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Tom Petty would have turned 69 years old this month.
Tom Petty would have turned 69 years old this month.
Jack Fordyce / Shutterstock.com

The Potent Nostalgia of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits

Throughout my childhood in the '90s, vacationing with my parents meant trundling along remote Alaskan highways in a bright-orange 1970-something Chevy Suburban. Of the handful of cassettes they always kept close to the tape deck, my favorite was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits. The songs seemed as big and sweeping as the mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers outside our windows, and they've had a large presence in my life since. Classics such as "Free Fallin'" and "Into the Great Wide Open" and "I Won't Back Down" are potently nostalgic for me, like childhood distilled into music — and I know I'm not alone in feeling that way.

Revolution Live is set to host Tom Petty's Birthday Celebration Concert Saturday, October 19, the day before the late singer-songwriter's official birthday. The nationally touring tribute band Petty Hearts will headline the show about two weeks after the anniversary of Petty's untimely death. In honor of his birthday and in recognition of the somber anniversary, it's worth digging into why his catalog is so personally meaningful to so many listeners of different generations.

My adult ears hear pure, simple, and extremely sentimental rock 'n' roll that provides a memorable framework for Petty's barroom narratives. "Well, yeah, I might have chased a couple women around/All it ever got me was down," he sings on "The Waiting." His casual storytelling ability and sense of melody stand out, along with the incredibly rich and distinctive quality of his drawling voice.

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He also occasionally assumes a defiant, rebel-in-a-leather-jacket attitude. His vocals form like a smirk when he delivers the line "I'm not afraid of you running away, honey/I get the feeling you won't" on the slinky 1976 hit "Breakdown." He was something of an artsy troubadour but also an outsider from Gainesville — a bad boy with shoulder-length blond hair, a rebel without a clue. That made the Heartbreakers' performance during the 2008 Super Bowl Halftime Show sort of disconcerting. His music was like a freeway running through the yard — America through and through — but not the gaudy America with all the cheesy commercials and pyrotechnics.

However, that halftime show helped me realize that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a slow-motion hit machine that put out good music for a really, really long time. When you're a kid, anything that happened before you were born is equally ancient; it all melds together on classic-rock radio. But it's cool to know that my parents listened to Petty in the mid-'70s, when they were in their 20s, and he was still active and on point when I reached adulthood too. (Petty's 2006 solo album, Highway Companion, for example, is an overlooked, later-career gem.) He didn't just have an extraordinarily long and prolific career; he was a superstar.

With hits during four decades, he somehow avoided recording hardly anything that sounds dated or indebted to passing pop trends. (The synthesizer and drum-machine-driven collaboration with Stevie Nicks, "Don't Come Around Here No More," is pretty obviously a creation of the '80s.) It helped that Petty was backed by some of the purest-sounding instrumentals in rock history — as if the Heartbreakers had knobs on their amps labeled "heavenly" that were always set to ten. Guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Stan Lynch, and bassist Howie Epstein were the ideal players to complement Petty's cleverly straightforward songwriting.

Campbell's and Petty's intertwining guitars provide many of the most distinctive moments on Greatest Hits, such as the wicked slide solo in "Learning to Fly," the descending riff in "Runnin' Down a Dream," and the spaghetti-Western echo on "You Got Lucky." Campbell, who is credited as a co-writer on several classic tracks, is a master of minimalism, known for never wasting a note. Think of, for example, the tight and tidy shredding that fades out at the end of "American Girl" and the searing blues leads that intermingle with the harmonica on "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

Another thing I didn't appreciate as a younger music listener: Petty was original, but he paid direct homage to '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, from Bo Diddley to Elvis Presley to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His first guitar teacher was Don Felder, who later became the lead guitarist in the Eagles. Petty was a rock traditionalist pursuing the dream of music as a lifestyle like the bands he saw on The Ed Sullivan Show. Again, it's difficult to distinguish this sort of stuff when you're a kid, when everything is ancient history.

It seems as if we only recently lost Petty, who died at 66 years old from a heart attack after accidentally overdosing at his home in Malibu. His dedication to rock 'n' roll was apparent right up to his last dance with the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2017. He had played all 53 dates in the band's 40th-anniversary tour with a fractured hip, knee problems, heart disease, and emphysema (for which he'd been prescribed fentanyl and oxycodone, among other drugs). He visibly limped onstage. His voice wavered as he address the audience. He looked and sounding every bit like a burned-out old gypsy dude who'd been rocking for four decades. Well, yeah, but it was Tom Petty.

"Thank you for 40 years of a really great time," he said. "We're almost out of time. We have time for this one, here."

His last song was "American Girl." Like all of the Heartbreakers' best songs, it's as wide as the horizon and feels like longing to see what's around the next bend on a lonely highway.

Tom Petty's Birthday Celebration Concert. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 19, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; jointherevolution.net. Tickets cost $14 via ticketmaster.com.

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