October 04, 2017

Tom Petty: musical giant, but not a lock to be lionized through the ages

For all his brilliance, rocker had little impact on pop culture

In the days since the shocking cardiac-arrest death of rock titan Tom Petty, I have read numerous appreciations, essays, remembrances, etc., all of which are pretty much in agreement: By any measure, he was one of the all-time greats of American popular music.

That is inarguable. During a roughly 20-year stretch beginning in 1976, Petty, both as the quarterback of The Heartbreakers—an ensemble whose only legitimate rival as the greatest American backup unit is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band—and as a solo artist, conjured an almost supernatural body of indelible, sing-along-worthy songs including “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee,” “Free Fallin’,” “Last Dance with Mary Jane” and “I Won’t Back Down.”

He also was on the right side of many important causes, having played such landmark concerts as Live Aid, Farm Aid and No Nukes.

However, none of this suggests that future generations will view Petty in the same way they likely will artists like Elvis Presley, The Beatles (collectively and individually), Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie. For all his undeniable musical genius, Tom Petty barely left a footprint on the larger pop culture landscape.

He was not a larger-than-life figure whose comings and goings were obsessed over by media and fans alike. Mostly, he flew below the radar when he wasn’t promoting a new album and/or tour. And when he was the subject of non-musical media coverage, he didn’t instigate it, as when his Los Angeles mansion was the target of an arsonist. He certainly didn’t publicly flout societal mores a la Madonna or Charlie Sheen.

He was not a serial dater of supermodels or A-list actresses. Although he later admitted to a heroin addiction in the 1990s, he was hardly synonymous with drug use in the manner of a Keith Richards.

While he no doubt lived an extremely gracious and comfortable life, and wanted for no services or material goods, if he indulged in an ostentatious, over-the-top lifestyle, the public was not apprised.

Nor did he make (or try to make) the transition to TV and/or film. Yes, he did a wonderful job voicing the sweet-natured ne’er-do-well Lucky (who vaguely resembled Petty) on “King Of the Hill,” but it was a supporting role on a program, though relatively successful, that is usually not conflated with the likes of “The Simpsons” or “South Park” in the pantheon of animated TV series.

And he certainly wasn’t a fashion avatar: It could be said that he was to sartorial style-setting as his old buddy, Bob Dylan, is to the manufacture of lederhosen.

In short, he did not say or do the kinds of things that would have identified him as that which America worships above all else: a celebrity.

So, while Petty’s music should, rightfully, live forever in the hearts, minds and ears of rock ’n’ roll devotees, it’s not as much of a slam dunk that future generations will immediately think of Petty when late-20th-century rock is the topic of discussion. He just didn’t check the “celebrity” boxes and, sadly, that’s what usually determines an artist’s enduring place in our popular culture.

Watch Tom Petty as the voice of Lucky on “King Of the Hill:”


Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), WWDBAM.com, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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