Tom Petty passes away, aged 66: Remembering a highway companion like none other
Different spaces in life have different soundtracks. Musical branding — before it became a legitimate, financially-successful business — has for decades been an organic process. There is stadium music; where select songs of a range of artists with power chords and powerful pipes come alive to a massive audience. Think Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Queen.
Then there’s quintessential elevator music that Kenny G and his ilk have come to characterise. Barring the saxophone cover versions of famous songs, the elevator has become the preserve of the likes of Kenny G, who, quite an anti-thesis to the open space like a stadium, reigns in the confines of an automatic door elevator.
Tom Petty has, for a lot of people, been the staple of drive songs. The thing about drive songs, as opposed to music in stadia and elevators, is that they are personal choices, not a playlist manufactured for mass consumption. At least one Tom Petty song is sure to make it to a long-drive playlist.
Tom Cruise may have made 'Free Fallin’' a quintessential drive song thanks to that wonderful scene in Jerry Maguire. In a Cameron Crowe movie that would predictably have a great soundtrack — this one featured Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Elvis Presley among others — you cannot deny the lingering nature of the song and Cruise’s real-life reaction to it. Every time 'Free Fallin’' plays in the car, you cannot but help sing the “FREEEE, Free Fallin’” bit!
Of course, there’s much, much more to Tom Petty than 'Free Fallin’', but there’s also much more to 'Free Fallin’' than Tom Cruise. Starting off in typical Petty fashion, the song showcases the deceptive simplicity of his songwriting. Easy-on-the-ears chords with a travelling groove, the song moves along at an unhurried pace. It speaks about places in LA’s San Fernando Valley and then throws in a tongue-twister of V’s and W’s. Try singing these lines and make sure to “bite your Vs” and “round your Ws”: “All the vampires walkin' through the valley; Move west down Ventura Boulevard”. And just like that, the song continues on its unhurried, unremarkable pace, making it seem like song writing is no big deal. That, my friends, has been the essence of Tom Petty.
His nonchalance in the heart of chaotic cultural and era-specific upheavals; the earnestness with which he sang about people you and I know, are and could be; his top register nasal voice vocalising everything from teenage angst to life’s shortcomings, injustice to apathy; all made Tom Petty that understated rocker who connected with you no matter where in life you were. All this, with a sardonic perspective; Tom Petty got you, he didn’t become you.
When Tom Petty was 10, a chance encounter with Elvis Presley on the sets of Follow That Dream, inspired him to follow his. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had in an interview admitted that watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and the genius of the Rolling Stones on stage, gave him the confidence to pursue a career in music. His formative years in music have been honed by the greats, even though he dropped out of school at age 17 to play the bass with his band Mudcrutch. Among his earliest guitar teachers was his neighbour Don Felder — who went on to join The Eagles, no less.
His career spanned monumental songs like 'American Girl', 'Don’t Come Around Here No More', 'Runnin’ Down a Dream', 'I Won’t Back Down', 'Refugee', 'Insider' (with Stevie Nicks), 'Wildflowers', 'Here Comes My Girl', 'You Don’t Know How It Feels', 'Forgotten Man', 'Into the Great Wide Open', among others. While his debut album with The Heartbreakers received lukewarm response, the band’s second and third You’re Gonna Get It! and Damn The Torpedoes are widely loved by fans. Petty’s solo career and his stint with the Traveling Wilburys made him a highly successful artist. He has sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
All this while, he morphed a country vibe into pop lyrics, blues soul into rock riffs, yet singing so effortlessly while strumming his range of sunburst Strats and Rickenbackers.
An arsonist in 1987 set fire to his home and his recording studio and stored original tapes risked being burnt to ashes. Thankfully firefighters managed to retrieve most of his precious items including his Gibson Dove acoustic.
Petty has been fiery in his pursuit for artistic control and has been mighty vocal about matters pertaining to royalties, price hike of records, and artistic freedom. Unlike many of his contemporaries though, Petty largely left politics out his song-writing. He wrote about issues pertaining to governance or anti-authoritarian in nature, openly supported Democratic causes, asked Republicans to stop playing his music without his consent, and had flaunted a Confederate flag on stage, but that was his extent of political engagement. Years later he’d acknowledge just how stupid it was to flaunt the flag, admitting that it bothered his fans too.
His honesty, clarity and sometimes even confusing state of mind found space in his songs that resonated with not just the youngsters of his generation, but those of subsequent ones too. Tumultuous relationship with his father and brief heroin addiction notwithstanding, he has been a rockstar with an unusually uncomplicated image, ageing in a genre that is typically young. The lingering image of Tom Petty and his heart-breaking long, silky blond hair and infectious insouciance will stay with us for years to come.
In his passing, I can just visualise him singing “I rolled on as the sky grew dark; I put the pedal down to make some time; There's something good waitin' down this road; I'm pickin' up whatever's mine.”
He was a highway companion like none other. The demise of this musical shotgun will only make long-drives more wistful. RIP, Tom Petty.