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The Humble Hugeness of Tom Petty

October 3, 2017 10:35 AM
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The rocker, who always let his songs be the star, is dead at 66.

In 2015, The Washington Post asked Tom Petty’s biographer Warren Zanes why Petty doesn’t get more respect. One reason, Zanes said, was that Petty had too many hits: “People go, ‘oh, it’s too commercial.’” The other reason was that this particular rock star emphasized music over personality. “He didn’t ever get a trampoline out and do a backflip,” Zanes said. “No, he goes out and plays the songs that he wrote.”

Footage of the singer’s 2008 Super Bowl halftime performance testifies to that assessment, and it’s worth watching in light of Petty’s death at the age of 66. On the largest stage anyone can play on, Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t do much other than execute their material flawlessly. The lack of spectacle came off like a power move: Can you believe we have these songs?

The halftime opener was “American Girl,” whose jump-roping exuberance still sounds fresh zillions of spins since its release in 1977, and whose distillation of the national character won’t be surpassed: To be American really is to be “raised on promises.” Petty and his band then jammed on through “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and took a bow. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Refugee” and “The Waiting” and so many other hits would have to be revisited another time—quite likely the next time you turn on the radio or head to a neighborhood bar.

Raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty has said he was inspired as a teen to go into rock by the Beatles’ famous 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After the implosion of his first band, Mudcrutch, Petty merged the Fab Four’s candied pop sensibility with southern-rock jangle on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut. Today the album seems an obvious triumph, featuring “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But at first it was somewhat ignored by the press and public, a fact Petty attributed to being inaccurately marketed as a punk band. “All that punk shit was just a little too trendy,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1978, reflecting on a run-in with a condescending Johnny Rotten.


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