It’s bad enough to watch my rock icons from the sixties and seventies fall by the wayside, but this?
Tom Petty, a songwriter who melded California rock with a deep, stubborn Southern heritage, died on Monday after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 66 and had lived in Los Angeles.
Tony Dimitriades, Mr. Petty’s longtime manager, confirmed the death.
Recording with the Heartbreakers, the band he formed in the mid-1970s, and on his own, Mr. Petty wrote pithy, hardheaded songs that gave a contemporary clarity to 1960s roots. His voice was grainy and unpretty, with a Florida drawl that he proudly displayed.
Mr. Petty’s songwriting was shaped by the music he heard growing up: the ringing folk-rock guitars of the Byrds, the crunch of the Rolling Stones, the caustic insights of Bob Dylan, the melodic turns of the Beatles, the steadfast backbeat of Southern soul and the twang of country-rock…
But across styles, Mr. Petty kept his songwriting tight-lipped, succinct and evocative: “She was an American girl, raised on promises,” he sang on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut album. “She couldn’t help thinkin’ / That there was a little more to life somewhere else.”
Those two paragraphs really nail it for me. “American Girl” is what drew me to Petty. I heard the song when Roger McGuinn covered it almost at the same moment Petty’s first album was released. That opening line was perfect and the Byrds-y Rickenbacker guitar work was icing on the cake.
The man had one hell of a career. I’m not going to sit here and try to pick a favorite song — go ahead and share that in the comments — although I did spend my time yesterday after hearing the news listening and re-listening to his somewhat underrated Wildflowers. Instead, I’m going to share a song that’s not even on a Petty album.
“King of the Hill” is a song he co-wrote and performed with McGuinn and it’s a complete mesh of their styles. Gorgeous harmonies, ringing guitars and slightly cynical lyrics make for a great tune.
I’m gonna miss that high, lonesome sound. Sigh.