October 4, 2017

Dead at 66, Tom Petty’s final concert appearance showed the measure of the man

There is a bittersweet serendipity to the death of Tom Petty, coming barely a week after he and his now-legendary band The Heartbreakers concluded a national tour that turned into something of a farewell tour.

Petty “died peacefully surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends” in the UCLA Medical Center at 8.40pm on Monday (Tuesday AEST) after suffering cardiac arrest at his Malibu home in the early hours of the morning, his longtime manager Tony Dimitriades said.

“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” Dimitriades said in a statement.

Petty’s last tour ended fittingly with three sold-out nights at LA’s iconic Hollywood Bowl, in a show loaded with the kind of joyful mischief that turned a band which grew out of 1970s rock rebellion into much-loved members of the family.

As you might expect, Petty didn’t want to go.

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Shocked and heartbrokern. Took this just the other night. Speechless. Tom, we love you so much @tompetty#tompettyRIP

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The Hollywood Bowl concerts went past curfew and incurred fines; Petty didn’t care, so long as he, the band, and the audience were able to wallow in that kind of performer-audience synchronicity that every artist craves but few genuinely achieve.

Playing some of the band’s best-known songs – Free Fallin’, Learning To Fly, Refugee, Running Down A Dream, American Girl and others – to a sea of fans numbering in the tens of thousands, it was a world away from the band’s inauspicious origins in Florida in the 1970s.

It was back then that Petty met lead guitarist Mike Campbell – abandoned after a mate gave him a ride to Campbell’s house, in a fairly rough part of town – and a friendship, followed by a band, Mudcrutch, was formed.

Some time later in Los Angeles, Mudcrutch became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

In a career which seemed curiously to eschew the spotlight of Hollywood, Petty won three Grammy Awards and three MTV Video Music Awards.

In 2003 he was the recipient of the Legend award at the Radio Music Awards, and in 2005 the Billboard Century Award at the Billboard Music Awards.

And yet the much-decorated musician, who sold more than 80 million records worldwide and had a “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was far more at home on the stage, jamming with his mates, than he ever was playing the corporate games of the music industry.

Variety described the Hollywood Bowl shows as “re-convening with old friends”: Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Steve Ferrone and utility player Scott Thurston. And of course Petty himself.

“Petty remains the perfect combination of an everyman who is one of us and a rock superstar definitely not one of us,” Variety’s Chris Willman wrote.

“His slow-drawling, almost stoner-like asides creating the most relaxed possible atmosphere for the audience, even as those shades hide the sharp eyes of one of rock’s most historically astute craftsmen.”

“He’s won us over without ever seeming like he’s trying to,” Willman added.

“Which maybe is one factor in why America isn’t any more tired of him and his Cheshire grin in 2017 than we were in a pre-MTV era.”

The last word, perhaps, belongs to Petty himself who, speaking on the eve of the tour, gently foreshadowed that it might be his last.

“[I am] thinking this may be the last trip around the country,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one.”