Tom Petty, the average guy remembered
In the late ’80s, when MTV ballyhooed the world premiere of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care,” it was easy to think that it must be pretty cool to be Tom Petty.
The video shows the Wilburys standing in a circle, playing guitars while former Beatle George Harrison sings lead until rock icon Roy Orbison starts the chorus with his deep signature voice. Then there’s Petty, singing the chorus and playing guitar in this goofy top hat, alongside folk music legend Bob Dylan and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, who was my favorite Wilbury because of ELO’s involvement in the “Xanadu” soundtrack.
Imagine, I thought, being part of THAT group.
Not that Tom Petty wasn’t already rockin’ it on MTV and the radio, but he wasn’t a Beatle or Dylan or Orbison. I’d heard people talk about those guys with a measure of awe, so I knew they’d earned their chops. I didn’t know Petty had been playing in bands since he was a kid; the Petty I knew was newer. And while I liked “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “You Got Lucky,” Petty wasn’t the guy who wrote the music that Olivia Newton-John sang along with while skating on the big screen. To my teen-aged, MTV-soaked brain, Tom Petty was an average guy with average looks and an average voice who dressed like the Mad Hatter while eating a cake shaped like Alice in Wonderland.
But Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had already won their place in the world of rock. It might have had something to do with Petty’s everyman appeal — one friend once said she liked to sing along because she didn’t have to worry about not being able to hit the high notes — but also because it appears that Tom Petty worked really hard at being a rock star.
Obituaries and remembrances, which have been everywhere since his death last week, paint a picture of a man who enjoyed rock: He dropped out of high school to join a band. He was once a groundskeeper, some say. Others note that he once worked at a cemetery. But all of them mention that, above all, he worked hard at doing what he loved — being a musician.
There is a story about how he protested a move to sell one of his albums at a superstar price, a dollar higher than the usual market price for a newly released album. He said the release wouldn’t have been fair, and he won that fight.
And there are stories about how, over the years, Petty stood up for his art. Songs have been released that sound a lot like Petty’s songs, but his approach wasn’t to sue other artists who admitted they might have come upon the same melody without intending to do so. He was quoted as saying he’d rather focus on being a musician.
That is what made Petty a rock giant. He clearly loved what he did and kept the hits coming over several decades. He understood that a single dollar could make a difference to fans and remained a voice we could sing with, even with the windows down. He knew that while defending one’s art is important, understanding how art happens and making more of it ultimately means more.
That’s why an average guy named Tom Petty will be remembered as a rock giant.
And that’s pretty cool.