For three decades now, Tom Petty has been as reliable an American songwriter as anyone you care to mention, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen included. On this, the 30th anniversary of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut, and on the eve of Petty's tour (billed as his last) to support Highway Companion, here's a look at what makes the man and the group so respected:
1. The man writes a mean love song. As Stevie Nicks once told Billboard magazine: "[Petty] writes about everything. Love in theory. Love in euphoria. Love in disappointment. Love in how it affects everyone; love after a long time. Divorce and how that affects everyone. New love and old love and how that affects everyone. Then he writes about personal growth and how that ebbs and flows. He writes about the world."
2. That pose on the front of Damn the Torpedoes. As iconic to corn-fed lads everywhere as London Calling is to the metal-belt set.
3. Mike Campbell, Heartbreaker guitarist and one of the most tasteful shredders in rock. Ask any of his contemporaries, who place "Soup" in esteem right behind Petty.
4. Benmont Tench (keyboards).
5. Petty acts his age, looks his age and writes songs that reflect his age.
6. He's agitprop but not reactionary. TP doesn't go looking for battles to join (see Last DJ, a flinty-eyed look at the state of the music industry), but he's not afraid to fight, either.
7. The fact he said "joint" in an obvious radio-ready hit, "You Don't Know How it Feels." And because he mocks the censoring of said word in the music video for same.
8. Wildflowers, one of the best mid-to-late career rock & roll records of all time -- and the Heartbreakers didn't begrudge him a solo album.
9. Petty started out being lumped in the punk/new wave camp, became post-punk, became an MTV staple, became a solo artist and then became an elder statesman, all while still retaining credibility with the above-named camps. Don't believe me? Go see one of his live shows, whose audiences feature equal parts septum-pierced, septuagenarians and soccer moms.
10. Along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, he was a Traveling Wilbury.
11. The fact that he not only swears by the so-called weakest link in the Wilburys, Jeff Lynne, but that he asked him to produce his new album.
12. He's not ashamed of his Southern roots.
13. He's never over-the-top about them, either.
14. His experiments in psychedelia (see Southern Accents).
15. He has the good sense not to get lost in them.
16. He not only embraced music video as a traditional rock & roller, but also made some of the more inventive and popular videos of MTV's Golden Age (otherwise known as the Time They Actually Showed Music Videos).
17. He named his first band Mudcrutch.
18. He kept his high school buddies Campbell and Tench with him (with one four-year split) throughout the years as they learned (really, really learned) to play their instruments.
19. He changed the name Mudcrutch to the Heartbreakers, perhaps the best name for a backing band in rock history -- except Bill Haley's "His Comets."
20. Hard Promises, the 1981 follow-up to Damn the Torpedoes, which Petty held as ransom until MCA promised to release the album for $8.98 instead of the $10 they had started charging for all their other releases.
21. He cared enough to break his hand on a wall over the mixing of Southern Accents.
22. He finally got it right ... and then got it platinum.
23. He spent the rest of that next year as part of Bob Dylan's backing band.
24. Full Moon Fever, his first solo record, and his biggest seller to date.
25. "I Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down a Dream" and "Free Fallin'," all three of which deserve a spot on the mythical K-Tel compilation All-Time Greatest Hits By Rockers Over 40.
26. He finally cashed in with Warner Bros. in 1994 to the tune of $20 million ...
27. ... A deal, incidentally, that was reportedly first hammered out in 1989 (!).
28. The 1996 soundtrack to She's The One was one of the better ones of the last 10 years, and from a pseudo art-house flick to boot.
29. Highway Companion doesn't contain a single warbly Motown cover. And ...
30. ... He has a back catalog so consistent that most of us will buy the damn thing without having heard a single song.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, along with opening acts Stevie Nicks & Trey Anastasio, will play the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at 7pm on Friday, June 9th. Tickets are $30-75, available at 704-522-6500 or www.ticketmaster.com.