Tom Petty, who died suddenly on October 2, knew something about fire: In 1987, his Southern California home was set ablaze by an arsonist. An intentional attack on him and his family, the event shook the songwriter so hard, he hesitated to use the word “fire” in a song for many years.
“I got out with the clothes on my back,” he told NPR in 2008. Post-embers, he said he refused to tackle dark subjects as he dove into a period of “Happy positive music…I was just so glad to be alive and to have escaped something like that. It was also really traumatic and terrible but part of it made me extra glad to be alive.” It took him nearly 20 years, but eventually he would reference the event that changed his song style and outlook on life in “All You Can Carry.”
When Hypnotic Eye which included “All You Can Carry,” was released in 2014, it was probably the most issues-oriented collection of songs ever recorded by Petty and his Heartbreakers. From the heavy-dosed fight for right,”American Dream Plan B,” the blues-inspired “Power Drunk,” plus “Forgotten Man” and “Shadow People” — songs about people living on society’s margins — Petty and his core guys (guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and on/off bassist Ron Blair) found their songs and subjects perfectly in step with our times. Some say it was their best album yet; it was also their first album to reach the number one spot on the charts, and their last-ever studio recording as a band.
For more than 40 years, Petty’s gift as an artist was the ability to use traditional rock ‘n’ roll form to craft deceivingly simple, anthemic songs that appealed to a wide cross-section of listeners. In celebration of four decades on the road, he and the Heartbreakers completed a rigorous tour schedule that started last April and went through September 25, capped by three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Powering through the hits, the band’s sheer enormity as a live performing act is almost incomprehensible: They made it look easy, in the way that only musicians who are of one mind can. I saw them countless times in every decade they worked and the mastery of their musicianship and its intensity, particularly over the three nights I saw them during their historic Fillmore run, remains burned in my consciousness. When I call up the memory, I can feel the room levitate as it did each night during “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” Not every concert is like that.
Though not usually topical or pointedly political in song, Petty certainly didn’t shy away from the issues and values that were important to him, be it the beauty in everyday struggle, the joy of simple things, and the glory of rock ‘n’ roll itself. He also had an unusual gift for centering songs around the emotional states of people in love, with empathy for both the broken and the strong-hearted.
Intolerant of injustice inside and outside of the music business, early in his career when it looked like he was going to be cheated out of royalties, he stood up for his fair share; when consumers were going to be charged more for albums by greedy record labels, he rallied to keep list prices reasonable for fans. He also pushed back at bland, corporate radio formats with his concept album, The Last DJ. So beloved was he within his own music community, earlier this year Petty was acknowledged by the record industry’s philanthropic arm, MusiCares, as Person of the Year for his quiet support of the people and issues that mattered to him. Among those on the receiving end of his generosity were downtown LA’s Midnight Mission, supporting residents of LA’s Skid Row where the largest population of homeless people in the United States lives. The situation on Skid Row is striking; hideously under-reported and unrelenting, its proximity to the extreme wealth of Hollywood was not lost on Petty who described his own Gainesville, Florida family as “white trash.”
Growing up in the segregated South, his father at one time owned and operated a grocery store on the Black side of town where Petty often played as a child. In recent years when the movement toward the removal of the Confederate flags and statues from public view began to gain popularity, Petty was all for tearing them down. He was also contrite about his ignorance of the symbolism of the stars and bars and of his misuse of it as a stage prop back when he toured his ‘80s album, Southern Accents. “It was a downright stupid thing to do,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a Black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”
As our country continues its discussions regarding police brutality and racial and economic inequality against a backdrop of mass shootings and a series of natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires, it’s tempting to wonder what words, sung or otherwise, Petty might have for us. Perhaps it’s worth noting that what we do have is his timeless anthem of defiance in the face of difficulty: “I Won’t Back Down” was written in the period following the loss of his home to fire.
Initially worried it was too direct, he was encouraged by his friend and co-writer Jeff Lynne to record and release it. “Very bold and very blunt, there’s not a lot of metaphor or anywhere to go,” he told NPR. “It’s been really important to a lot of people in their lives.”
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Redwood Credit Union are collecting donations toward recovery efforts following the Napa and Sonoma Valley wildfires.
Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.
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