I watched the first Tom Petty song I ever heard: 1993’s ”Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” In the music video, a quietly amused guy in a top hat danced with the pretty blonde from Batman who appeared to be dead. He seemed both playful and dangerous, and, to preteen me, a peer of Björk, Kurt, Courtney, PJ and Eddie — this gang of rock’n’roll characters who helped kids like me reframe our insecurity and oddness as freeing, not humiliating.
Petty was born in 1950. His childhood was steeped in Elvis and cowboy movies, his adolescence in the era of ’60s rock and radicalism. But the decade of his formative creative galvanization, the 1970s, was about alienation, disenfranchisement and disillusionment. Petty’s wry yet romantic songwriting matched the emotional pitch of his mid-baby boomer mini generation: too young to have ever believed that all you need is love, too old to really embrace Gen X’s ironic detachment.
Though he became a classic rock icon, Petty’s attitude was always punk. He was a freak, angrier and weirder at his core than his omnipresent radio hits would suggest. The first Heartbreakers album came out in 1976, the same year as the first Ramones record, and by the late ’70s ascendant Petty was racing in the same heat as Blondie, Patti Smith and Talking Heads — American punk rock’s first graduating class. His sound blended the primal roots-rock of his youth with the defiant sneer that befitted Vietnam and, later, the Reagan era. But the absolute essence of Petty’s aesthetic tapped first and foremost into a sense of surrealist rebellion. “We had to be in the new wave, because we weren’t in the old. I just don’t like clubs,” Petty says with a smirk in Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. “We didn’t join no clubs. We’re our own club.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.