Tom Petty Appreciation: He Was Rocking to the End

The Southern California-based performer played his last show at the Hollywood Bowl less than a week before his death

Less than a week before he died at the age of 66, Tom Petty stood on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, looked out at 18,000 screaming fans, spread his arms wide and flashed a look of pure gratitude.

Petty hadn’t even played his first song at the concert, the last of three at the Bowl, but he wanted to take it all in. He was in the town he’d called home for more than four decades. He was on the stage of one of its most historic venues. He was fronting a band of musicians that in many cases he’d known since he was a teenager in Gainesville, Florida.

And he was there on the final night of a tour that was designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first album, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which launched a career that earned him sales of more than 80 million albums and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Throughout those three shows at the Bowl, Petty seemed determined to savor the moment. He was relaxed and playful but driven, with a Southern drawl that seemed only to have gotten deeper over his decades in Southern California and a shaggy mountain-man look that was a far cry from the lithe, feral young rocker he’d been the first time he took the stage of the Whisky-a-Go-Go way back when.

At the Bowl, he was a man with nothing left to prove but a career’s worth of hits and memories to live up to – which he did, suitably kicking things off with the first song on that first album, with its appropriate chorus, “I can’t stop thinking about how I dig rockin’ around with you.”

The song is a trifle, of course, but Petty knew it and nobody cared, particularly when it led into rousing tunes like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee” and “American Girl.”

Watching Petty at the Bowl, I knew it might be the last tour for Petty and the Heartbreakers. But he was a guy who loved being on that stage and seemed truly satisfied, not a guy who was ready to pack it in – so it never would have occurred to me that this could be the last of the one or two dozen times I’d see him live, from the Whisky to the Bowl with lots of stops in between.

Over those years, he often played with a chip on his shoulder, pushing hard to be recognized and getting ticked off at the record industry when it tried to tell him what to do (or how much to charge for his music). The key line from his breakthrough hit “Refugee” was “somewhere somehow somebody must have kicked you around some,” and it wasn’t hard to figure out he was singing as much to himself as to anybody else.

From “Damn the Torpedoes,” the album that contained “Refugee,” to the “Southern Accents” concept album, when he got so frustrated he broke his hand punching the wall in the recording studio, to later albums like “Echo” and “The Last DJ,” dark works which drew on his drug addiction and commercial frustration, respectively, Petty’s music often turned tough times into triumph.

But in other ways, Petty was the most casual of stars. In person he could be cantankerous, but he rarely put on celebrity airs; he was just a regular guy with the juice to make things happen the way he wanted. And for the most part, he left it to colleagues and friends like Bruce Springsteen to make the big statements; apart from”Southern Accents,” he preferred small stories that hit home (“She’s a good girl, loves her mama/Loves Jesus and America too”) over state-of-the-union addresses.

And with his mixture of Heartbreakers albums and occasional solo albums, he had lots of hits without ever really seeming to be chasing the charts. This grew more pronounced later in his career, when he took a couple of detours to reform and record with Mudcrutch, the Florida band he’d first joined as a teenager. Their two albums were loose and spirited and nowhere near as popular as Petty’s own work, and to all appearances he didn’t care.

And you know, maybe he’d warned us back in 1977 with his first single, “Breakdown,” which began with the lines “It’s all right if you love me/It’s all right if you don’t.”

We did. We still do. Last week, on a local sports talk radio station, a commentator casually dropped in a particularly vivid quote from “Free Fallin’,” knowing that even on a music-free station he didn’t need to identify where it came from or who wrote it: “All the vampires walking through the Valley/Move west down Ventura Boulevard.” The Florida boy, it seems, is now part of the Los Angeles landscape.

He died far too early and far too abruptly, but I suppose you can find some satisfaction in the fact that the end came so soon after that emotional homecoming at the Hollywood Bowl, those nights when he seemed so appreciative and so happy to be standing in front of his home crowd singing 40 years of great music.

It’s hard – actually, impossible – to think of that as satisfying on this terrible day that began with the news in Las Vegas. But there are worse ways to say goodbye to the stage than with the resounding version of the glorious “American Girl” which which he ended his 40th anniversary shows.

So I’ll cling to that – and, maybe, to a song he did earlier in the show, “Wildflowers,” which ends this way:

“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in somewhere close to me
Far away from your troubles and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free”

But you know what? Petty would probably say that’s too maudlin a way to end. So let’s go back to that silly little song with which he kicked off his final show, and just say that we dug rockin’ around with him.