For some time now, both critics and the big guitar makers have clanged a warning bell about the end of rock. But we need not be alarmed. Rock isn’t dead. Only it’s no longer the preserve of leather-clad cock-rockers and sensitive boys with fancy haircuts. “A new generation of female and non-binary performers,” writes a New York Times feature, “punk in style or spirit, coming from the all-ages warehouse and D.I.Y.-venue ecosystem—is taking their place.”
Still for many of us, it feels like rock as we knew it, at least, is passing away, especially after the death of Tom Petty this past Monday. Like so many other recent losses in music, he was exceptional, ushering in a laid-back, unassuming singer-songwriter tradition by being, as Billboard magazine writes, “less of a rock n’ roll star and more of an observational dude” with an “uncanny ability to write hit songs.”
Petty wrote about the everyday sordidness and grace of life in small towns and big cities alike. His songs were spare vignettes written around archetypal American characters who expressed universal longing in poetic lines cut with a diamond. Like Dylan, but with much more concision, he could capture dusty Americana and Biblical dread with perfect clarity, as in 1991’s “Learning to Fly.”
Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still...
Well the good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
He wrote lines so achingly moving and evocative that he only needed a handful of them to make spare ballads like 1994’s “Wildflowers” sound like mythological epics.
This is the 90s Petty one generation first came to know, a wistful folk-rock troubadour and youngest inductee into a classic rock elite in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison. The breakout Petty of the 70s and 80s was a scrappy everyman rocker with punk energy and R&B roots. “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That”… there is nowhere you can go without hearing Petty’s “stripped-down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock ‘n’ roll,” as Randy Lewis writes in an L.A. Times obituary.
But, while Petty’s songs became ubiquitous, they never disappear into the repetitious sonic landscape of background music. We recognize them immediately and connect; they feel personal, “as though he’d written them,” Mikael Wood aptly remarks, “to soundtrack the specifics of your life.” He made earnestness cool and gave voice to feelings you didn’t know you had. He didn’t strike self-aggrandizing poses or make cynical money-grabs.
Tom Petty was a true believer, who also believed that rock ‘n’ roll was dying from greed and cynicism: For him, he told the L.A. Times during his 40th, and final, tour, “it was about something much greater: It was about moving people, and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll. I still do. I believed in it in its purest sense, its purest form. And I watched it commit suicide; I watched it really kill itself over money.”
It’s possible he didn’t know much about the burgeoning young, earnest rock scenes thriving in small venues and house parties in the American small towns and big cities he sang about. But his energy and passion has surely passed on to a generation that has not given up hope in rock ‘n’ roll.
Hear a chronological playlist of Petty’s music (above), a soundtrack of millions of lives, just above. 275 songs, from his first, 1976 album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, and including his work with 90s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Here’s hoping that another crippling loss for old fans will inspire millions of new ones to discover and preserve Petty’s impeccable songwriting legacy.