R.I.P.: Why I’ll Miss Badass Tom Petty (1950–2017)
He’s right up there with Dylan, Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Seger in the pantheon of great American rock gods.
Tom Petty came up with tons of memorable lines over the course of his four-decade recording career. For some reason, the ones that stand out most to me today, the ones that have been replaying in my head since his passing on October 2 at age 66, are four lines — 19 words — from his 1987 hit “Jammin’ Me.”
Cover your ears if you’re easily offended. Neither the lines — nor the comeback they inspired — are particularly warm and fuzzy.
“Take back Vanessa Redgrave/ Take back Joe Piscopo/ Take back Eddie Murphy/ Give ’em all some place to go”
Four of those words earned the rocker a tongue-lashing from the world’s top comic actor at the time. “Fuck Tom Petty,” Eddie Murphy said in response to getting slammed in song. Yep. Concise. And to the point. But I still give that round to Petty because the song was so damn great.
Yes, it probably wasn’t so great to Vanessa or to Joe either, but Petty was always one of our most uncompromising artists, right up there with Dylan (his former bandmate in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys), Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Seger in the pantheon of great American rock gods.
Despite the vitriol of “Jammin’ Me” and Petty’s uncompromising spirit (perhaps best exemplified in his 1989 debut solo hit, “I Won’t Back Down”), he seemed like such a nice guy. Murphy aside, has anyone ever had an unkind word to say about Petty in public? Unlike certain modern pop stars, he could slam a fellow celebrity and never come across as, well, petty. His badassery was effortless.
That’s one of the things I’ll miss most about him.
I never actually met the guy. I never interviewed him. I never even reviewed any of his albums. But I always felt a connection to him as a fellow Floridian. I grew up in Kissimmee and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville, Petty’s hometown. During my four years there (which encompassed the entire Full Moon Fever era), Petty was regarded as the ultimate hometown hero, a Gainesville boy done good.
That’s actually an understatement. Petty did more than good — he was one of the biggest stars of the ’80s, and he continued to enjoy success through the 2010s. Shockingly, he never scored a number-one single on Billboard’s Hot 100, with or without his band, The Heartbreakers. In fact, he only made it into the Top 10 three times. And his biggest single, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which hit number three, wasn’t even his own hit. It was a duet with Stevie Nicks from her 1980 number-one debut solo album Bella Donna. Petty would have to wait another 34 years to score his first chart-topping album, Hypnotic Eye, his final studio release with The Heartbreakers.
Despite his modest performance on Billboard’s Hot 100, Petty, like his fellow Wilbury Dylan, had strength not in chart numbers, but in memorable songs. He had so many that it’s near-impossible to assign him a signature song. Is it “American Girl” (an early single that never even charted), “Breakdown” (his first Top 40 single in 1977), “Refugee” (the 1980 Top 15 hit that introduced me to his work and his name), “The Waiting,” “I Won’t Back Down,” or “Free Fallin’”?
Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that Petty produced so much great music that will keep him alive for his fans now that he’s gone.
In honor of Petty’s life and times, I’ve made a Spotify list featuring my 15 favorite Petty singles, in order, from my all-time favorite on. Check it out at the bottom of this post.
But first, the countdown begins, in reverse, from the bottom up…
15. “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” Southern Accents goes Memphis soul. Very convincing.
14. “Breakdown” ’70s mood rock. According to Wikipedia, Perry wrote a third verse for Grace Jones when she covered it on her Warm Leatherette album in 1980. So cool.
13. “Needles and Pins” (with Stevie Nicks) A great rematch.
12. “Change of Heart” Simple but so effective.
11. “Refugee” I remember thinking he was one of the coolest white guys ever every time I saw the video on Night Flight.
10. “The Waiting” Yep, it’s the hardest part, but it’s often the best part, too. Linda Ronstadt did a great cover of this on her We Ran album, which I listened to on my Discman as I walked to work on my 30th birthday.
9. “I Won’t Back Down” An anthem for stubborn Taureans like me.
8. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” No, it’s not just about Kim Basinger playing dead in the video.
7. “Handle Me with Care (with The Traveling Wilburys) And then there were two — Dylan and Jeff Lynne. R.I.P., Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Petty.
6. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (with Stevie Nicks) I could never decide whether Stevie looked like she wanted to cast a spell on Tom or swallow him whole in the video.
5. “Jammin’ Me” Sorry, Eddie. I still think you were robbed of that Oscar for Dreamgirls.
4. “Walls” His best work with a member of Fleetwood Mac (Lindsey Buckingham).
3. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” My favorite solo Petty — and not just because the animated video was so awesome.
2. “You Got Lucky” One of the first 45s I ever bought. I can still remember Petty looking so Floridian ’80s and bathed in red lighting on the picture sleeve.
1. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” Experimental Petty. A masterpiece.