By Doug Draper
Posted October 30th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
“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.” – Tom Petty, from his 1989 anthem of defiance, ‘I Won’t Back Down’.
I was up on the roof of a shed in my backyard, laying shingles this past October 2nd, when I first heard the news blaring from a radio I had on below – ‘Tom Petty found dead, apparently from a massive cardiac arrest, at age 66.
That was four weeks ago and Tom Petty would have turned 67 had he lived to celebrate his birthday this October 20th, and as much as I am reminded of the reality of what happened with a cover of a recent Rolling Stone magazine sitting on my desk, with a picture of him staring back at me under the dates 1950 to 2017, I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that one of my all-time favourite recording artists going back to the time when Petty and I – about the same age and sitting in our separate family homes, his in Gainesville, Florida and mine in Welland, Ontario – first saw The Beatles performing live, on a television show in North America.
Tom Petty came of age during a golden age of rock music during the 1960s, learning to play the guitar and absorbing the sounds of The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan and so many other major artists from the 1960s, including The Byrds which influenced his own song writing and guitar playing so much that Byrds founder Roger McGuinn, who became a fan and friend of Petty himself, once affectionately said of some of Petty’s most Byrd-like songs that he couldn’t remember recording them.
He absorbed all those great sounds and, as the front man for his beloved band, The Heartbreakers, and as solo artist, he wrote and recorded some of the greatest songs of the past four decades, from ‘American Girl’, ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Refugee’ to ‘Even the Losers’, ‘The Waiting’, ‘Free Falling’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and so many more.
Tom Petty also wrote, performed and produced some of the best sounds of the past 40 years in collaboration with Roy Orbison, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, The Traveling Wilburys, a tossed together super group that included Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne.
And this past September, less than two weeks before Tom Petty died, a new album by another founding Byrds member, Chris Hillman, called ‘Bidin’ My Time’ was released that was produced by him and that he took turns performing on along with Roger McGuinn and another artist who got his big start with The Byrds, David Crosby.
Music critics have already given the Hillman album four-star reviews and Rolling Stone magazine called it the closest thing to a Byrds reunion that may ever again happen.
In an interview Tom Petty did with Rolling Stone in 1980 about the impact of his impact on the cultural scene to that point, he said; “I have days when I sit down and I simply can’t sit down and dredge up these same responses to reporters over and over. I find it hard to believe that anybody really cares that much about what I have to say. I mean it is only rock & roll – just disposable crap that won’t mean much in 10 years.”
That is about the only thing I can think of that Tom Petty said that turned out to be completely wrong.
Crap is not a word that comes to mind with respect to Tom Petty’s body of work.
He and his Heartbreakers, along with Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and U2, were among of the last of the great performers from The Beatles and beyond era that could get up on a stage wearing blue jeans and playing real instruments, and without any gimmicks, leave an audience spellbound for more than two and a half hours of some of the greatest music created over the past 50 years.
His death is a tremendous loss in a world where we need artists like him to counter the madness more than ever.
I miss him already.
(If you want to see a great documentary on the life and music of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, it is called ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ from a decade ago, and it is available on DVD and BlueRay. I know a few people who have watched it on their home screens earlier this October on Netflix, so try it there if you are interested and can link into that site.)
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“A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders