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November 15, 2017

Tom Petty: A Retrospective

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Musicians may die, but rock and roll lives on. The morning of Oct. 2 saw the passing of legendary guitarist Tom Petty, an unexpected bit of sadness at the tail end of an already tragic weekend. While the musician may no longer be with us, the work of Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers left a mark on music history that will never be erased.

In 1975, together with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, the Heartbreakers were rounded out with Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass guitar.

Their first self-titled album started off slow, but after a brief tour in England, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” gained popularity with hits like “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” With Petty’s hot guitar licks and lyrics that could charm the habit off a nun, the band continued their success with the albums “You’re Gonna Get It!” in 1978 and “Damn the Torpedoes” in 1979, the albums having gone gold and platinum, respectively.

“Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” continued making albums throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and even up through the ‘00s. Their most recent album, “Hypnotic Eye,” was released in 2014. They also had a large touring presence, playing major events such as Live Aid in 1985, Concert for George (Harrison) in 2002, and the Super Bowl halftime show in 2008.

Petty also received an uncommon popularity with other artists. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” featuring Stevie Nicks, as well producing an album with ‘60s rocker Del Shannon demonstrated the malleability of Petty’s artistic talent. Perhaps his most famous collaboration was the formation of the songwriting super-group, the “Traveling Wilburys” with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne of “Electric Light Orchestra,” and Roy Orbison, another ‘50s and ‘60s rock star.

One of Petty’s major contributions to the music world took place away from the microphone. Throughout his career, he sought to maintain control of his music and prevent it from being used simply to make a profit. In 1981, Petty objected to his record company’s increase in album price. Although it was only a one dollar increase, this criticism of corporate greed is forever endearing to both his fans and music fans everywhere.

A cornerstone group in the “heartland rock” scene, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” told stories of teenage love and the youthful optimism that fueled the adolescents of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hits like “American Girl” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” hinted at the tragic disillusionment that came with young romance. Although the immense sadness that comes with heartbreak may seem unbearable, Petty’s upbeat guitar playing suggests that it’s the experience of falling in love that’s important.

Other songs, like “Into The Great Wide Open,” share in that sense of enthusiasm, even if it’s ultimately doomed. A pseudo-folk ballad, this song tells the story of Eddie, a young man who heads to Los Angeles with nothing but a dream, yet ends up in the same position as when he left home. Somewhat autobiographical, the song is a perfect example of the contrast between cheerful instrumentals and somber undertones. The harsh reality of being human, that “rebel without a clue,” conflicts with that primal urge to pursue your desires “into the great wide open.” Emotionally charged and musically concrete, this is just one example of Petty’s songwriting talent.

Utilizing steady drum patterns, harmonizing guitars and even the occasional synthesizer, Petty was a signature ‘80s act that respected its rock and roll roots while embracing both pop and country influences. What he ultimately left us was a discography filled with exceptional musicianship and truly American ideals of love, loss and perseverance.

Edward Clifford can be reached at edwardcliffo@umass.edu.

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