Graham: Tom Petty, a highway companion to American life
The music legend always kept it low-key, but he received his due
If you don’t run, you rust.
That’s what Tom Petty said in “Big Weekend,” a track from his 2006 album “Highway Companion.” And Petty never stopped running, right up until his death on Monday.
He had just wrapped his final tour, a 40th anniversary jaunt with his band, the Heartbreakers, a week prior in his adopted home of Los Angeles. He had hinted that was going to be his last big run of dates, but rockers of Petty’s ilk never retire. Their home is the road.
Petty was 66 years old, but in a way he was ageless. He might as well have been in his 60s in the late 1980s when his videos for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’” were all over MTV. He didn’t fit in with the MTV icons of the era — flashy, sexy stars like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna — but there he was, running with them side-by-side.
Petty’s legacy isn’t marked by momentous, culture-shaking moments like many superstar musicians. Michael Jackson and Prince broke down barriers of race and color. Madonna shattered sexual taboos. David Bowie impacted fashion and was restless in his artistic reinvention of himself, refusing to be tethered to any one genre. Bruce Springsteen plays marathon-length live shows and becomes a superhero on stage.
Petty’s superpower was he had no superpower, he was just a guy who was always cool because he never tried too hard to be cool. He was the same Tom Petty in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s, and not a whole lot changed stylistically along the way. He never even changed his hair. He never made a dance album, never did a crossover track with a rapper. “American Girl,” from his 1976 debut album, doesn’t sound a whole lot different from “Somewhere Under Heaven,” a solo track he released in 2015.
Petty had achieved a sort of ubiquity through FM radio and bar jukeboxes and his 1993 “Greatest Hits” album, the perfect album to include in an “eight CDs for a penny!” bundle through Columbia House or BMG, no doubt a contributor to its 12 million-plus sales. When Jerry Maguire was searching through the radio to find a perfect song to fit his mood after landing a big deal, he settled on “Free Fallin’,” a song which it’s impossible to not know the words to, and is probably being played on some radio station, somewhere, right now or at any given time. The scene worked because we’ve all had that moment to “Free Fallin’.” If you haven’t sang along in the car to “Free Fallin’,” you’ve probably never been in a car.
Because he was such a staple of the radio and American life, it seemed like Petty was always going to be around. When we lost Bowie and Prince last year, a call went out to protect beloved figures such as Betty White who we knew we were going to eventually lose. But no one was worried about Petty. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was still running hard.
It seems like we took him for granted, but Petty got his due. Along with the Heartbreakers, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the band’s first year of eligibility. And Petty played halftime at the Super Bowl in 2008 when the NFL was in the midst of its post-Janet Jackson classic rock bend. He even visited the Oval Office and hung out with President Obama — wearing blue jeans, laceless sneakers, a button up shirt and a black vest — in 2010. Always Petty, always cool.
News of Petty’s death came while America was still mourning and making sense of Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas, and as the incident was being politicized, it was dividing people, rather than bringing them together. But everyone could agree on Petty. His music offered comfort and distraction, just as it has for decades, and just as it will continue to going forward.
Petty’s death was reported prematurely, and was initially called back before finally being confirmed later that night. It fit. Even at the very end, he wasn’t ready to rust. Petty still had a little more run left in him.