By Jeffrey Hanson

This week the American music culture lost Tom Petty, whose ubiquity I suspect obscures his unique talent.

Tom Petty holds the record for the most Top 10 hits on the Mainstream Rock chart at Billboard, and he managed to get there by blending early ’60s rock, garage rock, roots and folk music, the British Invasion, the distinctive 12-string Rickenbacker sound made famous by the Byrds, and the Southern style into which he was born into a distinctly American idiom.

So complete was his musical alchemy that he drew on a variety of classic sources without sounding like any of them in particular. Coming to the fore at a time when the excesses of stadium rock were at their peak, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers chose a different path. Like the Band before them, they refreshed the tradition rather than embrace glam, punk, or New Wave. And like the Band, they had their own version of Garth Hudson (rock’s most important Anglican organist), Benmont Tench, who rounded out the ensemble with keys, a fifth wheel to the album-era preference for a four-man Beatles-esque team.

Guitarist Mike Campbell, like Tench, is an extraordinary talent, fully capable of letting it rip at any time, but his most powerful tracks lay in exactly as much elaboration as the song requires. The Heartbreakers were adherent to the discipline of their art, restraining more often than indulging their prodigious abilities.

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Petty’s preference for tradition and craftsmanship made him modern rock’s most successful artist who remained unswervingly committed over decades of artistic productivity to hoeing the same musical row, finding infinite possibilities within the same musical vocabulary, one that sounded utterly familiar and entirely his own all at once. “Three chords and the truth” is a cliché for most rockers; for Petty it was the sum and substance of a lengthy career.

As a result, he was utterly unpretentious and free of the self-deluded aspirations of the perennial self-inventor. Not for him was the need to overhaul every few years, to revise the style, the visual iconography, or even the composition of the band very much (even the albums billed as solo projects still featured the Heartbreakers in some iteration or another).

The man’s self-effacement was clear recently when he came to a settlement with Sam Smith about a perceived similarity between the choruses of “I Won’t Back Down” and Smith’s “Stay with Me.” Petty released a statement saying, “I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. … A musical accident no more no less. In these times we live in this is hardly news. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career.”

A smaller man would have started a Twitter war, making sure it brought him maximum outraged attention. Petty presented himself as too humble to be concerned with squabbles or even with political activism, but in that very humility he towered above such trivialities. Can any fan imagine him weighing in on a hot-button issue of the day? More to the point, can any fan imagine anyone wanting him to do so? Who would want Petty to Tweet on — what? — the women’s march? His Twitter account seems to have existed mostly to give away concert tickets.

In his songwriting, even when he played with the stereotype of the self-important rocker, he played with it. Consider the self-undermining insouciance of “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” which requires very little moral imagination to plumb the shallows of the narrator’s inner life: “Let’s roll another joint and turn the radio loud.” His aspirations are not lofty, his ambitions that of an adolescent man-child, but Petty is in on the joke; the whole song is a sympathetic wink to all those of us whose petulant complaints are utterly without foundation. The only rebels Petty knows are the ones without a clue.

Or think about the simplicity of his longed-for contentment in “King’s Highway.” All the narrator wants is to pick up his beloved and “take you far away from trouble, my love, under a big old sky, out in a field of green.” As the closing stanza says, he just doesn’t want to end up alone or with someone he doesn’t even know. As do we all.

Speaking of big skies and green fields, Petty is the undisputed master of the two-part concatenation. With a consistency and creativity worthy of comparison with the Psalms, he pairs related ideas into simple, sturdy joints like a master carpenter. From “Learning to Fly”: “And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn.” From “Walls”: “Some days are diamonds; some days are rocks.” From “Wildflowers”: “You belong among the wildflowers; you belong in a boat out at sea.”

Most important of all, Petty was possessed of the uncommon grace of being able to sing an agapic love song.

His best songs dedicated toward a beloved woman express a pure and heartfelt appreciation for her character. Petty’s best work eschews the obvious rock cliché of the beloved as nothing more than a sexy babe.

My favorite example is the under-appreciated “Walls.” The single buries the austerity of its principal sentiment under Sgt. Pepper’s-style overproduction. Seek out “Walls (No. 3)” or Kasey Anderson’s cover. The chorus — “You’ve got a heart so big it could crush this town, but I can’t hold out forever. Even walls fall down” — combines the narrator’s heartfelt regard for the beloved and his resigned awareness of his human limits.

Incredibly, the narrator’s praise is entirely lacking in any admixture of lust or suspicion of self-interest. He loves her for her heart, not for her physique. He wants her to see herself as lovingly as he sees her, and this is much more important than whatever modest hope he may have that her accurate perception of her worth might result in her loving him back, which seems to be a dim hope at most.

This genuine empathic concern for another was evident even in an early hit like “Refugee,” which again entirely declines to describe the beloved in terms of predatory obsession with her appearance. Petty’s lyric opens with the admission that the narrator and his beloved share an unspoken knowledge of their attraction to one another, but he assures her that “it don’t really matter to me, baby.”

The crucial point of the song is that the beloved be free, and there is no intimation at all, as is typical of the duplicitous hounds of rock stardom, that an ulterior motive is at work. When Petty shouts “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” you really believe it, enough so to imagine that the song might be sufficient to precipitate the shock of recognition in its intended recipient, ending her self-imposed exile, even if that doesn’t result in union with the narrator.

The same disinterested love is in evidence in “Wildflowers,” in which Petty defies the rhyme that countless hours of pop musicology have cultivated the listener to expect. After his opening couplet (and Petty was a master of opening lines) — “You belong among the wildflowers, you belong in a boat out at sea” — he finishes in a totally unanticipated denouement: “Sail away, kill off the hours, / You belong somewhere you feel free.” The finish is a kick in the gut, for the average rock listener used to inhabiting the male lover’s psyche imagines the stanza finishing with the words “You belong with me.” This is a conceit that Petty’s lovers never seem to indulge.

“Yer so Bad” is a playful paean to a sanity-restoring lover that also makes no reference to the beloved’s appearance, and “A Face in the Crowd” dares to minimize the inherently attractive qualities of the beloved. The typical male rocker’s psyche prides itself on captivating the sexy woman through prowess, but this song plays up the ordinariness of the beloved, who is just “a face in the crowd, walking around.” Her value and beauty to Petty rest entirely in the fact that she has — apparently without capitalizing on the seductiveness that only our narrator can perceive — waltzed “out of a dream, out of the sky, into my heart, into my life.” She is ennobled not by her loveliness but her unself-conscious anonymity and the extent to which she has, thanks to her obscure charm, insinuated herself into the narrator’s affections.

In “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Petty satirizes his old man who was “born to rock; he’s still trying to beat the clock.” But Petty never became that old man. He knew himself too well. If he could not have kept making the works of elegant, rustic simplicity that he perfected across a lifetime, I am sure he would have packed it in. His credibility and humanity even in older age recalls the sterling example of Joe Strummer.

In keeping with his consistent ethos, Tom Petty once said in an interview: “My vision of a rock and roll band wasn’t one that cuddled up to politicians, or went down the red carpet. That kind of thing you see so much of today. I felt like once that stuff starts happening your audience doesn’t know whether to trust you or not. … To write a good song is enough. That was the loftiest ambition I had: to write a song that would endure.”

“To write a song that would endure.” Carve that in stone. It’s the man’s epitaph.

Ant Helier

The Rev. Jeffrey Hanson is a research associate in the Program for Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing at Harvard University and the curate for Christian education at the Church of the Advent. He is the author of Kierkegaard and the Life of Faith: The Aesthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in “Fear and Trembling,” the editor of Kierkegaard as Phenomenologist: An Experiment and the co-editor (with Michael R. Kelly) of Michel Henry: The Affects of Thought. He will convene the “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots” conference at the Church of the Advent in November.

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Brilliant! Thank you for this insightful piece.

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