Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Anthology: Through
the Years

The recent death of Tom Petty was a seismic event. People were in tears; my girlfriend called to break the sad news and she was, and there’s no other way to say it, heartbroken. I was heartbroken. Death is not a competition or a game, but offhand I can only think of a few other rock’n’rollers whose deaths might be more traumatic for all of us, and they answer to the names Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger, and Richards.

From his eponymous 1976 debut until now Tom Petty (both with and without his backing band the Heartbreakers) produced enough great songs to fill a small jukebox, and their genius lies in their simplicity. Petty was a no-frills hit maker with an unerring ability to set a timeless sentiment to a great hook, and this lack of overweening ambition—Petty was never restlessly experimental or conceptual in the way Pete Townshend or Neil Young can be—often led people to underrate his unique skill set. He was dedicated to the production of great rock songs, not cosmic statements, and in this respect he was just as old school as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. And he continued to produce great songs for a longer period of time than any of them and almost anybody period, Bruce Springsteen excepted.

Petty was that rarest of rarities, a truly likeable rock star—and I think this is why we all feel so bereft—because he spoke to us from the heart. There was nothing aloof or coldly intellectual or calculating about his music. He was an incurable romantic—sometimes cynical, sure, and sometimes angry, but often tender—and his subject was universal: Love. He knew the heart is a fragile vessel and on most of the songs on 2000’s Anthology: Through the Years—and I’m not just thinking of such well-known tunes as “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’” but also of less-played songs like “The Best of Everything” and the stoical “It’ll All Work Out”—he wore it on his sleeve. Like Roy Orbison, he was a kind of patron saint of the brokenhearted. And no one but Orbison could so effortlessly evoke the pain of love gone wrong.

Most everybody has their favorite Tom Petty songs—I can count well over a dozen I wouldn’t want to live without, and there are plenty more that I love. And at least five of his songs are on my Top 100 list and have been for years. That makes him a Giant in my world, and he was probably a Giant in your world too. And he pulled it off with a humble shrug and lack of great artist bullshit that is altogether remarkable. His lack of hubris is part of what made—and makes—him so great; the late, great Mr. Petty probably wouldn’t have minded if you’d called him a craftsman instead of a genius, and how many artists who have left an indelible imprint on their times can you say that about?

Petty, God bless him, fit radio like a glove; only 2 of the 34 tracks on this compilation top the 5-minute mark, and the majority of them are less than 4 minutes long. Petty knew there’s Grace in brevity, and from his much-touted childhood meeting with Elvis Presley sought to keep it simple, stupid. None of the famed producers he walked with—and they included Jeff Lynne, Robbie Robertson, and Rick Rubin—ever induced him away from sticking to the knitting; hell, they were probably too smart to try. The closest he ever came to writing something radically “different” was “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and even it sounded just like Tom Petty, with some programmed drums and a sitar tossed into the mix.

As for Anthology: Through the Years, it’s the perfect package for the diehard Petty fan. It doesn’t just stick to the hits—as 1993’s Greatest Hits does—but it’s not the completist’s dream of the sort that I generally avoid either. Sure, you get all the smash hits, but you also get lots of great but less heard songs like “Yer Bad,” “The Wild One, Forever,” and the unusually bleak “Straight Into Darkness,” the sentiment behind which makes sense when one learns—as I did only after his death—that Petty struggled with both depression and heroin addiction over the course of his long career. But then again maybe that’s what the wonderfully pugilistic “I Won’t Back Down” was about: one man’s defiant refusal to quit in the face of all the forces that would drag us down into the darkness.

No, Petty kept runnin’ down that dream, and he didn’t stop until a heart attack finally set him free fallin’, unfettered by the bonds of flesh at last, into the great wide open. Petty’s death hurt me and it probably hurt you, but we all have much to be thankful for. Even the losers get lucky sometimes, and this loser won big time thanks to Mr. Petty’s gift for setting universal sentiments to jingle-jangle melodies that were every bit as simple—or deceptively simple, I should say—as they were infectious. Tom Petty gave us so, so much. And he made it look easy. May he rest in peace, but never stop haunting us with his music.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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