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Tom Petty: an underdog and friend to all

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

I learned that Tom Petty died when a good friend of mine texted me the tragic new. He had turned me on to Petty’s music several years ago. At the time, it hadn’t been confirmed by any of the major news sites, except for TMZ, which said that he had been taken off of life support. (It was later confirmed by the New York Times.) He was sixty-six.

During my formative childhood years, Tom Petty was just another name. One of those iconic rock stars who I knew nothing about beyond his performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2008. But what I came to understand was the ways in which Petty personified the singer-songwriter genre that people categorize him in. His most famous songs carry with them the themes of survival and redemption, chronicling the plight of the individual.

Perhaps Petty will best be remembered for the band “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which formed in 1976 and produced classic songs that are obsessively streamed by millions of people (myself included). Songs like “Learning to Fly” and “Refugee” both expand our understanding of individual identity, while also coming to terms with being forever grounded on planet Earth.

“Learning to Fly,” for example, deals with the moral dilemma of escape without the means to do so. “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings,” sings Petty. It is akin to having a goal and leaving it unfulfilled, a plight that most people can relate to. Like many of his songs, it deals with the frustrations that come with day-to-day life. Perhaps Petty is suggesting that escaping is an action which offers only temporary relief to a problem that won’t go away by flight. In part because “Coming down is the hardest thing.” For if we cannot escape at all, perhaps listeners can take solace in how the song itself becomes an outlet, if not wings that take flight of their own.

Petty’s classic hits had tremendous commercial appeal, appearing on soundtracks in films like “She’s the One” along with making an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Petty also voiced the role of Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt in “King of the Kill” from 2004 to 2009.

Petty, as a performer, was the apex example of the underdog. His style of singing, coupled with his rhythmic guitar playing, produced a sound that you felt was on your side, helping you but challenging you, while always remaining your number one fan. “I Won’t Back Down” exemplifies this theme. It is a song which tells a story, one of action over inertia, progression over regression (“Stand my Ground/I won’t Back Down). It is a declaration as much as it is a defense.

While Petty’s music deals with the trials and tribulations of what it means to be a human being, it also offers a guidance for the fate of the un-lived future. One of my favorite songs by Petty is “Time To Move On,” which is from his album “Wildflowers.” It deals with self-reflection and removal from remorse while looking ahead and venturing into the unknown. I’d like to think I can hear the calm trepidation in Petty’s voice, as if to suggest that he is not immune from the fears that come with the future.

Petty’s songs are filled with purpose and passion. When my friend and I would listen to Petty, usually putting on one of his hit tunes, they would fill the atmosphere and force our voices to fall silent. It was as if our conversation deserved to come to a grinding halt so we could listen to his compositions.

He and the Heartbreakers created thirteen albums. He also released three solo albums, not to mention two with the Traveling Wilburys—a band of stars which included Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Such collaborations reaffirm Petty as an artist who was instrumental but also independent from the people he worked alongside. Forever and always a refugee, foreign to everyone and local to the little man. To this day, when listening to his music, I am amazed at how his songs transcend and change with the times. Coming down from his absence might be the hardest of them all.

Isaac Simon can be reached at isimon@umass.edu.

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