For me, Tom Petty’s career was a recurring invitation of rediscovery. The Florida native delivered his first album with the Heartbreakers in 1976, which put him right on the cusp of artists who, in my perception, had simply always been there. There was a rustic sound to his music and a plainspoken grace to his lyrics, an implicit embrace of Americana in all its slump-shouldered contradictions. By the time my churlishly swirling music tastes evolved into a uncompromising embrace of college rock and the requisite parallel dismissal of longstanding artists who’d enjoyed significant commercial success, Petty was enough of a mainstay that he seemed exactly the sort of performer who I should dismiss.
But then came Full Moon Fever — technically Petty’s first solo album — and it completely rejuvenated my appreciation for the performer’s sterling songwriting skills. My college radio station had a greater tolerance for mainstream music than most, but we were edging away from it. The quality of Full Moon Fever was undeniable. Though there was a widespread disinclination among my peers to play an artist being thoroughly celebrated elsewhere, we allotted that album generous airtime.
A few years later, Petty was again moving into the realm of afterthought for me, even after another exceptional solo record, the Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers. Then I saw — of all things — the Edward Burns movie She’s the One. The film is terrible, but Petty provided a batch of songs for it. Right from the opening credits, Petty’s keening voice over a smooth, rich musical melody, I sat in my seat marveling at how good his songs sounded reverberating out of the theater sound system.
There was something about Petty’s very demeanor — genial, easy-going, casually amused by his own celebrity — that made him more approachable than other rock stars of his era. His songwriting didn’t ripple with evident deep personal revelation, anguished cries of angst and rebellion. But they still seemed clearly, unmistakably an expression of him, of who he was and what he believed. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp, Petty never seemed to be engaged in a pointed political treatise about the American experience. He just laid it out there, with shrugging honesty. And his crooked-grin charm fit everywhere, from the meta-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to the bonkers Kevin Costner drama The Postman, in which Petty seemed to be essentially playing himself, albeit a version of himself living in a arid dystopian future. His eternal just-happy-to-be-here vibe was somehow always the right match.
If his celebrity presence offer rampant pleasures, it was his songwriting that made him one of the greats. A few years back, the Onion AV Club ran an article listing off the fantastic opening lyrics Petty could spin up, seemingly as naturally as breathing. It might be possible in the vast reaches of rock ‘n’ roll to find a better song-starting couplet than “Well, she was an American girl/ Raised on promises,” but a dedicated fan would need to listen far and wide to do so.
In his recent Netflix stand-up special, comedian Marc Maron posits that Tom Petty is the one topic that angrily disparate people can agree upon in our increasingly stratified political era. No matter how heated the dispute, the fragile safe space that can be found is a hearty agreement on the music of the scruffy fellow who became an unlikely titan of music videos, a champion of consumers against his own industry, and a Willbury. Maron is exploring the agonizing fruitlessness of being emotionally invested in national political engagement that’s gone fully off the rails. But the core of the joke is also right. We all like Petty.