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Tom Petty Was Rock's Everyman

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform on <em>Saturday Night Live</em> after the release of <em>Full Moon Fever</em> in 1989.
NBC via Getty Images
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform on Saturday Night Live after the release of Full Moon Fever in 1989.

For such an unassuming rock star, Tom Petty sure got to live a lot of lives.

He was a chart-topping fire hose of hits whose late-'70s and early-'80s singles — "Refugee," "The Waiting," "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," et al — have etched themselves into the classic-rock firmament.

He was an influential Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and standard-bearer who formed a key bridge between the jangly folk-rock of The Byrds and the singer-songwriters of the present day.

He was an MTV star whose videos — most notably his creepy turn as the Mad Hatter in 1985's "Don't Come Around Here No More" — can be conjured from memory 30-plus years later.

He was an everyday kid in Florida who dropped out of high school to join a short-lived band called Mudcrutch — only to re-form it and release a pair of albums late in his career, just because he could.

And he was a member of the Traveling Wilburys, the one dubbed "Muddy Wilbury" and "Charlie T. Wilbury Jr." — part of a true supergroup with rock legends Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne.

Petty's place in the Wilburys said much about the man's fascinating career. Think about those other Wilburys: Dylan brought gravitas and a kind of unknowable otherworldiness; Orbison brought a soaring, spectral quality; Harrison brought an air of mischief and mysticism; Lynne brought a certain immaculateness, befitting a producer with a perfectionist's touch. Petty, by comparison, was a plainspoken workingman's rocker whose approachable but unmistakable croak helped keep the band's songs grounded.

In the Traveling Wilburys, as with the rest of the rock and roll world, Tom Petty was surrounded by mystique. But his humanity provided a humble, centering force. Petty could be curmudgeonly, and he could project an air of distance in interviews, and he'd battled the music industry when he deemed it necessary. But he also crafted dozens of the sturdiest, most indelible rock and roll songs ever played — decades' worth of them, from 1976's "American Girl" to 1982's "You Got Lucky" to 1989's "Free Fallin'" and "I Won't Back Down" to 1994's "Wildflowers" and beyond.

In that last song, you can hear what makes the music of Petty distinct and eternal. His songs could sound tortured, weary, angry, knowing, defiant. But Petty also possessed a great capacity for hard-won warmth — for having sounded so tortured, weary, angry, knowing and defiant that his moments of grace, when they came around, rang all the more true. Petty wasn't one for dense wordcraft or obtuse metaphor, opting instead for clarity and directness; for clear, bright chord progressions and words that spoke to human resilience and desire.

In "Wildflowers," Petty sang of a freedom we all deserve:

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free

There's so much simple beauty and generosity in those words, which have helped lend a soundtrack to countless major life changes — everything from graduations to breakups to funerals. They've served every terrifying milestone; all those occasions in which our greatest wish is for someone we love to find comfort and contentment. Petty, an everyman for everyone, had words for them all.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)