I've gone back and forth on whether to post this or not. I have no desire to dump on the favorite artists of others, at least not when I have no hatred for the artist in question. I don't have much to say about Tom Petty. I couldn't name the Heartbreakers ... for some reason, Benmont Tench's name sticks in my head, but I don't know the others without checking the Internet. For most of my life since the emergence of Petty, I've used him as a marker for a time when rock and roll music changed. When punk arrived, I would say, some of the people thought it was a tremendous reflection of true rock and roll spirit, while everyone else went to their Tom Petty albums and never listened to new music again. That's unfair, of course, to Petty if not to the baby boomers who never wanted to hear anything that didn't sound like what they'd already heard. (Of course, hip hop followed, becoming the true revolution I had imagined happening with punk.)
Chris Willman wrote in Variety, "Tom Petty may have been the least polarizing figure in rock history. Literally everyone else you could cite has a substantial 'not a fan' base, from Dylan to Springsteen, Bowie to Bono. And the very nature of the eternal Beatles-vs.-Stones debate attests that there will always be someone, somewhere, immutably meh on Mick and McCartney. But there’s an argument to be made that Petty almost never caused an argument, at least not among music fans."
I think Willman is onto something. It would be an exaggeration for me to say I was "not a fan" of Petty. But the very fact of his non-polarizing nature is a point against him, in my mind. People argue about Dylan and Bruce and Bowie and Bono because there is something larger than the mere ordinary about them. But everyone seemed to agree that Tom Petty was one of the good ones.
And, in fairness, with his death, many people have written eloquently about what his music meant to them, so I'm clearly in the minority when I am, if not meh, than at least not inspired by Petty.
The year Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they were part of a group that included The Ramones, Talking Heads, Brenda Lee, Isaac Hayes, and Gene Pitney. In my personal Hall, the Ramones and Talking Heads are in, you can make a good case for Brenda Lee, and Isaac Hayes makes sense. Not so sure about Gene Pitney, who is the only one of the group that I'd place below Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
As a nod to Petty on his death, I put together a 20-song playlist that we listened to in the car on a trip from Sacramento to Berkeley. Any artist who has 20 worthy songs to their name is pretty good (and some people were making lists with 50 songs ... as I say, my taste preferences don't really match the majority here). But that 20 was a bit of a cheat. I included five cover songs, and two ringers, one by Stevie Nicks and one by the Traveling Wilburys. I could only come up with 13 "Tom Petty songs" I wanted to hear. Which still isn't bad, but I can't say I think a baker's dozen good songs makes a Hall of Fame artist.
And I mean it when I say "good songs". "American Girl" is the only Tom Petty song I think of as a true classic. It was on his first album. He gets credit for longevity, but for me, he never cut a track better than the last song on his first album.
But picky, picky, picky. Tom Petty made plenty of good music, and touched a lot of listeners. There's nothing wrong with that.
We saw him in concert once, as a solo acoustic performer at the first Bridge concert in 1986. Honestly, we thought he was drunk. Maybe he was just having fun. He opened with "American Girl", tossed in "Blue Moon of Kentucky", and finished with "Twist and Shout." He did have good taste in covers.
Here are my three favorite Tom Petty song, a rather dull selection to be sure: