Remembering Tom Petty

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Tom Petty: Jason Moore/Zuma Wire.

In the colossal wake of the Beatles, Tom Petty – more than most – was that kid the Byrds spoke to in “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star.”

In fact, Petty’s 1985 cover with The Heartbreakers on Pack Up the Plantation could well have been a prologue to his biography; his career mirrored every line, from the hopeful “Just get an electric guitar, then take some time and learn how to play…” to the foreboding “Sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic ware…”

Petty’s career gained inertia through a hyperactive early-’70s music scene in Gainesville, Florida, and his history is well-known, from an infamous fight with MCA Records to selling more 50 million records, winning four Grammy awards (16 nominations), nearly 30 hit singles, and an embarrassment of industry accolades.

Amongst fans, he was a hero who entertained through parts of five decades, he and the band famously using vintage instruments to conjure magic in recording studios and on stages the world over.

The music world was truly shocked by Petty’s passing October 2. He had just finished a tour and those who caught a performance saw a guy who, despite having given so much, was obviously not out of energy or ideas.

In the days that followed, we heard from players and contributors, expressing their grief and sharing memories.

Petty and the Heartbreakers in ’77.

“In the ’80s, The Cars and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shared a management office, so I would bump into Tom and the band. He was a great guy, and like myself, a true ’60s kid, so we had a lot in common, from music to cool guitars and clothes, pop culture, etc. There was nothing particularly unique about that in and of itself, the difference being that Tom somehow made the leap from fandom to actually working with our heroes. Imagine a guy from our generation, turned on by the British Invasion, getting to play in a band and have friendships with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison! He was a one-off and always brought his A-game when he hit the stage. Tom was the real deal and will be terribly missed by his family, friends, and the millions touched by his music.” – Elliot Easton

“Like Tom Petty, I grew up in Central Florida playing in garage bands working the teen-center circuit and U of Florida frathouse parties. Petty played with the Epics and Sundowners and I, along with Gram Parsons and Jim Stafford, was with the Legends. Our music-store hangout in Gainesville was Lipham Music, where Tommy Petty took lessons from Don Felder. But the first catalyst for his musical ambitions were stoked by meeting Elvis Presley in the summer of ’61, during filming of Follow That Dream, in Ocala. Petty’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, was propmaster and arranged for 11-year-old Tommy to meet the star. He later said, ‘Elvis stepped out as radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground.’ So there, along Silver Springs Boulevard, Tom’s rock-and-roll dream was born.

“My favorite Tom story was when he was visiting Roger McGuinn about 10 years ago. Roger lives in Orlando and suggested an improptu visit to Walt Disney World. Tom said, “Roger… there’s just no way. I would be mobbed.” – Jim Carlton

“I never met Tom, but I’ve loved and admired his music, his songwriting style, his principles, the way he made records, the way his influences took on a new, improved hybrid persona as he channeled them. My wife always puts on Petty playlists and cranks up the volume whenever we have friends over, and everybody sings along.

“I always loved his choices of instruments – the beautiful vintage guitars, his straight-from-the-heart lyrics. No matter who he’s had as producer, he delivered new and improved sides of himself as a writer/player/singer/recording artist. We were all damn lucky to have him in this life and I miss the hell out of him.” – Tommy Shaw

“Tom’s songs have become the soundtrack to life in the U.S. They shine a light on our hopes, dreams, and fears, our outrage, and our collective yearning. I loved his humor, his swagger, and his heart. He will live on as a true icon of rock and roll.” – Joe Satriani

“I was lucky to hear Tom and the Heartbreakers at their height many years ago, and became a fan that day. Tom, along with his influences like the Beatles and the Byrds, taught me to love the airy, jangly sound of the electric 12-string. He will be missed by all – family and friends, bandmates who can never make beautiful music with him again, and millions of fans including my wife and two daughters. It’s sad for us all.” – Dan Erlewine

“I’ve heard Tom referred to as ‘the three-chord Picasso,’ but sometimes he only needed two. He was integral to my formative years and has remained that to this day – a quarter of my Mt. Rushmore of American singer/songwriters along with Seeger, Springsteen, and Mellencamp.

“I saw his next-to-last show at the Hollywood Bowl a week before he passed. The band was in fine form and Tom was in great spirits. An hour and a half in, my fiancé turned to me and said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I know every song. How many hits does he have?’ The repertoire is unmatched, the edge and swagger were present. He and Mike Campbell put on a guitar-collector’s dream display the entire evening. You know who the influences are, and you’ve heard those guitars and amps before, but nobody put it all together like Tom and his band. Fantastic stories beautifully watercolored on a perfectly imperfect sonic canvas that pushed and pulled like a real rock-and-roll band should. It was living and breathing.

“Tom’s voice and the band were beacons from beyond, so much so that when I heard them on FM radio in my little nowhere town in Pennsylvania, I knew what I wanted to do with my life – play guitar, write songs, be in a band, make records, and hit the road. He made it look so simple, attainable. The truly great ones make their magic look so effortless and pedestrian that you believe you can do it, too. That is, until you actually pick up a guitar and try. Then you realize the true magic in those songs.

“We were lucky to have him and his music, his badass attitude, and his heartfelt tenderness. My heart goes out to his family, loved ones, and his band. Thank you for the magic, Tom, and the opportunity to dream. I’m still learning to fly… Rest in peace.” – Keith Nelson

“My first high-school band played mostly Yardbirds and Kinks stuff – we were out of time already. But when I heard ‘American Girl’ we picked it up right away – the only modern song we’d play. That was the power of a great song. As Barry Gibb said, it’s the writers that last, and I think for all Tom’s other contributions that’s the heart of it; decades of to-the-point songs. I can’t think of another rock-and-roll songwriter who so consistently spanned the eras without drying up or blanding out.” – Peter Kohman

“I first met Tom and the Heartbreakers on the Dogs With Wings Tour in the summer of ’95. I had just joined Pete Droge’s band and we were their opener for a two-month trek across the U.S. A fan since day one, I’d seen them a few times, so I was excited. After our set, we’d often stay to watch theirs. It was like going to school. Their energy, the pacing, the extended jams on songs like ‘It’s Good To Be King.’ Production and sound were always stellar, Tom’s interaction with the audience was warm and sincere, his gestures grand.

“Tom was always cordial, developing a mentor/friendship with Pete. He’d occasionally poke his head in our dressing room and make us feel right at home. During our set Mike Campbell and his tech, Steve Winstead, would sometimes hand me one of his guitars to play. That was quite a charge! One of the top experiences of my life.

“Tom had it all. From rock-and-roll rebellion to King of Cool to speaking to your deepest emotions. And The Heartbreakers are the role model of a real band. Their music takes you to a unique place. Tom will be missed, and I will miss Heartbreaker shows.” – Peter Stroud

“For those of us who grew up in the late ’70s and ’80s, Tom represented a one-man resurgence in great, straightforward rock-and-roll songcraft. ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ was his North Star, guiding his music over the trends for 40 years, rendering it timeless.

“One of my favorite Tom memories was being backstage with Mike Campbell before a show, and hearing Tom warming up in the next room. To this day, the thought brings a smile to my face, just as Tom’s songs brought joy to millions.” – Tom Guerra

“Tom made us all believe we could play rock and roll. His songs were the staple of almost every band I played with in the ’80s and ’90s. They were easy enough to play, catchy as hell, and immediately recognizable. Never before or since has an artist created so much with so little.

“On that little radio in our heads, Tom will forever sling a cool vintage guitar, sound like no one else, and rock out.” – Will Kelly

“When Tom passed, fans immediately remembered the Heartbreakers’ classic albums or a concert, but I recalled his battles with record-company officials regarding album prices and artist rights instead of Damn the Torpedoes, etc. (“I Won’t Back Down” indeed).

“His first albums were released during the dark days of disco. Any artist or band that could claw its way to prominence during those times obviously deserved respect. His dynamic performance at Live Aid was one of the better presentations of the day.

“The first song I recalled was ‘Handle with Care’ by the Traveling Wilburys; being in that group validated and underlined his status. He created unique sounds using unique songwriting, unique guitars, and a commendable work ethic. He will be missed.” – Willie G. Moseley

“My favorite Tom story was related to me by former Creem photographer Robert Matheu, and perfectly captures the wit and humanity that came through in Tom’s songwriting.

“In 1989, the Replacements had an infamous run of opening dates for Petty and the Heartbreakers. One night, they had taken the stage after the contrarian rockers had finished a ramshackle warm-up set, even by their standards. Robert recalled how Tom, in his classic nasal drawl, said, ‘I’d like to dedicate the next song to the opening act. Let’s have a big hand for the Replacements!’ Then they launched into ‘Even the Losers.’’’ – Dennis Pernu

“I really admire that Tom kept the Heartbreakers together for over 40 years, retaining several original members. At any time, he could have become a solo artist with top-notch studio players, but Tom grew up with the Beatles, Byrds, and Stones, and knew the power of a great rock-and-roll band. With Tom’s witty lyrics and edgy voice out front – along with Mike Campbell’s economical guitar licks and a churning beat in the back – these musicians delivered Petty’s music better than anyone else could have. I’m grateful that Tom understood this critical aesthetic and, for four decades, kept the Heartbreakers runnin’ down a dream.” – Pete Prown

“The Tom Petty bug first bit me with Damn the Torpedoes. Rock and roll was fading a bit at that point and it stuck out like a sore thumb. He leaves an astounding catalog that can be taken for granted until you go back and really listen. He had the coolest look, coolest tunes, covered the coolest songs in concert, and he and Mike Campbell had the coolest guitars. Rock and roll has a huge void at this point.” – John Heidt

“The first time I heard Tom and the Heartbreakers was on Damn The Torpedoes – the sound immediately embodied pure, raw American rock and roll for me. I was continually impressed by how he maintained not only the quality of songwriting throughout the years, but the edge and vitality, too. One of the biggest thrills of my career occurred when I was interviewing Mike Campbell in a London hotel room; there was an unexpected knock on the door and in walked Tom. Even his speaking voice could send chills up your spine.” – David Hunter 


This article originally appeared in VG January 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.