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October 04, 2017

Roger McGuinn of the Byrds remembers Tom Petty

Petty leaves behind a rich sonic archive, much of which was inspired by his friend and fellow rocker

Whenever Tom Petty talked about who had the biggest impact on his music, the legendary rocker would say Roger McGuinn of the seminal Byrds.

McGuinn’s jangle rock had a huge impact on Petty, who died Monday at 66 due to a massive heart attack. McGuinn laughed when asked to recall the first time he heard Petty’s initial hit, “American Girl.”

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“I said, ‘when did I record that?” McGuinn said while calling from his Orlando home. 

“I was kidding, but the vocal style sounded just like me and then there was the Rickenbacker guitar, which I used. The vocal inflections were just like mine. I was told that a guy from Florida named Tom Petty wrote and sings the song, and I said that I had to meet him.”

McGuinn and Petty hit it off like most who met the latter. Few would argue Petty was one of the most easy going iconic figures in rock.

“I liked him enough to invite Petty and the Heartbreakers to open for us in 1976,” McGuinn recalled. 

“When I covered ‘American Girl,’ I changed a word or two and Tom asked me if it was because the vocal was too high and I said ‘yes.’ I had fun with Tom’s song.”

McGuinn, 75, stressed he will always celebrate his pal’s life, friendship and music privately and on stage. 

“There is nobody like Tom Petty,” McGuinn said.

Even though Petty, like every other young artist appropriated from those he admired, the Gainesville native was unique. Petty, with his nasal twang, wasn’t the best singer or the finest frontman. Petty, who played his final two shows in Philadelphia in July – each sellouts at the Wells Fargo Center – peppered his fans with cliches from the stage.

However, the singer with the perpetually slow gait took his influences to another place. Petty didn’t stray far from his rootsy rock. He added elements of Southern rock, garage rock and British Invasion. The relatively quirky “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was about as left of center as Petty would ever drift, thanks to a collaboration with the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart.

Petty is celebrated for his music, but he had integrity. When his label, MCA, planned to raise album prices by a $1 in 1981, he refused to release his then-forthcoming album, “Hard Promises,” and protested the increase.

During my lone interview with Petty when he was touring behind his second solo album, 1994’s “Wildflowers,” he commented on the reluctant rock stars, such as the Replacements, who opened for him in 1989 and Nirvana.

I was told that a guy from Florida named Tom Petty wrote and sings the song, and I said that I had to meet him.”

“Those bands don’t care about how much money they’re going to make,” Petty said. 

“That’s impressive, since I think a lot of recording artists in America have been more concerned about being stars than making great music.”

It sounds like Petty is referring to the musical landscape, post-reality show. Petty was arguably the most consistent singer-songwriter, save Bruce Springsteen, between 1976 and 2002. “American Girl” kicked off his career during the Bicentennial year and he recorded the underrated “The Last DJ” 15 years ago.

There were the occasional slips. Petty wrote “Into the Great Wide Open,” which features the line “A Rebel Without a Clue” at the dawn of the ‘90s. That was penned just after touring with the Replacements, who had a minor hit with 1989’s “I’ll Be You,” which prominently featured the phrase, “A Rebel Without a Clue.”

Petty became a seminal figure and a pop culture hero. When the televised benefit concert for the 9/11 victims aired, Petty aptly kicked it off with “I Won’t Back Down." Once Petty found his voice, no one sounded like him. He was akin to identifiable actors from a bygone era such as Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. It’s a far cry from so many contemporary vocalists, who, for more than a quarter century, ape Eddie Vedder.

Petty leaves behind an amazing canon of music and one of rock’s greatest bands, the Heartbreakers. Petty wouldn’t be the same without co-conspirators, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who also appeared on his solo and Mudcrutch albums.

There was indeed foreshadowing with Petty and the Heartbreakers. Many hearts are broken.