Tom Petty Never Backed Down

The leader of The Heartbreakers, who died Monday at age 66, proved one of rocks best storytellers – etching indelible scenes, wrought in jagged, driving guitar lines.

Tom Petty's greatest hits were less bright pop songs than dark short stories.

Over four decades, he spun a soundtrack describing an array of disillusioned American girls who were raised on promises and were crazy about Elvis — but eventually became hardened enough to make a yuppie stick his head in the oven.

His male protagonists brimmed with a defiant wanderlust, whether running down a dream, refusing to back down or taking refuge in temporary delusions of grandeur.

“Excuse me if I have some place in my mind/Where I go time to time,” he sang in 1994’s “It’s Good to be the King.”

Out of that mind came the leader of The Heartbreakers’ greatest creation: The scraggly haired, nasally voiced narrator who etched indelible scenes, wrought in jagged, driving guitar lines.

Petty's musical exploration of the seamier recesses of the American dream sadly ended Monday with his death at age 66, capping a career that soared, even if, as he put it in “Learning to Fly,” “I ain’t got wings.”

Tom Petty proved the rare artist who lived up to the sum of his influences. His gift for melody, hooks and effective studio production drew from the Byrds and the Beatles, right down to the Rickenbacker guitars. His penchant for singing through the hurt of lost purity channeled the likes of 1950s greats Del Shannon and Roy Orbison.

As those of us lucky enough to have seen him and the Heartbreakers perform can attest, he could drive a concert, recalling John Fogerty and Neil Young at their best.

Petty clearly listened closest to Bob Dylan, filling his best songs with rich, concise detail and imagery, rendering lyrical landscapes that transcended much of the rest of the Top 40.

Just take the start of “Runnin’ Down a Dream”:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was driving
Trees flew by, me and Del were singing ‘Little Runaway’
I was flying

It does more to establish character and mood than the opening chapters of most books.

Ditto for the initial lines of “Free Fallin’”: “She's a good girl, loves her mama/
Loves Jesus and America, too/She's a good girl, crazy about Elvis.”

Foreboding airs of mystery, menace and dark secrets wafted through hits like “Refugee,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” his duet with Stevie Nicks. Petty proved a great collaborator, from his days with Mudcrutch to the Heartbreakers to songwriting partnerships with the likes of Dave Stewart of the Eurthymics, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and George Harrison.

In 1988, Petty joined Dylan, Harrison, Orbison and Lynne to become the junior member of The Traveling Wilburys, the greatest supergroup of them all.

Fun Wilbury numbers like “Last Night” and “Cool Dry Place” gave Petty a rare opportunity to revel in the sense of humor that extended to his videos, most notably the 1985 macabre “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired promo for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” in which he played an acid-dream of a Mad Hatter.

The Florida-born Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never fit the role of slick, glamorous pop star, even as he sold more than 80 million records. Lucky for the millions of fans who now mourn him, he followed his own musical path, refusing to ever back down.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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