Learning to Fly
Tom Petty was perhaps destined for a life in Rock and Roll. Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, he met Elvis Presley at the age of ten while he was filming his ninth movie near Petty’s home. A few years later Petty would see the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show and know right away that he wanted to be in a band. It also didn’t hurt that one of his earliest guitar teachers was Don Felder, who also lived in Gainesville at the time and who would later join the Eagles.
In 2002 Petty released his most fully charged album of angst for the music industry. The Last DJ includes several attacks on the music business, criticizing it for greed, watering down music and relying too heavily on music made by underdressed young women. It was the only flop of Petty’s career selling less than any of his other albums. Critics claimed he was being “bitter,” which Petty took issue with. He claimed the album is full of hope if you look for it. Poor sales notwithstanding, that same year the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2006 he released his third solo album, Highway Companion, and embarked on a tour to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Heartbreakers. Following that he reunited with his old band mates from Mudcrutch for an album and tour. Their swinging jam inspired album provides a nice side project to the Heartbreakers regular sound. The songs are more countryish and stray further into southern rock than typical Heartbreakers outings. Everything seems to have a freer flow, perhaps owing to the fact that everything was recorded in a two week period. Petty also lays down his guitar to return to bass duties.
Tom Petty’s style of songwriting has a lot in common with his band mates from his more famous side project The Traveling Wilburys. If you look through all the commonality between Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Geoff Lynne and Roy Orbison – you’ve got yourself a typical Tom Petty song. Writing mostly about successes and failures or love and romance, Petty frequently revisits the theme of American individualism (“Into The Great Wide Open,” “Running Down a Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down”). Listening to songs like “Free Falling,” “Learning to Fly” and “Room at the Top,” you can’t help but notice a recurring exploration of the highs and lows experienced in life. They’re not just songs about a rock stars life, but about common human experiences. There can be no feeling of joy and success without the flipside of disappointment and failure. No matter how high you go, you always have to come down. Whatever you make of it, the music is always uplifting and optimistic while remaining realistic and true to life.
An example from the 1980 song “Here Comes My Girl” – “It just seems so useless to have to work so hard and nothing ever really seems to come from it,” Petty murmurs. “Then she looks me in the eye and says, ‘We’re gonna last forever.’ and, you know, I can’t begin to doubt it.”
After more than thirty years of touring high and low, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers released The Live Anthology in 2009, a fifty song retrospective of the band’s life on the road. The sprawling set of songs showcases their incredible talent and musicianship, playing tunes of ever-changing styles, moods and genres with an ease that underscores their abilities. The collection includes the obvious hit songs as well as some interesting covers and a few new arrangements of some classics. It’s as solid a representation of what a great live rock and roll rock band could and should do as you’re ever going to get.
Since 1976 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have released thirteen studio albums, with Mr. Petty releasing three solo albums withouy the Heartbreakers. Their most recent album is Hypnotic Eye, from 2014.
On October 2, 2017, one week after completing the Heartbreaker’s 40th Anniversary Tour, Tom Petty suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu. He later died at UCLA hospital in Santa Monica – less than a month from his 67th birthday.