Mike Casey's Tribute to Tom Petty

October 3, 2017

USA Today

So it appears, once again, that it’s time to add another name to the Rock n’ Roll RIP list. 

The word “legendary” gets thrown around a bit too carelessly for my tastes these days, but in this case it applies.

Legendary singer, songwriter, musician, and band-leader Tom Petty passed away yesterday at the age of 66. He would have been 67 on October 20.

Tom and the Heartbreakers burst onto the scene in 1976 just at the very moment when it appeared that guys with guitars were going out of fashion and would soon be replaced by drum machines, dance floors and disco music.  But not if Tom had anything to say about it. 

That first Heartbreakers album brought us classics like Breakdown, and American Girl.  Songs that along with scores of others written and recorded by Tom Petty that would go on to be part of the rock and roll song book, part of the American experience and perhaps more importantly, part of the soundtrack, the very fabric of our lives.  Mine.  And yours.  

The Waiting, Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, Don’t Do Me Like That, Listen to Her Heart, Don’t Come Around Here No More, Even the Losers, You Got Lucky, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, You Don’t Know How it Feels, Learning to Fly, I Won’t Back Down, Free Fallin’ and on…and on…and on….

Depending on how you count, you’re looking at 15 or so albums over the course of a 40 year career. 

In an industry that’s notorious for moving on to the quote ‘next big thing’ every 6 months or so, Tom Petty stayed a big thing for the better part of four decades.

Over the course of his career he battled with ticket scalpers, and managers, and attorneys, and record labels.  While he may have understood that music was, in fact, a business, Tom Petty made no bones about the fact that no high-powered suit in some corner office was going to use his name to stick it to the little guy.  That guy who was working his ass off to make a buck to get his little piece of the American dream and who was generous enough to spend a few of those bucks on a Tom Petty record or a ticket to one of his shows. 

As a songwriter, his approach was both quintessentially American and intensely personal-  a lyrical magician who worked tirelessly at his craft, all in the name of making it appear effortless.

And while it might have looked that way to us, to the fans, reaching that many people on that deep a level for so many years, requires effort and patience, and dedication and an unwavering commitment to having the guts to say what’s in your heart at any given moment in time. 

If you were lucky enough, or wise enough, to see Tom and the Heartbreakers live, you know he wasn’t a guitar wizard and he didn’t seem interested in having a band that was going to wow you with blazing solos or pyrotechnics or stage gimmickry.   

It’s as if every part of him said, “If the songs are good enough, that’s all we need.” 

And Tom, just so you know, the songs were more than good enough, man.  MORE than good enough.

66 years doesn’t seem very old anymore, so for those of us who are fans, 66 seems like way too soon for Tom Petty to be gone.

But I prefer to think of it like this:  if in 100 years, or 200 years, or 500 years, our future ancestors want to try to understand what Rock and Roll was and why it, at least for a time, it changed the world—all they will have to do is dig up the Tom Petty catalog and give it a listen…and then, it will all be crystal clear.

Blessings on your journey, Tom Petty. 

Thank you for all you’ve given to us.  It won’t be forgotten.