“There goes the last DJ / Who plays what he wants to play / And says what he wants to say / Hey, hey, hey”
Something incredible happens when you tune in Sirius Radio channel 31. Supernatural, even. Tom Petty is still alive. Still there nonchalantly talking about music – his own, and that of multitudes of other artists. Still rambling from topic to topic in an excited but unhurried drawl. Still irreverent, a bit sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly silly, and still performing his self-appointed role as musical archivist, digging up a half-century’s worth of amazing and often lesser-known gems on his transcendent, genre-defying show, Buried Treasure. For a while I thought it was eerie, hearing the voice of a dead man still hosting a radio show. But now I consider it, well, a treasure: Tom Petty, who died on October 2nd, 2017 at the age of 66, is still helping me discover new (old) music.
There’s little dispute that Tom Petty, along with his ever-stout band, The Heartbreakers, was one of the all-time greats of the rock music world. 80 million in records sold, a 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 40 years¹ of indelible music…I doubt there would be many in need of convincing. Hell, if there were still any doubters, remember that he also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of fellas named George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in a part-time arrangement known as the Traveling Wilburys. But for me, even as a life-long fan, owner of most of both his Heartbreakers and solo albums, and attendee at numerous of his concerts (always with my friend, Greg, the biggest Petty fanatic I’ve ever known), I still don’t think I – or perhaps many others – fully appreciated the level of his greatness until after he was gone. Any casual music fan could rattle off a dozen Petty classics. Probably two dozen. But it was all those next-level, you might say, lesser-known gems, on which I began to focus, and which began getting more airplay on channel 31 and elsewhere. Maybe I’d missed some, or forgotten some, but they were all just about stupendous. Stunning, really, for their outstanding consistency; dozens upon dozens more that seemed to me to be arguably the artistic equals of ‘American Girl’, ‘Refugee’, ‘Into The Great Wide Open’, ‘Learning To Fly’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ (and on and on). They just didn’t happen to be chosen by some record executive as the single.
It’s made me reconsider just where I’d held Petty among the pantheon of greatest American songwriters/bandleaders. I guess throughout his remarkable career I’d considered him more or less peers with, let’s say, John Fogerty, Bob Seger, Gregg Allman, and Brian Wilson – indisputable giants of stars-and-stripes rock and roll, and some of my absolute personal favorites ever. But my renewed listening had me elevate Petty even further, up to the next echelon, the Bruce Springsteen level, my absolute highest. Now, this isn’t intended to be construed as a competition – I generally despise the act of ranking prodigious creative artists, as if one can demonstrably be proven to be “better” than another. And I certainly doubt the self-effacing and often acerbic Petty himself would’ve countenanced such a consideration; much of his snarly attitude often seemed best summarized by his nonpareil line from 1979’s ‘Here Comes My Girl’ in which he simply wished nothing more than to “Tell the whole wide world to shove it.” I’m merely noting that in my re-focused, post-death assessment, wholly weighing Petty’s proverbial full-body-of-work, I cannot place the legendary Tom Petty, the pride of Gainesville, Florida and the entire U.S. of A., anywhere but the top tier.
On September 28, 2018, just shy of a year following his passing, Reprise Records released a Tom Petty box set, a career-spanning, 60-track collection filled not only with his voluminous unforgettable hits but also previously unreleased recordings, deep tracks, live versions, and rarities. Almost as good as the material itself, it’s referential title was perfect: “An American Treasure.”
¹Petty’s death, from an accidental overuse of prescription drugs, came just one week after the completion of the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.