The Humble Hugeness of Tom Petty

The rocker, who always let his songs be the star, is dead at 66.

Tom Petty performs at a music festival
Amy Harris / Invision / AP

In 2015, The Washington Post asked Tom Petty’s biographer Warren Zanes why Petty doesn’t get more respect. One reason, Zanes said, was that Petty had too many hits: “People go, ‘oh, it’s too commercial.’” The other reason was that this particular rock star emphasized music over personality. “He didn’t ever get a trampoline out and do a backflip,” Zanes said. “No, he goes out and plays the songs that he wrote.”

Footage of the singer’s 2008 Super Bowl halftime performance testifies to that assessment, and it’s worth watching in light of Petty’s death on Monday at the age of 66. On the largest stage anyone can play on, Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t do much other than execute their material flawlessly. The lack of spectacle came off like a power move: Can you believe we have these songs?

The halftime opener was “American Girl,” whose jump-roping exuberance still sounds fresh zillions of spins since its release in 1977, and whose distillation of the national character won’t be surpassed: To be American really is to be “raised on promises.” Petty and his band then jammed on through “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and took a bow. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Refugee” and “The Waiting” and so many other hits would have to be revisited another time—quite likely the next time you turn on the radio or head to a neighborhood bar.

Raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty has said he was inspired as a teen to go into rock by the Beatles’ famous 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After the implosion of his first band, Mudcrutch, Petty merged the Fab Four’s candied pop sensibility with southern-rock ranginess on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut. Today the album seems an obvious triumph, featuring “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” and “Anything That’s Rockn’ Roll.” But at first it was somewhat ignored by the press and public, a fact Petty attributed to being inaccurately marketed as a punk band. “All that punk shit was just a little too trendy,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1978, reflecting on a run-in with a condescending Johnny Rotten.

Soon, though, he’d be a household name, helped along by 1979’s platinum-selling Damn the Torpedoes. “An innovator or an ironist only half as good might be easier to write about than Petty and his middle ground,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Ariel Swartley in a review of the album. “The Heartbreakers haven’t duded up the music with myth. In their book, playing rock & roll doesn’t need this or any other justification. It’s what we’d all be doing if we could.”

To be fair, there was a touch of myth to Damn the Torpedoes—money-related, but myth all the same. It arrived on shelves only after a protracted dispute between Petty and his record label that saw him declaring bankruptcy for bargaining purposes. He would battle again with the music industry for 1981’s Hard Promises, which he insisted be priced at $8.98 rather than $9.98.

By the time of Petty’s 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever, he’d earned the friendships of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, his comrades in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Fever confirmed his chops within or without a famous band, as heard in the incredible one-two opener: First comes the bona fide epic “Free Fallin’,” followed by the tense-and-release inspirational blast of I Won’t Back Down.” The latter song was written in response to an arsonist torching Petty’s house while he and his family were in it.

Zanes’s 2015 biography marked the first time Petty publicly revealed his struggle with heroin addiction during the 1990s, a decade that otherwise saw continued success for him with the 1994 hit album Wildflowers. Zanes attributed Petty’s drug problems to “the classic situation of midlife pinning a person down to the mat” (the rocker’s marriage of 22 years ended in divorce in 1996, and he would marry again in 2001). But Petty soldiered on, embracing elder-statesman status with more tours and albums in the new millennium.

His consistency continued until the end. It was in 2014 that the Heartbreakers scored their first No. 1 album, Hypnotic Eye, no small achievement so late in a band’s career. “After you’ve written 300, 400 [songs], you’ve got to really concentrate so you can get something that feels fresh and is worth the money to someone who has a whole bunch of Tom Petty records,” Petty told the Los Angeles Times about his final record. “‘Why would I buy another one?’ Well, because it’s worth it, you know?"