When the news came, it made a day that was already very, very bad even worse. Hours after an evil man had used an arsenal of weapons to take the lives of at least 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas and injure hundreds more, reports spread that Tom Petty had been found in his Malibu home in full cardiac arrest, that he had been removed from life support after transport to the hospital, and finally, after premature announcements of his death and confusion about his condition, that he had passed away. So it seems inevitable that the death of one of America’s greatest rock ’n’ rollers is going to be inextricably tied by coincidence of date to one of America’s worst mass shootings. But I will think of what Petty accomplished over the course of a musical career that began a half-century ago, rather than about the circumstances of his death.
I caught up with him toward its beginning, when I spotted his ambiguous smile and lean slouch on the cover of the third Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” on display in the record store at the university I was attending. I’d missed the first two Heartbreakers records, and I had no idea who he was, but there was something about that look. So I grabbed a copy, and from the first words Petty sneered, on the album’s iconic opening track, “Refugee” — “We got somethin’/ we both know it/ we don’t talk too much about it” — he had me; that singular combination of Byrdsian jangle and rock ’n’ roll sneer was like nothing I’d ever heard.
With the Heartbreakers’ initial articulation of that sound, for me at least, those first three records (I quickly circled back for the first two) stand on their own. But with only a few exceptions, the hook they’d sunk would stay in through the subsequent string of records Petty made with his marvelous band and on his own — his mid-period solo gem, “Wildflowers,” and his grafting of the blues onto the Heartbreakers’ sound with the 2010 album “Mojo” becoming particular favorites along the way — through his collaborations with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys (was there ever a band more worthy of the “supergroup” label?), and through his back-to-the-future proto-Heartbreakers outfit Mudcrutch.
Of course, along the way Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also became one of the best live bands on the planet. My last exposure came, as it turns out, near the end, just a couple of months ago, covering the first of two shows Petty and company played at the TD Garden on their 40th anniversary tour. As I wrote then, it was for the most part a typical Heartbreakers show. There weren’t many offbeat catalog choices, and nothing in particular to mark the occasion. Instead, it was just — “just” — a couple of hours’ worth of highlights from what Petty and his mates had wrought over the course of those 40 years. And when the man stood center-stage, grinning from ear to ear, bathing in the response of the crowd; when 20,000 people gave joyous, full-throated roar to the choruses of “I Won’t Back Down” and “Learning to Fly” — those moments, too, were testament to what Tom Petty had wrought.