fashioned red-blooded American boys, beloved by blue-collar audiences for their ruggedness and their immersion in myth, beholden to rock radio play in the Midwest. Petty’s detachment is notable in such company, as is his distaste for grandeur, and I’d suggest another term. If you hear “Free Fallin” on the radio these days, you’re listening to a “classic rock” station. In his reshuffling of familiar musical materials into novel shapes and modes of presentation, his faith in a particular set of guitar licks and smooth backbeats that never let him down, his alarming brilliance at composing a rousing, refreshing chorus swelling up from a shrewdly placed verse, Petty’s a classicist. He rocks out naturally, reflexively, as a conservative’s blindly inherited way of life, and yet this enables certain levels of discipline and cool mastery. The way the guitar chords line up with the big punchy drumslams on “Jammin’ Me,” the way the ebullient jangleriff on “Kings Highway” comments on and elongates the joy implicit in the chorus, the way the crunchy guitars in “I Need to Know” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” bite at his heels, mocking him, highlighting the limits of his narrative persona and thus widening the song’s scope — these are functionalist moves, and the instincts of a canny pop craftsman. The conservative need to master form explains why his music has lasted and will last.
Since many of the two or three dozen formalist jewels in Petty’s catalog have saturated mall speakers and bar jukeboxes for decades, I won’t parse the discography in detail except to say that Greatest Hits (1993) is indeed a terrific investment, and that if you haven’t heard the magnificent “Learning to Fly” lately, fix that! A relatively late-period hit for Petty, Into The Great Wide Open’s lead single and opening track spent six weeks atop the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart in 1991 before becoming a rock radio standby for the rest of eternity. Chipper, circular electric jangle, a giant wall of strummed acoustic guitar, and jaunty drums define an anthem of spectacular aerodynamic efficiency. As with many Petty hits, the chord progression remains constant the whole way through, and the chorus riff elaborates on the verse riff ever so slightly, with kindness and invention. The sharp, terse guitar solo, skyrocketing up suddenly in the middle, mimics the main riff’s rhythm and augments the song’s natural glide. The dynamics in the third verse, when the drums drop out for a few bars before effortlessly kicking back in, lift the song ever more buoyantly, as do the sweet, unobtrusive backup sighs that emerge thereafter. In his prettiest and most relaxed croon, Petty lists a number of travel tropes, images of flight, of transition, of constant motion. Where Petty’s gleeful yell in “Free Fallin” suggests slow-motion descent, “Learning to Fly” exists in a state of permanent takeoff: a road song and an empowerment song and a clean-break song and an existential joy song, all in one. It’s simple, ebullient, magically enticing, and it soars into the clouds, up, up, up and away.