It feels natural when a musician dies at an old age. It’s almost a thing to applaud—living presumably careless lives, musicians seem as if they ought to age faster than the average layperson. Living out to old age, therefore, is a thing to celebrate. Their deaths make us appreciate the content scope of their artistic careers. When Frank Sinatra died at the ripe age of 82, no one seemed particulary shocked. At 82, Sinatra was not still making music. The world was ready to let go.
But when a musician dies young, it’s tragedy. It’s a cruel joke that someone so talented, so full of promise, existed for so little time. But more than that, their untimely ending becomes sensationalized. In their tragedy, they become immortal, beyond the grips of time. They’re remembered just as youthfully and fervently as they day they left this world. We will never imagine Kurt Cobain as an old man. We will never see Whitney Houston as wrinkled or hunched over with age. We will never see Jimi Hendrix, hair turned white, driving his grandkids to soccer practice. For us, these stars will never be ordinary. Instead, their deaths eternalize them as symbols of youth. Their deaths are the fast culmination of fast lives.
But what about the depressingly average age of 66? How are we to reconcile a loss, then? Tom Petty died on October 2nd at 66, and the rock 'n' roll world isn’t sure how to cope. No one can quite piece together a narrative that makes this loss feel okay. He was too old to have died young, but far too young to have died old.
Perhaps the most tragic element of Petty’s death is that he was far from finished. Even at 66, Petty was still producing music, still touring even—he released his last studio album in 2014, and just wrapped up his 40th anniversary tour with The Heartbreakers. Throughout his career, Petty produced hit after hit—he sold over 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best–selling artists of all time. And nothing was expected to change. Petty ought to have kept on delivering. He produced through a divorce and through crippling heroin addiction—at the very least, he ought to have made it through his sixties.
But he didn’t. And now, the rock world will struggle to fill the gaping hole Petty has left. Many will likely try, but none will succeed. Tom Petty was one of a kind, and had the kind of sound that is beyond imitation.
Tom Petty will be remembered as the quintessential American rockstar. Petty was everybody’s musician—he sang about the everyday, the pedestrian, but in an extraordinary way. His songs were raw, unrefined, peopled by average joes and working–class heroes. He was rhythmic, persistent, and restless. His songs were thoroughly American.
But above all, Petty was the champion of the underdog. In Petty’s world, the clueless rebels, innocent girls, and young musicians rose to the top. They succeeded against all odds. But that’s not to say that Petty was an idealist. Quite to the contrary, Petty’s songs are colored by the harsh, high-contrast light of reality—whether it’s the all consuming depression of “Top of the World,” the renegade protest of “Gunslingers,” or the jaded contempt of “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” And for these characters, victory didn’t come cheap; instead it comes at the price of relentless hustle, hard work, and sometimes even moral compromise. At their heart, Petty’s songs inspired hope. If his characters could do it, why can’t we all?
Tom Petty was someone who brought the rock world together. He was someone undisputedly loved. He was a prolific songwriter, and an even better musician. Petty, you’ll be missed.