into the great wide open

Posted: January 4, 2018 in Arts, Observations and Commentary
Tags: , , , , ,


Tom Petty has been gone for three months, but it still doesn’t feel real. Since the mid-70’s he has always been there doing his thing without much fanfare, like bedrock. His songs, especially the earlier ones, routinely pop up on classic rock stations. Whenever that happens the volume gets boosted a bit. Part of the reason is the songs are solid; the other is they offer warm familiarity. This may be true of all music you enjoyed as a kid, but not of all that music endures. Petty endures, like bedrock.

I was never a superfan, but I like a lot of his work – and love some of it. I saw him live for the first and only time in 1979. Back then huge video screens did not flank the stage, so unless you sat up front you couldn’t see any nuanced theatrics. It didn’t matter because Petty was never flamboyant (although his mad hatter getup may suggest otherwise). He and the band were contained; it was about the music. I don’t remember anything especially noteworthy about the show, but I do recall the songs sounded pretty much exactly as they did on the albums. That was fitting. There is comfort in consistency and Tom Petty was certainly consistent, which also contributes to the unreality of his death.

Since October my car radio has been fixed on Sirius’ channel 31, “Tom Petty Radio.” I hear more of his music now than I have over the past 30 years. His last “new” album I purchased was 1989’s Full Moon Fever. I realize I missed a lot of good stuff. Petty kept moving and recording, albeit at a less frenzied pace then when he started out. What has become clear to me is the quality never wavered. He continued to slyly echo Dylan and the Byrds, then wrap everything in that distinctive voice, a nasally southern drawl that is his musical signature. Swingin [1999] and Walls (Circus) [1996] are new-to-me favorites.

A week before he died the Heartbreakers completed their 40th anniversary tour and, as it turned out, their last. His final studio album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, was his first to reach number one on the Billboard 200. Death is never well-timed, but it feels like Tom Petty’s creative and public life was wrapped up in a nice big bow. There is something reassuring and consoling about that.

In Marc Maron’s most recent stand-up special (filmed in spring 2017) he riffed about how difficult it is for him to find common ground with Trump voters. After the election, longtime friends “came out” as Trump voters. Maron stressed what bothered him was not a difference in political ideology. Rather, by voting for Trump they decided selfish, greedy, childish, undignified, misogynist, and racist behavior was not enough to turn them off. Exasperated, Maron asked, “What the fuck do I do with you now?” He thought one unifying possibility might be Petty because “everybody likes Petty.” I don’t know if he had that power, but I appreciate the sentiment. I realize many people don’t listen to him, but I have never met a person who said they hated him. Perhaps helping us recognize the oasis of commonality will be Tom Petty’s ultimate legacy. We would be all lucky to go out like that.

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