A toast to Tom

Robert Maharry

By any objective standard, it’s completely irrational to feel sadness about the death of a celebrity, but because I’m a journalist, I’m fundamentally incapable of adhering to objective standards or rationality. I’ve always been a sap and something of a rock n’ roll nostalgic, and when the news about Tom Petty broke on October 2, 2017, I was shattered. I’d watched his documentaries, listened to his deep cuts, played his songs at bars for the types of crowds he would’ve written songs about and dreamed about the day I’d finally get to see one of my heroes live in concert.
Alas, I never got the chance. It still bums me out, but the only silver lining in the death of a musician is that the recordings they’re famous for are permanent. A few months back, I compiled a list of my 15 favorite Rolling Stones songs in honor of Mick Jagger’s 75th birthday, and at least a few people told me they enjoyed it. So, as the one-year anniversary of the loss of an American legend passes, here’s my completely subjective ranking of the top 10 Tom Petty cuts. Send all complaints to Brenda.
Honorable mentions: “Breakdown,” “Time to Move On,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “You Wreck Me,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Rebels,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (with Stevie Nicks).”
10. Refugee (1979)- “Damn the Torpedoes” transformed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from a regional act into an international sensation almost overnight, and no song announced their arrival more forcefully than “Refugee.” A minor key rocker with a memorable chorus and an iconic bridge, the tune brought rootsy, no-frills rock n’ roll back to the mainstream amidst fears that disco, new wave and punk could take over for good.
As a kid who spent my teens listening to mixed CDs full of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Petty, the Stones and The Who while most of my friends gravitated toward rap, I can certainly relate.
9. You Got Lucky (1982)- A sinister, snarky ode to a lover who should’ve been more grateful to Tom with a killer synthesizer line that showcased how naturally the Heartbreakers could transition from vintage Byrds-esque 60’s folk rock to weird new age pop music. The tremolo guitar line is a perfect finishing touch.
8. The Waiting (1981)- There’s a video out there on Youtube somewhere during which Petty explains the process of breaking his hand and wondering if he’ll ever be able to play guitar again. That frustration led to “The Waiting,” a steady rocker that climaxes with one of Tom’s signature bridges followed by one of Mike Campbell’s best guitar solos.
7. Crawling Back to You (1994)- My favorite Petty deep cut off of what’s probably his best album top to bottom, “Wildflowers.” Over a slow burning chord progression, he weaves the tales of desperadoes, hitchhikers and reluctantly reunited lovers together as only he can.
6. Free Fallin’ (1989)- While “American Girl” is probably Petty’s signature song, “Free Fallin’” is in all likelihood his most ubiquitous. Everyone knows it, and it’s probably his first that I can remember hearing on the radio as a youngster.
Everyone has covered this, and it even got the rap sample treatment when Chamillionaire utilized the main riff in “Good Morning.” The easygoing instrumental and observational lyrics about an afternoon drive around LA paint a portrait Petty could create almost by second nature. Though he hailed from northern Florida, the City of Angels came to define him throughout his career.
5. Southern Accents (1985)- Speaking of Florida, Petty always had something of a tortured relationship with the region that he came from, and no song explored “the duality of the Southern thing,” as the Drive-By Truckers later called it, than “Southern Accents.”
The song pairs a mournful piano elegy with some of his most evocative lyrics and shows why Benmont Tench is an all-time great on the keys. In a way, Petty’s most endearing quality was the fact that he could’ve been from anywhere, and he was just as popular in Seattle as he was in Gainesville. But to folks who don’t know, writers—from Faulkner and Twain to Petty and Springsteen— have always possessed an inherent desire to explain the quirks of their birthplaces to the rest of the world.
4. I Won’t Back Down (1989)- Above all else, “I Won’t Back Down” is breathtaking in its simplicity. Consisting of just four chords (three of them repeated in a chugging palm-muted progression through the verses), 167 words, a tasty slide guitar solo and a universal message of resilience, it’s become an anthem, and it was so good even Johnny Cash covered it.
And because Tom co-wrote the song with Jeff Lynne, it’s a good time to mention the work of the Traveling Wilburys (Petty, Lynne, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison) if you want to go down another rabbit hole full of great music.
3. American Girl (1977)- Whenever the definitive canon of 20th century popular music is established, “American Girl” had best be included, or else. What else can you say? From the jangly opening to the bouncy old-time rock n’ roll vibe to the funky breakdown and the mystical but nonetheless universal lyrics, it’s everything that made Petty a legend.
If The Great Gatsby is the great American novel, “American Girl” is the great American rock n’ roll song.
2. Mary Jane’s Last Dance (1993)- The last classic rock song, the three chord groove that every young guitarist wants to learn, the creepy music video with Kim Basinger, the thinly-veiled drug references and the kiss off to a lover who’s already skipped town. It’s hard to explain how much I love this song. Even the solo riff remains one of my favorites to play after bending those notes hundreds of times.
“Buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I come cause I can’t stay long.”
1. Learning to Fly (1991)- Like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly” is a simple four chord song that has always inspired me to look on the bright side no matter what I was facing. When Chris Stapleton played it as a tribute at his Des Moines concert last year, I may have gotten emotional, and it serves as a reminder of just how powerful Tom Petty’s music was to the millions and millions who enjoyed it for so long.

Rest easy, Tom. I’ll still be listening down here.

She said yes.
One of the few perks of being a writer (and a columnist, especially) is that I’ve never been afraid to make a fool of myself, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I took my guitar to a well-traveled pedestrian bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul on Sunday afternoon, played a song that I wrote myself and struggled to get through (Why am I always crying?) and asked Kellie to marry me.
Against her better judgment, she accepted my proposal. Anyone who wants to jump down my throat about how wrong I am on everything this week, take it easy. I’m still on cloud nine and so happy that I’m not going to let anything ruin my mood, so at least give me a few days to celebrate before you resume.
A big thanks to Wyllo and my parents for helping me pull it off, and a big thanks to my fiancé for taking a chance on me 2 ½ years ago. I always hoped that someday I’d find someone who gave me a reason to get up in the morning, to better myself, to stop acting like an overgrown college kid and to live for something more than my own wants and needs.
I’m happy I found her here. 

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