The Petty Archives

Happy Birthday, Tom Petty! Musicians talk about why he still rules at age 61
By Annie Zaleski
Alternative Press -- October 17, 2011

On October 20, Thomas Earl Petty turns 61 years old. The classic rocker better known as Tom Petty has penned some of the most enduring songs of the last 35 years— including “American Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Refugee”—which has made him one of the most popular, beloved artists ever. In the spirit of celebrating his birthday, we asked some of his biggest fans—including Jack’s Mannequin’s Andrew McMahon, Tegan and Sara’s Tegan Quin and members of bands including A Rocket To The Moon, Hawthorne Heights and the Summer Set—to talk about what Petty means to them. Here’s what they said.

Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin

What does Tom Petty mean to you?  Why is his music important to you?
Tom Petty, there’s a level of balance to his art that doesn’t really exist in a lot of rock ’n’ roll.  It’s not pretentious, but it’s really truly, rock ’n’ roll.  It doesn’t stick its nose up at everyone else, and he’s honest; you can tell there’s an honesty there. There’s a thing in rock ’n’ roll where there’s a lot of bravado and machismo and big swinging dicks trying to prove themselves. What Petty does, is he’s not afraid to write beautiful things, but he knows how to make them sound like rock ’n’ roll. I just don’t know that there are a lot of bands that do that well without feeling the need to insert some additional level of toughness or something.

And he’s fucking honest. He’s honest, he’s real, he fights for what he believes in. On the business side, I admire his willingness and his ability to stand up to his record company when he felt like his fans were getting screwed.  I think there’s sort of a back world for all of us on major record labels—you know, every day you have to find a way to make this art and commerce thing more about art than commerce.  And I think that Petty did it better than anybody.

He’s one of these fearless artists, and there aren’t a lot of those out there.  A lot of people—and you see it happen with indie bands that get signed to big record contracts—you see people acquiesce to the powers that be and the things that surround and the influences that are out there, that are really dedicated more toward steering you towards some quick stardom, rather than putting you on a long road towards a career. There aren’t a lot of people who get how to do that.  That’s something I’ve tried to do throughout my whole career and largely looking at a guy like Tom Petty and looking at a band like the Heartbreakers, you realize they managed to navigate a lot of troubled waters without ever giving in to what surrounded them. I think that’s a lesson a lot of these young bands need to learn. 

 Stephen Gomez of the Summer Set

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
“Here Comes My Girl”

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
I love the character of his voice.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
I think what he writes is very relatable. He’s able to capture the human condition with such simple, yet poetic, words. 

 JT Woodruff of Hawthorne Heights

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
To be honest with you, it's really tough to choose a favorite song from one of my favorite songwriters.  I've always been more of a full-album listener, because I love to be inside an artist's full piece of work...but if I had to choose one song, it would probably be "Even The Losers." The lyrics are so punk rock, and the chord structure is so simple and in-your-face. It makes me think of my summers as a young adult.

What do you like about Tom Petty's music?
He doesn't hide behind anything complex and false; he just uses a few chords as a vehicle to tell you a story. As a songwriter myself, I love how he doesn't compromise his art. If he has a certain theme in mind, he will do whatever it takes to bring you into his head. I think that each of his albums are an entirely different timepiece for him, and I love that. I love how he can go from pissed off and aggressive, to completely vulnerable, all within an album. He shows you that you don't need to shred the guitar, because if you come up with a story and great melody, you will have a great song.

Why does his music mean something to you?
Tom Petty's music means something to me, because of the honesty behind it. He doesn't pull any punches. He told his record label that he wasn't a bag of apples in a grocery store, and they couldn't sell him that way. He stood up to the Man, and the Man backed down. I will respect him forever for that, because he wasn't going to let his art be compromised. These days, everyone is so afraid, [but] Tom Petty wouldn't stand for that.  He not only has my respect as a songwriter, but as pioneer for musician's rights.  He wanted to write good songs, and make sure his fans got them at a good price.  You can get any more simple and honest than that.  I own every single album, and they are all great. 

 Jared Monaco of the Maine

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
There are so many gems, but if I had to pick, I would probably say "Walls." On our tour with Augustana, they brought every band on stage during their set to cover it. Sometimes, memories of a song can be more powerful than the song itself.

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
Tom Petty can write lyrics that are both broad and specific at the same time. He's great at conveying attitude inside of his melodies. I truly believe he has written a song for everyone, whether it's a no-brainer like “American Girl,” or a lesser-known tune like “Girl On LSD.” Either way, the songs are honest, the musicianship is incredible, and the message is clear.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
It always comes down to the songs. But sometimes, you have to fight for those songs. How many artists these days can say they did what they wanted to, when they wanted to? Tom Petty only answers to Tom Petty. He writes consistently great music and is great to his fans. That's so important, because if your number one priority isn't your fans, they are going to see right through your bullshit. When the live anthology was released, I locked myself in my room and listened to it in its entirety. I'm sure there were people doing the same thing all over the place. It's the real deal. 

 Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara

What does Tom Petty mean to you?
Obviously, a huge part of it is you just never really let go of what you grew up listening to. Our car speakers in all of our parents’ vehicles were always blasting Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. That was our staple. Like Bruce Springsteen, I see the two of them as the perfect writers, because no matter what year they put out their record—and no matter what was cool and what was happening in music—they just seemed to have their own sound going. Even if you listen to a specific Tom Petty song and you’re like, “Oh, I’m not crazy about that sound,” if you really just listen to the song itself, it’s always great. I feel like there’s never a song that wasn’t amazing.

A couple years back when we started writing for Sainthood, Sara [Quin] told me to watch the [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers] documentary, Runnin’ Down A Dream, and I was like, “Oh yeah, okay, cool, I’ll check it out.” Sara was like, “No, seriously, watch it.” It blew my mind to see how many amazing songs Tom Petty has written, but also how much collaboration was happening in that time period in music. All these huge stars [were] sitting down and writing songs together, just casually, like, “Oh yeah, cool, I just wrote this song. Do you want to work on it with me?” You’re like, “What? People don’t do that anymore, that’s incredible!” I loved that era, I love the era he came out of.

One of the first big shows Sara and I ever played in 2000 was with Neil Young at his Bridge School Benefit, and Tom Petty was one of the acts  that played. I sat out in that amphitheater with 15,000, 18,000 other people listing to them singing along to every single song. And this was an audience that was there to see Foo fighters and Beck and Neil Young and Dave Matthews and Tom Petty, but knew every single song. I was blown away. I was like, “This is the kind of career I would want to have, this is the kind of audience I would want to have. Every single song is a hit; every single song makes you want to stand up and throw your head back.”

For whatever reason, I can just relate to every single song. That takes a really, really fucking amazing writer to write a song as a heterosexual male in this 30s, 40s whatever—and somehow, as a teenager and now as a 31-year-old woman who’s a lesbian, I’m like, “Yes! ‘American Girl,’ that is my song, I understand, I get it!” 

 Brian Dales of the Summer Set

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
Somewhere between “American Girl” and “Wildflowers.”

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
Tom Petty, in my opinion, is one of America's greatest prolific songwriters, along with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I grew up in a house with a Tom Petty soundtrack, and at a time when I was an impressionable teenager just starting to sing, his songs had some of the greatest impact on me. “Free Fallin'” was one of the first songs I ever covered.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
Tom Petty has withstood the test of time because his songs are incredibly honest and speak to every demographic and generation. He's timeless, and he'll be remembered forever. 

 Nick Martino of A Rocket To The Moon

Everybody in our band are huge Tom Petty fans. Right now on tour we’re covering “Free Fallin’,” and I know it’s probably the most overplayed cover song that’s ever existed, but it’s an amazing song. John Mayer wouldn’t have covered it if he thought it was the most overrated cover-band song to do. And we’re playing to a crowd of anywhere from 12-year-old girls to 18-year-old girls, and I think if they were born yesterday, they probably know what “Free Fallin’” is. And we play it, and it gets a great reaction; everybody sings along, it’s a feel-good song.

“Free Fallin’” aside, everything Tom Petty does sounds like it could come out tomorrow. It sounds like modern music. He put out Damn The Torpedoes, and it sounds like it could’ve  come out last week. That’s what keeps him so alive and his music so alive: It’s really relatable [and] he’s really simple, which is amazing—his melodies are really simple, but something about Tom Petty is like, “This guy’s a machine.” I would love to sit down and write a song with Tom Petty.

We all sat around on days off and watched his documentary, Runnin’ Down A Dream. By the end of it, after four hours, we’re like, ‘That is awesome.’ This dude started off playing in a band—kind of like how we all did—and then all of a sudden was like, “Let’s go to L.A. from Florida, see if we can get a record deal.” And they drove across the country with their best friends and got a record deal. He still seems like  the most laid-back guy. And he still hitting the same notes as he was back in the day, which his amazing. You can’t not respect somebody that is as amazing as Tom Petty—and Mike Campbell, their guitar player, is unreal. Everybody in that band is unreal. 

 Matt Thiessen of Relient K

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
“American Girl” is my favorite Tom Petty song. “Wildflowers” and “You Got Lucky” follow, respectively.

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
Tom Petty defines confident.  He writes and sings in such a way that he's subconsciously teaching the listener how to be cool.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
Tom has the spirit of Elvis, and an incredible mind for lyric and melody.  He's been making classic music from day one, and he's written too many fantastic songs to ever be forgotten or become irrelevant.   If rock music were to choose an ambassador, Petty would be the obvious choice. 

 Mike Herrera of MXPX

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
Everyone copies him, but no one is like him. He does what he does best. Nothing more, nothing less.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
He doesn't apologize for his music. It's honest and continues to be an American music staple for many people across all demographics. 


What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
My favorite Tom Petty song is "American Girl." It was one of the first songs I can ever remember hearing as a kid. I used to cover it whenever I'd play house shows with the first Koji band. Maybe we'll bring it back.

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
Tom Petty's catalog speaks for itself. From his work with the Heartbreakers to his amazing part in the Traveling Wilburys, there is amazing song after amazing song. He's an incredibly gifted songwriter and performer. Petty's guitar playing and tone were a big part of me playing Fender electric gear and Martin/Gibson acoustic guitars.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
American music wouldn't be the same without Tom Petty's stamp on it. He's a musician that's really maintained his voice and autonomy through the years, and it's awesome to have an example like that.  The dude swags hard. 

 Kevin Devine

What is your favorite Tom Petty song?
Probably "Walls" from the She's The One soundtrack.  I know it's late in the game, and there are so many classics prior, but there's an openness, a sweetness to that song that I find really touching. The  chorus soars without being cheesy, the melody is great [and] Lindsey Buckingham sings these incredible harmonies. It’s just an amazing song, a pretty great distillation of what makes him so good.

What do you like about Tom Petty's music? Why does his music mean something to you?
His stuff is deceptively simple.  It sounds easily arrived at, but it's totally flawlessly executed music, perfectly constructed songs, recorded and performed well. It's an unsexy trick with an insanely high degree of difficulty, being unimpeachably consistent; [it’s] not as easy as it sounds. In some respects, I've tried to pattern my development after someone like him. Just keep your head down and write good songs, irrespective of trends and the industry ebb and flow.

What is it about Tom Petty's music that's kept him an enduring, beloved figure?
I think he's a reliable voice in an unreliable industry.  You can count on him.