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Tom Petty embodied Amer­icana. Wiki­media Commons

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.