When I was a freshman in college, Tom Petty shut down Interstate 90 with an ice storm. That’s how cool he was.
Or at least that’s how I prefer to remember the extreme black ice that forced me and a few friends to sleep at the closest approximation of a hotel we could find in western Montana, on our way back from a Petty concert in Spokane. I enjoyed the show so much that I went to another Petty performance not too long afterward in Bozeman.
Petty died from cardiac arrest on Oct. 2 at age 66. He leaves behind a four-decade catalog of hits so universally agreeable that, if you don’t know the specific music tastes of your party guests, you’re usually safe putting on some Petty. Later in the night, you might expect to see revelers, of varying backgrounds and generations, shouting the chorus to “Free Fallin’” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” with arms wrapped around each other. He was the great musical unifier.
Like John Fogerty, Petty had a talent for writing catchy, simple songs that weren’t actually that simple at all, with subtle layers of musical and lyrical depth, and stories so relatable that we could imagine they were written about us, and certainly for us. He was proof that good songwriting needn’t be burdened with pretension, and it didn’t hurt that he had a seemingly endless capacity for writing infectious hooks and melodies that made many of his songs, in the most literal sense, unforgettable.
Petty’s lyrics channeled life’s most basic longings, angsts and uncertainties that we’ve all experienced in some form: “I feel summer creeping in and I’m tired of this town again.” Or: “Some say life will beat you down/Break your heart and steal your crown. So I’ve started out for God knows where/I guess I’ll know when I get there.” He celebrated the right to dream, but he didn’t sugarcoat the process of running it down.
As fellow songwriter Jackson Browne once said, Petty’s songs “become a part of you.”
Back when I played guitar far more frequently, I was fairly fluent in a half-dozen or so Petty songs. No matter the audience, even if I wasn’t having the best performance, I could typically redeem myself by playing a Petty tune and reviving people’s belief that I could indeed distinguish good music from bad, if not in my musicianship then at least in my song selections.
Petty was so prolific that he pulled a never-before-released song out of his back pocket — “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” — and tossed it on his Greatest Hits. It surprises some listeners to learn that the song hadn’t previously appeared anywhere because, even upon the album’s release, it sounded so immediately familiar that you figured you’d heard before. It’s one of those tunes, like others by Petty, whose origins you rarely stop to consider because it simply seems that it’s been around forever, not written at any particular point but eternally in existence, just there, always.
Petty knew that you don’t always have to fear the sentimental; there’s a pure, sweet joy in conjuring images of loved ones living among wildflowers, somewhere they feel free. Then, if you’re Tom Petty, you weave those words into a melody so gorgeous that nobody could ever doubt their genuineness.
Since most of us aren’t equipped to pull off the second part of that equation, we can settle for pressing play and letting Petty take us there. He belongs somewhere he feels free. I have no doubt he found it.