What’s not to like about Tom Petty?
By Shawn Telford
Seattle Post-Intelligencer — Monday, July 31, 2006
This essay does not intend to answer the following question but begs the discussion: What is the cultural significance of Tom Petty?
Sixteen Grammy nominations, four Grammy Awards, 15 albums on Billboard’s Top 100, 15 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, member of the Traveling Wilburys with rock legends Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, accolades and awards too numerous to mention, he stayed cool through the ’80s without becoming a novelty and, most important, everyone just loves Petty.
OK, maybe not “love” love. Perhaps it’s better to say that no one hates Petty. In fact, his appreciation goes from “Yeah, he’s OK” to “I love him,” but never “I hate him.”
Why is that? This is an artist known for writing three-chord songs, and his nasally vocals don’t have much range, he’s never too high or too low, neither too flowery nor technically ornate. Could Petty’s success lie in his simplicity? Never one to show off, his meek demeanor and straightforward approach have made him an Everyman whose broad message is so perfectly plain that listeners can find a piece of themselves in it.
The thousands who descended upon White River Amphitheatre Sunday night certainly found something. Most of the diverse crowd stood through the entire show singing so loud to the defiant “I Won’t Back Down” that Petty admitted it almost knocked him down. “Free Fallin’ ” was no quieter as it seemed everyone must have known a girl who loves her momma, “loves Jesus and America, too.” And again during “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the audience pined along with Petty because who hasn’t felt alienated and trapped “too alone to be proud”? Yeah, you don’t know how it feels to be me, do you?
In addition to his innate ability to reduce the trials and tribulations of everyday life into something simply poetic, Petty has pretty cool friends, too, like honorary Heartbreaker Stevie Nicks, who made a surprise appearance to sing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and then stuck around to duet with Petty on “I Need To Know” and “Insider.”
Pretty cool, right? Well, it gets better because who recently toured with Petty? Pearl Jam. So who else made a surprise appearance to sing “The Waiting”? You guessed it: Eddie Vedder.
Now, let’s ponder this: The dead-sexy Stevie Nicks playing tambourine in your band is pretty cool, but Stevie and Eddie both on tambourine and backing vocals is unbelievable. Even Vedder found the experience overwhelming when, during the “American Girl” encore, he messed up the lyrics and turned mischievously to Petty, who quickly stepped in to show the younger rock star how it’s done. It gave Vedder time to remember the words so that verse two went perfectly. The real crowning moment was Vedder, Nicks and Petty singing, “Oh yeah, all right/Take it easy, baby/ Make it last all night/ She was an American girl!”
So, in conclusion, if anyone were ever to ask if Tom Petty really matters, the right answer would be, “Are you kidding?”