Tom Petty: Never Less Than Thrilling (A Remembrance)

A chance encounter with the great Dan Berkowitz backstage at Lockn’ 2014 led to Doug Rountree and I suddenly finding ourselves mere feet away from Tom Petty & his Heartbreakers, rampaging through their setlist.

Petty’s headlining status at what is essentially a jam band festival made perfect sense. While he could still top the bill at arenas and amphitheaters and even stadiums 40 years into his career, Petty also was in demand as a festival headliner, and jam fans in particular embraced this artist. Not all legacy rockers were worthy of this high regard, improv rock fans are notoriously choosy. They care much less about the confines of genre than they revere musicianship, and Petty and the Heartbreakers more than qualified for their love and respect.

Tom Petty
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
– Tom Petty
Performing at the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Mr. Petty’s unfortunate passing added more pain to an already brutal week, and I hadn’t given it the space in my head it deserved – until a gray, rainy October Sunday afternoon in Tennessee allowed me to properly process this heavy loss. I decided I would focus on the gifts Tom Petty gave us, and he gave us many.

A classic rocker in the truest since of the world, Petty wore his influences on the neck of his Rickenbacker 300 guitar. In fact, the artist’s love and appreciation of his heroes, along with his humility and penchant to play sideman in the studio and onstage alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, may have led some to surmise he wasn’t their equal. He was. I believe he stands with the all-time greats and, in many ways, surpasses them.

Petty’s well-drawn characters in outsider anthems like “Even The Losers,” “Something Big” or “Nightwatchman” recall mid-‘70s Dylan, but, great as he was, The Bard rarely (if ever) churned out pop rock diamonds as Petty routinely did in songs like “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “The Waiting” and “You Got Lucky,” all of which owned concise, well-rendered lyrics, and melodies that were the class of their era.

While he took big swings at relationships, the music business, and culture in general (as in “Breakdown,” “Money Becomes King,” and “Jammin’ Me,” respectively), Petty’s milieu was more frequently romance, especially of the young, rock ’n’ roll abandon style, as in “You Rock Me” (“You be the girl at the high school dance/I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants”) and “Here Comes My Girl” (“watch ‘er walk”). In fact, Petty wrote with empathy and understanding about women in general, with such songs as “American Girl,” “Listen To Her Heart,” and “Free Falling” (“She’s a good girl/Loves her Mama”) possessing remarkable insight and respect. And a brilliant turn of phrase: “She could hear the cars roll by out on 441 like waves crashing on the beach.”

So he was a superlative songwriter and beyond capable in the studio, but Petty’s massive talents were, in my view, best displayed from the concert stage. A charismatic performer and consummate pro, Tom Petty in concert was never less than thrilling. He did the extra things. He knew what it took to win over a crowd, one fan at a time. Much of it had to do with his incredible band, one of rock’s best. The natural alchemy of miles traveled and countless shows led to performances that never felt tired, never phoned in. The set lists were well-paced and seldom predictable.

Petty, so comfortable as a side man, was the maestro with his own band. “The Heartbreakers are one of those rare groups where I can really throw them something and they’ll go for it, and they’ll pull it off,” Petty told me back in 2005. “I have this really deep faith in them that they’re gonna read me and follow me. That comes from all those years of playing together.”

Sadly, those years have come to an end, even more sadly at a time when Petty appeared ready to slow down and enjoy life. It’s more than fitting that he ended his career with three sellouts in his adopted home town of L.A. I saw him there twice, once at the Greek and once at the Forum. The latter was in 1990, when rock nirvana was achieved at the encore as no less than Dylan and Bruce Springsteen joined Petty on stage to perform CCR’s “Travelin’ Band.” Only in L.A.

I was in the nosebleeds that night in the Forum. In Arrington, Va., 24 years later I was directly in front of Petty and his band. He looked down at me, we made eye contact, and he gave just a little extra juice on his guitar, very clearly, three or four seconds just for me. We had a moment. Doug noticed it, commented on it then, and recalls it now. I’ve thought about that moment, about what he must have seen when he looked down at me and decided to hit those licks a bit more enthusiastically during the groove on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” He didn’t know he was looking down at a music journalist dude, to him it must have looked like a long-time fan that had been a passenger on his runaway train since high school. Which it was.

He probably had such moments multiple times per show, at every show, for some 50 years.

Careers are built on such moments.

That’s a rock ’n roll star.