She’s the unattainable, ethereally beautiful Surfer Girl that Brian Wilson made into part of American mythology.
That alluring, enigmatic image, so near, yet so far away, is part of the lyrical palette that Thomas Earl Petty used to transform his masterpiece, American Girl, into a staple of the modern musical lexicon. With its jangly Byrd-like guitars and propulsively energetic hook, Petty turned this iconic female into a musical heroine for the ages.
Born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida, Tom’s interest in rock and roll music began at age ten when he met Elvis Presley in 1961. Elvis was filming Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala. Soon Petty swapped out his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s. The rest, as they say, is music history.
The Best American Band Ever?
There has been so much written about Tom Petty recently that I’ll forgo the usual hagiography. His hits and accomplishments are so numerous that one could legimately argue that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the greatest American Band ever. Others have made that claim and it holds up very well against all arguments to the contrary.
Instead of reciting the litany of his reach and cultural influences, I’ll share a personal anecdote that to me illuminates Tom Petty’s magical impact. It was early in 1973 and I was attending school in Gainesville on the G.I. Bill. Yes, it was in the town formerly known as Hogtown that I experienced first hand the rapturous wonders of the continuous Petty party .
A group of us were out to commemorate that Holy day of the week, Friday, when I encountered Tom’s first group, Mudcrutch, which included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. They were the house band of Dub’s lounge, a very popular local house of libations. Well, after about three hours of listening and dancing to their awesome cover tunes and swampy originals, I decided I had died and gone to music nirvana. I mean, imagine going to school in a town that had bands like Mudcrutch playing in a local bar. I’ll never forget the energy, joy and musical force that these guys played with. There was, as Tom sang in his cover of Thunderclap Newman’s song, Something in the Air. And being Gainesville, it was Petty and company’s transcendent music and some righteous weed.
He Didn’t Back Down
But the performance of Tom’s that speaks to me most, that electrified me, that cut to the bone, was his steely eyed live rendition of I Won’t Back Down from the telethon Tribute: American Heroes on the evening of September 21, 2011. Other performers offered up beautiful, heartfelt songs of reflection, loss and mourning.
But not the author of Damn the Torpedoes. (Tom’s album title evoking a famous order issued by Admiral David Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay.) Petty and band poured out a tune full of rebellious, spirited rock and roll. It was straight up defiance. An anthem of American strength and resolve. He starred right into the camera and reminded the world that “you could stand me up to the gates of hell, and I won’t back down.” It was pure, unadorned Petty. A stripped down powerhouse rendering that delivered a gut punch.
It Was All About the Music
Tom was not blessed with wavy hair or physical beauty or a soaring voice. Petty soared to the heights that night and for most of his career on great songs and superb musicianship. Hell, Petty and the Heartbreakers were chosen by none other than Bob Dylan to back his worldwide tour. If there’s something I’ll play when I feel the least amount of self-pity, it’s this video. The stare, the intonation. The rebellious facial expression. The clear-eyed resolve. Vintage Tom Petty.
A Truly Rebellious Spirit
Like the heroes who rushed up white hot stairs and braved a burning inferno to save people still rapped in the Towers, Tom never backed down. And like them, he’s gone, but not forgotten. Forever etched in our souls. Thomas Earl Petty’s performance that fateful September night truly resembles the great American writer James Baldwin’s definition of an artist; “incorrigible disturber of the peace.” R.I.P.