Tom Petty may or may not have died today.
I read the reports that he suffered cardiac arrest and was on life support. Then I heard that he’d died. Then I heard that he didn’t, but it was imminent. Maybe this is some cruel hoax. Maybe it's a joke played by Tom, a Monty Python fan with a wry sense of humor who lost one of his dear friends, Gary Shandling, a few months ago.
Hope springs eternal...
Petty has been one of my favorite artists since my college roommate, Smiles, turned me onto his music in the mid-1980s. I’ve been to three dozen Heartbreakers shows, including nearly all of his headlining gigs at Summerfest.
People are always asking me to name my favorite Petty songs, and there are so many great ones in the mix that I skip passed the hits that I love – “Listen to Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and others – and jump into the deeper cuts.
In honor of Tom, here are some of my favorites.
“Straight Into Darkness” – A fantastic track from the album “Long After Dark.” Tom played it at a Farm Aid show and during the Bob Dylan tour and seemed to forget about it at his concerts, much to my chagrin. It’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s got a great hook and sweet harmony vocals from Milwaukee native Howie Epstein.
“Insider”—Stevie Nicks had a huge hit with Tom’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and that’s a great song. But, this one is better.
“Think About Me” – The Heartbreakers were, at their core, a bar band. This track is a three-chord masterpiece. Despite dated references to the cutting-edge technology of the day “He got a compact disc, got a VCR,” it holds up as a classic. The intro makes it sound like the guys had to put down their beers before joining Tom and Mike Campbell.
“The Best of Everything” – This may or may not have been the track that angered Tom so much in the mixing process that he punched a wall and shattered his left hand. It’s a fantastic ballad, with classy but not overdone horns and a soaring vocal.
“Hurt” – Petty’s second album yielded radio hits / arena rock staples like “Listen to Her Heart,” and “I Need to Know,” but I always liked this track. Not a lyrical masterpiece, by any stretch. But, I like the buildup to the first verse and the complexity in the chorus.
“Runaway Trains” – From the album “Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough,” the intro to this one sounds a bit dated, but the chorus soars and inspired a ton of copycats.
“A Thing About You” – This track from “Hard Promises” should be required learning for all aspiring garage bands. The band Southern Pacific, featuring Emmylou Harris, put it on the country track but Tom’s version kicks its ass.
“Love is a Long Road” – Petty’s solo record “Full Moon Fever,” yielded a slew of megahits like “Free Fallin,’” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” but I loved this track above the others. He opened a few shows with this one. Mike Campbell’s guitar work was always elegant and not indulgent, even when he’s straight-up shredding.
“Kings Highway” – This is one of those songs that seems like it would be easy to write. Tom made a lot of them sound that way. The first time I heard it, I figured “He could probably do that in his sleep.” If it was that easy, though, everybody would do it. Everybody can’t.
“Angel Dream No. 4” – This song is just about perfect. Most writers would kill to have one of these in their catalog.
Swingin’ – This song, bolstered by Howie Epstein’s backing vocal, just jumped out of the speaker and grabbed me. Great imagery. Great harmonica. Just puts me in a trance-like state.
“Come on Down to My House” – Any kid who has ever strapped on a guitar in a garage or basement lives to make noise like this. The lyrics are howled, which is appropriate when you’re singing “Bring your baby sister.. it’s ages since I’ve kissed her…”
“Honey Bee” – A bluesy, boot-stomper from the classic “Wildflowers.” I love the guitar work, the drums (by Dave Grohl in this “Saturday Night Live” clip) and I love the line “I’m the King of Milwaukee.”
There are plenty of other classics in the catalog. Petty was an iconic artist whose impact on the industry will be felt for decades. Earlier today, Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for the E Street Band and a rock and roll historian, referred to Petty as "a true believer."
I can't think of a better way to sum up a career devoted to making great rock music.