What Tom Petty Can Teach Us

3 min read

When reports of Tom Petty’s death surfaced earlier this week, my social feeds were jammed with weepy tributes. No other rock star’s passing has united so many of my friends in grief. Prince and David Bowie provoked a more intense reaction, but in terms of sheer numbers, Petty easily surpassed them both.

If it’s not exactly true that everybody loves Tom Petty, it’s certainly true that almost nobody hates him. The same can’t be said for his most famous classic rock peers. The Eagles, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and John Mellencamp all have plenty of haters (my wife chief among them).

What made Tom Petty so incredibly, universally likable? And what can the rest of us do to emulate it?

The answers to those questions, obviously, are 1) Who knows? and 2) Nothing, probably. But since I’m already 200 words deep, I’ll go ahead hazard a few guesses. Here goes:

Use plain language. “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” “I Won’t Back Down.” “Running Down a Dream.” Petty took on universal themes—heartbreak, defiance, desire—in a powerfully plainspoken way. Everybody can relate to a Tom Petty song, and no one ever needed one explained to them.

Retain excellent collaborators. The Heartbreakers were an incredible band. Guitarist Michael Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and the late bassist Howie Epstein were all insanely accomplished players who could have done just fine without Petty. But Petty knew his vision depended on their contributions, and he did what it took to keep them involved and invested.

Steal from the best. Petty wasn’t hung up on originality. His nasal warble was snatched from Dylan; his jangly guitars and sweet California harmonies were pilfered from the Byrds. But Petty didn’t robotically imitate his heroes. He borrowed bits and pieces from them and assembled them into something entirely his own.

Have a little swagger. Petty wasn’t cocky, but he had a roguish confidence that gave you the feeling that he knew something you didn’t. When MTV launched and other non-telegenic performers folded like card tables (Christopher Cross, anyone?), Petty didn’t blink—instead he gave the camera a bucktoothed smirk that said, “Bring it on.”

Be strategically vague. Many people think of Petty as a folk hero who thumbed his nose at the man, and that’s mostly true. But Petty was never that specific about who “the man” was. The object of his defiance was almost always vague, and that allows listeners of all stripes—Republicans, Democrats, grandmothers, CEOs—to fill out the details in a way that suits them.

Of course, Petty’s most impressive tricks weren’t tricks at all, but a sort of mystical inventiveness. Here’s guitarist Michael Campbell, who worked alongside Petty for 40 years, on Petty’s songwriting prowess:

“He had a knack for writing simple things that a lot of people can relate to. I don’t know if that’s something you could learn. Lord knows, I’ve been trying to learn it, but he just has an affinity for finding simple lyrics…. He could take a simple phrase and make it instantly identifiable to large number of people. That’s a talent.”

So take this list with a grain of salt, because some things just can’t be taught. As for me, I’ll keep plugging away with one of Petty’s more inspiring observations as my mantra: Even the losers get lucky sometimes.