Tom Petty a big presence in rock

Tom Petty performing at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2010.
Tom Petty performing at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2010.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The singer-guitarist, who entered the scene in the 1970s, was a hitmaker for four decades

NEW YORK • He was all shook up by Elvis Presley's music as a teenager and used that platform to escape the drudgery of his family life.

Yesterday, Tom Petty - the singer-guitarist who burst onto the scene in 1970s as one of rock's most original voices and remained a hitmaker for four decades - died at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, from cardiac arrest.

He was 66.

"I don't think he thought there was a better way to live your life than in a rock band," said rock historian and Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis.

"You never get a sense that this guy was going through the motions at all."

Petty, and his band Heartbreakers, led boisterous shows as recently as last week, when he concluded a nationwide tour that he said could be his last.

They had released their self-titled debut in 1976, drawing comparisons with the bluesy, guitar-heavy rock of the Rolling Stones and The Byrds.

I don't think he thought there was a better way to live your life than in a rock band. You never get a sense that this guy was going through the motions at all.


But their music was unabashedly sentimental, seeming to speak to striving, everyday Americans no less than the songs of fellow rocker Bruce Springsteen, while featuring clever arrangements that intertwined the fretwork of Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell.

Petty seemed to treat rock as a religion, battling with his record label to prevent the cost of one of his albums from rising by US$1 (S$1.40) and exuding a sense of divine satisfaction while performing onstage.

Petty, the group's principal songwriter, paired polished guitar riffs with lyrics that seemed lifted from bar-room conversations in his home town of Gainesville, Florida.

I Won't Back Down (1989) starts this way: "Well, I won't back down/ No, I won't back down/You can stand me up at the gates of hell/But I won't back down."

His career was also marked by personal problems that included heroin addiction, a tumultuous marriage and a 1987 house fire that burnt everything, but his basement recording studio.

Still, he remained one of rock's most durable and distinctive presences for decades, with his nasal voice and long blond hair.

His recordings with the Traveling Wilburys, formed in 1988 with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison, connected him with an earlier era of rock music. But Petty remained an inscrutable presence to many fans.

As one friend told Petty biographer Warren Zanes, "he's got tinted windows on his soul".

Petty was born on Oct 20, 1950, son of an alcoholic insurance salesman who beat him relentlessly from the time he was five.

He escaped the pain of his family life through watching television and then music.

An encounter with Presley, who was in town to shoot a scene from the 1962 Hollywood musical, Follow That Dream, was a defining moment of his childhood.

Through family connections - an uncle had been hired to assist the film crew - he managed to get onto the film set and meet the star.

Petty left school at 17 to devote himself to music.

In his career, he also lent his name recognition to benefit concerts such as Live Aid and also contributed hit songs for other performers, including Rosanne Cash.

His later albums, among them Into The Great Wide Open (1991) and Wildflowers (1994), continued to reap financial rewards, but he remained very much attuned to musical integrity.

Petty, who had two children with his first wife and remarried in 2002, tried to avoid the pitfalls of 1980s' rock-band excess and he embraced the hallmarks of the postNirvana generation of music-makers.

"They don't give (a hoot) about how much money they're going to make," he told the London Independent in 1994. "I think in America, for a long time, you had groups that wanted to be stars more than they wanted to make music.

"We always went on the theory that if we made really good music, we might attain stardom, but it was never the primary goal."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Tom Petty a big presence in rock'. Print Edition | Subscribe