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Tom Petty's music moved the souls of generations


By Dan Butcher

Tom Petty was a guy that had the all-too-rare ability to bridge generations through his music.

Petty dropped out of school at the age of 17 to pursue a career in music. From the beginning in Gainesville, Florida with Petty, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench forming Mudcrutch in the early seventies to the worldwide appeal of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, he knew just how to speak to me and many others around the world.

He sold more than 80 million records worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Much will be written about how Petty’s songs were so quintessentially American, and how he was able to speak to residents of states red as well as blue. Petty was mostly apolitical as a performer, but seemed to lean left — he was certainly pleased when Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee used “I Won’t Back Down” — and yet he could easily make you think he was just a good ol’ boy. He sang about how “there’s a Southern accent, where I come from,” and stuck his thumb in the eye of corporate greed and the Establishment. He could rock the hell out, but always seemed as chill as the Dude after a couple of White Russians.

Tom Petty was a like a compact disc — if you held him in the light and looked at him, you could see a whole bunch of different, recognizable colors being reflected.

I am sure much will also, rightly, be said about how great his music videos were (“Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a more definitive Alice in Wonderland than the movie Tim Burton made), and what an amazing live performer he was, and how effectively his music was used in TV and film.

Ultimately, there are two simple reasons why Petty’s death is so devastating for so many people, myself included: because his career was so long, it felt like the sound of him was always around, and because his songs were written with such specificity, they felt extraordinarily personal. Those two things make going through his discography less a revisitation of the albums and songs he released, and more like flipping through an old photo album.

I have seen so many people on Twitter and Facebook posting snatches of lyrics from Petty's songs. They didn’t even need to identify which tracks they meant, because we all know them. They are in our blood.

You can say Tom Petty’s music represented perseverance, a sensibility that felt uniquely American, or the spirit of a summertime that would never end. Those things are true. But when you consider when he died — a week after the last date of what he said would be his final tour with the Heartbreakers, and on a day when the nation was mourning so much loss that occurred at a concert — it’s impossible not to consider the connection between his music and life itself.

Tom Petty’s music sounded like what it felt like to be alive.

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