Been such a tough week (month, year) for so many; sometimes it’s hard to breathe. The sudden, unexpected death of Tom Petty is another punch to the solar plexus. Hell, he had just finished a triumphant 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers and was riding high as ever. Then… BOOM, it’s over. As the old blues song says, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land…”
I was a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fan from the beginning and was fortunate, as a rock journalist working for BAM magazine in Northern California in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to interview Tom and the band several times during those peak years. He was such a cool, friendly, smart, down-to-earth, passionate, funny, no-bullshit guy—just like the music he and his glorious band made. People will be singing those hits forever: in bands, in karaoke bars, sitting around the living room with acoustic guitars, drivin’ around with friends blasting the radio/iPhone/whatever.
You probably don’t think much about Petty as a guitarist; after all, in that band, the magnificent, supremely tasteful, and underrated Mike Campbell did the heavy lifting with his arsenal of axes. But Petty was also a really good, solid rhythm guitarist, and his strumming is, of course, at the root of nearly every song he wrote. Many Petty tracks featured acoustic guitar and/or a blend of acoustic and electric, and there, again, Petty was a reliable performer. His playing on this version of his 1991 song “Learning to Fly” couldn’t be more simple and rudimentary (one reason why so many Petty songs appeal to beginning guitarists—tuneful and easy!), but it’s also perfect for the song and the vibe. Feel free to sing along. Hard not to.
Another great one gone. —Blair Jackson
For a bonus blast of Petty, check out this video of TP explaining a bit about how he wrote “The Waiting.” It shows some his self-effacing dry wit and personality.
And we’ll leave you with this lovely cover version of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” as performed by the all-acoustic group The Wailin’ Jennys. (A studio version appears on the excellent new WJ album, Fifteen.)