The most watched video on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s YouTube Channel – at over 46m views – is a cover version of the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The performance features an all-star cast and a famous guitar solo by Prince.
Channelling George Harrison’s voice and lyrics, the glue holding the whole thing together is Tom Petty – simultaneously and effortlessly occupying the roles of front man, “sideman” and tribute act in the ultimate pub band. But championing a moment of rock industry celebration without collapsing into parody or contradiction is a tightrope act which – as with much of what Petty achieved – is harder than it looks.
Petty, who has died at the age of 66, was the scrawny, kid next door (even as an adult) with an unadorned style and lack of movie-star looks. But he was also an archetype of staunchly and self-consciously “authentic” rock. For Petty – a romantic rather than an experimenter – live performance, a core rock sound and tradition were what counted the most.
Into the Great Wide Open
An early encounter with Elvis in 1961, when Petty was ten (his uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream, appropriately enough) set him on his path. But his childhood in Florida was beset by an abusive alcoholic father and quarrels about his preference for music over schoolwork.
He wryly recalled a teacher trying to steer him away from his rock ambitions, arguing:
Look at Elvis Presely – if [he] hadn’t the talent and a good manager, he wouldn’t have had a job to fall back on.
Petty said later: “I always thought Elvis was kind of a poor example to prove her point.”
Petty’s subsequent career was a textbook example of the rock and roll narrative. He went straight from school to playing in bands, earning money by mowing lawns and digging graves, before moving to Los Angeles.
Breaking through in the 1970s, he was in the second wave of the classic rock era, following on from the stars of the previous decade. But that doesn’t mean his work wasn’t original or distinctive. With his band the Heartbreakers he managed to distil a particular strand of rock writing and performance. He brought cinematic lyrics and a “rough around the edges” image of free falling and the great wide open.
His was a clear yet mythical America that connected the Elvis of the 1950s to the chiming counter-culture of the Byrds in the 1960s. It mixed a Californian coastal languidness with a harder edged sense of deep south tradition – all rooted in rock and roll. So it was entirely fitting that he performed with his heroes of the previous generation – George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan – in the supergroup Travelling Wilburys.
The drama of his songs’ protagonists wasn’t absent from his own occasionally hard-bitten career either, which included periods of addiction and business disputes. Despite his aura as an underdog, he was steadfast in his dealings with the music industry, filing for bankruptcy in 1979 rather than concede in a dispute when his record label changed ownership. He later refused to let his fourth album, Hard Promises, serve as an industry trial for a $1 price increase in CDs.
Staunchly protective of his creative capital, he once sued a tyre company for its use of material resembling his own in an advert. In 2000, he issued George W Bush with a cease and desist letter for using I Won’t Back Down as a campaign song – Bush did back down – before pushing the point home by playing a private concert for Democratic opponent Al Gore.
We got lucky
More outspoken politically as he got older, Petty expressed regret at his use of a Confederate flag as a stage decoration for concerts promoting his album Southern Accents. “It was a downright stupid thing to do,” he commented. “It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”
His final tour also saw him feature images of transgender actor Alexis Arquette in stage projections of his major hit American Girl – immediately in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed transgender military ban.
Petty’s idea of what being “American” means ultimately leaned more towards the emotional rather than the social or geographical. It was about resilience, sturdiness and determination.
Rock mythology rests on an interesting paradox. It demands accessibility and being “one of the people” at the same as having special star qualities.
Petty carried this off by drawing a line from his predecessors to those continuing the same path (like Dave Grohl) through melodic flair, simplicity and an appeal to the straightforward. Coasting the upper echelons of a glamorous trade, even as a journeyman, Petty was neither the first nor the last of his kind. But he typified it, at the absolute centre of modern rock music, running down his own dream.