I don’t know what it was about Tom Petty.
There was defiance, rebellion, anger, no small amount of tenderness and even fragility, but none of Dylan’s swirling poetry in his lyrics. And though he apparently had a rough childhood that could have inspired it, there was little of Springsteen’s wondrously expressed escapism.
In interviews, he was often self-effacing, hesitant. On stage, he was barely more expressive. In London’s Hyde Park just a few weeks ago, he mustered little more than “Thank you soooo much” a few times.
But his music, when it soared, lifted the soul.
This very American Floridian caught me, a good little Jewish boy from northwest London, with 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” his one truly great album, and I was hooked for the next four decades.
Gloriously, he came to Israel in the late 1980s; less gloriously, he and his Heartbreakers were backing a decidedly out-of-sorts Bob Dylan. A video clip that’s been dug up in the last few hours shows him, other bandmates and ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn in listening mode near the Western Wall with a member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, getting a speedy tutorial on the holy places, Jerusalem’s Jewish and Muslim narratives, and the effectiveness of prayer.
As ever, Petty is hidden behind his shades and, though evidently interested, thoroughly understated.
“That’s pretty wild, right,” he drawls to McGuinn after the mini-lecture, as the two of them stroll off toward the Wall.
He had a Jewish bassist in the band at that time, Howie Epstein, who played with the Heartbreakers for about 20 years but died almost 15 years ago, aged 47, of drug abuse. Much like Springsteen’s E Street Band, Petty’s musicians tended to stay with him for decades — and none more so than guitarist Mike Campbell, the virtuoso whose playing elevated every song Petty penned.
Gradually, over the years, millions acquired a taste for Petty’s soaring rock music, and he became a bona fide star — selling vast numbers of records and even, in 2008, playing the Super Bowl halftime show. He knew he was a star, of course, but you got the sense that he felt privileged at the musical company he kept — especially as one of the Traveling Wilburys, along with Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, the ex-Beatle who became his friend.
Monday was a day marked by unforgettable tragedy in America; next to that, Tom Petty’s death is an unrelated, sad footnote. Musically, it’s a major loss; he was still making good records and playing wonderful concerts. And personally, what a shame for him and those he left behind: He’d said the tour he just finished might be his last, because he wanted to spend a little more time with his granddaughter.
His sudden death is yet another reminder to all of us of the fragility and preciousness of life. Like many millions of others, I’ll miss him and his music, which enriched our time here.
On a little-known 2002 song called “Have Love, Will Travel,” Petty wrote the following: “How about a cheer for all those bad girls / And all the boys that play that rock and roll / They love it like you love Jesus / It does the same thing to their souls.”
It certainly does. And Tom Petty did it better than most anyone else.