Tom Petty (1950-2017)

Tom-Petty_2016-06-20For most of my life, I have not been a Tom Petty enthusiast, although I definitely enjoyed the original 1988 release by the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that included Petty, the late Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and drummer Jim Keltner.  I changed my tune about Petty in the last three years or so.

The late Tom Petty obviously was one of a long string of rock artists that emerged during the mid- to late-1970s. But in my opinion, what set him apart from most of the rest, and what gave him such longevity in his career, was his song styling. Yes, he had some brazenly pop-flavored hits (“Don’t Do Me Like That”) and the occasional hazy, crepuscular detour (“Don’t Come Around Here No More,” co-written with David A. Stewart). But otherwise, Petty’s music had a distinct flavor of Americana, with the southern-American influence coming chiefly from his guitar timbre and phrasing.

This does not mean that Petty’s music sounded all the same – a well-worn perjorative that critics have taken at Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti for a couple of hundred years. Instead, Petty’s “Americana” is diverse and evident, in part in Petty’s music, but also in Benmont Tench’s organ and piano sounds. And even when Stan Lynch was replaced by veteran session ace Steve Ferrone, the drums had a consistent sound, feel and style. This often changes from drummer to drummer, so this stands as a compliment to Ferrone’s musicianship.

A number of fans, including Wikipedia contributors, have referred to Petty’s music as “heartland rock.” And while this is not a misnomer, “heartland rock” pigeon-holes Petty’s music a bit too much. The southern influence of the guitar work by Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell stands out, but the song styling is not as brazenly “redneck” as, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, and other similar acts.  For me, this is what makes Petty’s recordings that much more enjoyable.

Eddie Van Halen has said, “You want to be a rock star? Rock stars come and go. Musicians make music until the day they drop.” The ultimate compliment to Tom Petty is that he was a musician, not a “rock star.”

His songs did not all sound the same – but a measure of his consistency is that his newer material stands nicely alongside his late 1970s and early 1980s work. Played one next to another, very few of his compositions stylistically clash.

And as for the musicianship on those records, it is almost impeccable. The studio playing is clean, spotless, tasteful, and a comfortable blend of aggression and restraint. Likewise, in his occasional forays into side projects, Petty remained true to the music he was contributing, without losing his identifiable voice. His work with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys remains a fine example, nearly 30 years on, and remains on my CD shelf for that reason.

The measure of strength of a musician’s output includes how long his records are enjoyed after their commercial release.  We still enjoy The Beatles, for good reason. But virtually nobody listens to Oasis, Bush, or the like – to say nothing for the unending junk-food diet of boy bands and girl groups like The New Kids on the Block, Bananarama, the Spice Girls, etc.  (Bleah!)

But we have been enjoying and appreciating Tom Petty’s recordings since the 1970s – and, undeniably, we will still enjoy them for decades to come.

Speaking as a bassist, I know that neither Ron Blair nor Howie Epstein was terribly prominent on Petty’s records. But speaking also as a studio bassist, I can safely opine that both of them turned in fine recorded performances that were not sloppy or ill-conceived. They supported the music in character and in time — and in fine form.

Thomas Earl Petty was born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. He passed away following cardiac arrest on October 2, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. And while his life, like many of ours, was not perfect and occasionally messy, his was a musical life well and abundantly lived among musicians he admired.  They admired him in return – and that is why Petty’s passing is more sad than of the “average rock star.”

Rest in peace, sir.

 

(image via Wikipedia)

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