Tom Petty, America’s Definitive Rock Icon, Crafted a Soundtrack for Generations

 In Entertainment
On Monday evening, legendary rocker Tom Petty passed away at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest. Only one week earlier, the Gainesville, Fla., native had concluded a six-month 40th anniversary tour with his band, the Heartbreakers, at the Hollywood Bowl. What follows is a collection of memories and insights on one of foremost contributors to American rock-and-roll.

Chapter I: Yer So Bad

In the late 1980s, Petty opted to take a sabbatical from his band, the Heartbreakers, and record a solo album ( everybody has to fight to be free). The legendary front man and lyricist invited select bandmates to record with him, effectively relegating them to the role of session musicians. Sensitivities were breached.

As Petty recalls in the excellent documentary, Runnin’ Down A Dream (available on Netflix), bassist Howie Epstein was invited to the studio to lay down his part for a tune. After listening to the track, Epstein huffed, “I don’t like the song.”

“‘Well, if you don’t like the song, you don’t have to play on it,’” Petty remembers replying. Then, with a grin, he adds, “It was ‘Free Fallin’.”

“Free Fallin’” would be the highest-charting song of Petty’s career, with or without the Heartbreakers. The message was clear: Petty is the genius here, and woe unto those who dare question him. It’s good to be king.

10_03_petty_07 Tom Petty performs during the half-time show of Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona, February 3, 2008. Reuters

Chapter 2: So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n Roll Star

When Petty was 11 years old, his uncle was working on a film in his native Gainesville and invited him to tag along for an afternoon. The film’s star was Elvis Presley, to whom the the young man was introduced. “He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen,” Petty recalled. “I went home a changed man.”

Within two years, Petty was learning guitar chords, consumed with the goal to play rock-and-roll. Within a few years, Petty and his bandmates (then calling themselves Mudcrutch) packed up and drove to Los Angeles in search of a record deal ( Into the great wide open/Under the skies so blue). So intoxicated with this pursuit was Petty, so sure of his and the band’s future prosperity, that he persuaded keyboardist Benmont Tench to drop out of Tulane to join him.

The title of that Elvis film, by the way? Follow That Dream.

Chapter 3: Learning To Fly

Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of adolescents pick up a guitar for the first time each year. Most master the navigation between the C and D chords, a smaller number pick up the F without too much trouble. The circle’s circumference grows smaller for the number of those who form a band, still tinier for those who write their own material.

To make a living playing your own music is tantamount to becoming a professional athlete. To create a discography akin to the one Petty did over the course of four decades, with dozens of classic rock radio staples, is to transcend your chosen profession.

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