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. To never have fallen for the bicoastal boy who sang about that girl raised on promises, you might as well confess to not giving a rip about American music.
For someone with such an unwavering core persona, Petty had plenty of micro-personas to latch onto. Remember when he and the Heartbreakers came out of the gate 40 years ago — if you’re of a certain age — and the question was whether they were all about the Byrds-ian jangle-rock, or a power pop band, or actual new wavers? (The New York Times, in reviewing an early Manhattan club show where Petty opened for Roger McGuinn, used the headline to try to split the difference: “Tom Petty’s Pop Punk Rock Evokes Sounds of ‘60s.”)
But by the early 1980s, it was clear there was so much more than even those early indicators could suggest. Stardom gave way to superstardom as he embraced bluesier, more swaggering rock or neo-psychedelia, or fully developed his singer/songwriter bona fides. Taking a brief break from the Heartbreakers, he borrowed Jeff Lynne’s vocal-stacking techniques to put an extra spin on some of rock’s most essential anthems. As the kid brother in the Traveling Wilburys, he became an impish peer to four of the greatest talents in the half-generation before him. He seemed to go through life, and rock, with the slightest perpetual smirk… but if you didn’t relate to his Rickenbacker or his wit, you were probably won over by his “Wildflowers.” That mid-period acoustic solo music felt as delicate and emotional as the Heartbeakers’ signature sounds felt loud, precise, thrashy, and utterly liberating.
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, …