It’s most difficult to write this column today. There are dozens of music lovers dead in the Las Vegas desert after a mad man unleashed unspeakable fury on people just enjoying the show. And now in the middle of preparing this column, I hear of the death of an American original -Tom Petty. As sadness reigns, my initial intent was to use this moment to make a list of songs I listen to that help me get through trouble times from R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” to Peter Gabriel’s “I Grieve,” but it just seems a little trite now and not up to the magnitude of the combined losses.
So I’ll lean on the music. Like Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘When you find yourself in times of trouble” or the Beatles saying just “Let it Be,’ music can provide solace and in the case of Petty an unparalleled catalogue of happiness and the fullness of life. There are few artist on the level of Tom Petty. He united generations, his art never faltered. He didn’t have a down period. Every album he released resonated with his fans and grew his presence on the music scene. He was uncanny in his ability to change with the times and yet remain timeless. He was THE American songwriter of his generation.
Petty’s appeal was universal. Did you ever hear anyone ever say “I hate Tom Petty?” He was someone everyone could agree upon. His concerts were family affairs. His message seemed to boil down to “We all go through it. We come out alright,” and it resonated through all walks of life. His albums are history in the making, time pieces of the general mood of the country as he also fought for his fellow man. Few may remember his stance with the record companies over album prices and his concert tickets never escalated into the highest stratosphere that other acts like The Rolling Stones. He certainly could have commanded it. His status remained modest.
Petty was for all of us. He wrote of the day to day life of Americans. He based it all on three chords but man it sounded so good. I once asked his biographer Warren Zanes, why Tom Petty endured and how did the likes of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrsion consider him an equal? His response stuck with me. “Good things just happen musically when Tom Petty is in the room.” Indeed they did. He, in and of himself, is a desert island musician. If you’re stranded and can take only one artist’s work with you-Tom Petty can help you survive.
He was a member of the world’s best super group (The Traveling Wilburys) and yet remained connected to solid ground. His shows are like a greatest hits concert tour no matter what songs he plays. We all know all the words. We all love the music. He was a gift from above and played right up to the end, literally finishing a massive tour just days before passing. On this the saddest of music weeks, we will seek solace in the thing that brought us here. The Music. Certainly the news of the loss of the leader of the Heartbreakers has indeed broken our hearts but his musical legacy can help mend it. In a recent Chicago Tribune article, Petty said “music is a healing thing. It has the power to heal and inspire and to lift you right up.” Oh if only he knew how much at this time.