It all started for me with that absurd, trippy, theatrical video, that first moment of Alice poking her head around a foam rubber mushroom, falling into a chessboard room to be berated by a Mad Hatter figure in rectangle sunglasses—Tom Petty as wry trickster and baleful balladeer, devouring that poor girl in her blue frosted cake pinafore.
My family was late to cable and MTV in 1985 but from the moment the donut dropped in the cup of tea and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” ditched all new-wave pretense and trippy sitar to shift into its closing soul-boogie rave-up, I had to know what Tom Petty was on about.
Southern Accents was the first album I ever sought out, aged 10 with no record stores in my small southern town. I nagged my parents to buy me some plain black TDK D90 cassettes, begged a dub off the only person I knew who had a copy—one of my Catholic parish priests, who went by the unlikely name of Father Chuck. I wasn’t old enough for confession but in my own pre-teen out-of-place Southern existence, I was old enough, it would seem, for rock and roll.
Like me, Tom Petty had his own weird Southern existence. He grew up in Gainesville, Florida, a decidedly un-rock-and-roll college town that, despite producing punk bands like Against Me! and Hot Water Music, is still mostly known for being a decidedly un-rock-and-roll college town. He spent his entire lyrical existence, even long after moving to L.A., trying to get out. If Bruce Springsteen built an entire mythology about tuning up his muscle car to get out of a mythical one-gas-station New Jersey burg, Tom Petty wrote about ditching an entire region that he could never quite give up, sometimes out of co-dependency, the rest of the time because he’d probably have to hitchhike. Where his ‘70s southern rock predecessors were proudly championing their outlaw status and cozying up to a safe amount of country twang, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made high-test guitar rock and roll steeped in Hammond organ and ambivalence, love songs and road songs and every other kind of song that all boiled down to standing on your front porch watching the sun rise and asking yourself, “Fuck, is this all there is?”
Petty matched his songwriting with an indelible, southern-accented nasal voice that pop radio should have deemed completely unacceptable yet somehow didn’t. From his 1976 self-titled LP through most of the ‘80s, he and the rest of the Heartbreakers—guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair (and his replacement from 1982 on, Howie Epstein), drummer Stan Lynch, and the best named white keyboardist in rock and roll, Benmont Tench—churned out classic after classic, from “American Girl” to “Refugee” to “Jammin’ Me.” They took advantage of the new platform MTV provided with theatrical, conceptual videos for “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” And they did so while aggressively advocating to do things on their own terms, record labels and bean counters be damned: When fighting with MCA during the recording of Damn The Torpedoes, the band hid the session tapes from Petty every night so if the label forced him into court to get them he could honestly say he didn’t have a fucking clue where they were.
Petty’s idiosyncratic nature meant he wouldn’t always knock it out of the park—Southern Accents leaned heavily on some modern ‘80s sounds brought to the studio by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, leading Petty to keep the weirdly keyboard-funkified “It Ain’t Nothing To Me” while passing on a sweet riff by Campbell that would eventually end up as Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” (I dare you to listen to that song and not hear Petty’s voice crushing it harder than Henley ever could.) But with his first solo record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, Petty had re-settled into a comfortable groove of combining irony and slightly crooked lyrical depth with pop hooks.
As the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, Petty continued scoring hits as a solo artist, with the Heartbreakers, and as one fifth of the rock-legend hangout the Traveling Wilburys, where he played the young guy to elder statesmen Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. At a time when the faces in videos were either overly pretty or scowling, alternative, and obscured by long hair, Petty still somehow got MTV airplay as a straightforward rock guy. Divorce and heroin addiction slowed his output in the ‘90s, although he and the Heartbreakers still managed two albums. He got clean around the turn of the millennium and churned out six albums in his last 17 years—three with the Heartbreakers, one solo, and two with Mudcrutch, the band that had gotten he, Campbell, and Tench signed to a major label in the first place way back in 1974.
Petty suffered a heart attack early Monday morning and was rushed to the hospital, where he continued to fight on for several hours after being removed from life support, seemingly in defiance of the premature obituaries being published. I can’t help but think that some part of Petty’s commitment to creative control of his music extended to creative control of his own death. It’s a testament to that commitment, and to the quality of his songwriting, that until his dying day Petty never had to change his style to keep up with fashion trends, never looked any different than he had in the ‘70s—velvet coat and jeans, shaggy blond hair parted in the middle, crooked smile, the last ugly, blue-collar rock and roll star.