The great American songwriter has died.
Tom Petty, 66, died from a heart attack on Monday, leaving a void in American music. Through four decades of singing rock and roll, Petty established himself as the voice of the people, the consummate American.
Petty’s earned fame as a rocker, and fairly so. After all, his biggest hits — heavy hitters like “I Won’t Back Down,” “American Girl,” and “Refugee” — convey Petty’s punchy, nasally voice. But the hard guitars disguise the melancholy that flows through his work. Songs like “You Don’t Know How it Feels” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” put the sympathetic side of Petty at the fore, tapping into veins of real loneliness absent in other stadium rock.
His music is remarkable for its seemingly effortless arrangements of catchy hooks and tight solos, coupled with Petty’s easy drawl that brings it all together. It’s straightforward, yet its careful construction draws the listener to press play again and again.
Many critics label Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan as the “Great American Songwriter.” But both artists only represent one face of America — Springsteen plays the downtrodden common man, and Dylan plays the fiery poet. Petty’s lyrics represent the Hollywood agent, the cross-country road-tripper, and the jilted lover all at once.
Petty plays the American everyman throughout his work. In the face of personal struggles like his divorce or fight with heroin, he persisted with his music, fighting his way out of hard situations. After an unknown arsonist burned down his house, Petty wrote his first solo song to defy all opposition: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down / No I’ll stand my ground.”
Critics call Petty and his contemporaries “heartland rock,” but his music transcends region. His biggest hits venerate Indiana nights, Ventura Boulevard, and American girls. Raised in the swamps of Florida, he later traveled to California to find opportunity — what could be more American than that?
Petty didn’t just contribute to the new American songbook — he drew from it as well. His roster of collaborators was immense. Name nearly any great rocker of the twentieth century — Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, even Prince — and you can bet they’ve played with Petty at least once.
But Petty’s greatest material was recorded solo. His 1994 album Wildflowers is a quiet, intimate exploration of moods. He says goodbye to old lovers, retreats to the quiet of mountain cabins, and sings of the isolation of fame. His solo material encapsulates themes of introspection and travel, two sides of any great American story.
His complexities, bordering on contradictions, defined his life. He was a rebel, but he successfully led the same band for 40 years. He was a Southern boy, but he thrived on the road. He was a rock legend, yet he never got involved in the lifestyle of fame and excess, staying with the same woman for three decades. His persona echoes the tensions of temperament, history, and values that make America the unique nation that Petty loved.
Tom Petty was a great artist, a loyal friend, and a loving father. He never pretended to be a poet, but he captured everything beautiful and tragic about real life in America through four decades of beautiful music. That’s all he wanted, and that’s all we needed. He will be missed.
Noah Weinrich is a senior studying politics.