Tom Petty will be eulogized in the coming days as a writer, as a singer, as a bandleader, and as a thoughtful and articulate interviewee. But let’s not allow one of his greatest gifts to be forgotten: He was maybe the best writer of first lines in all rock music.
“Well, she was an American girl,” begins his second single, ” raised on promises “-six words of declarative scene-setting, and then three that somehow encapsulate an entire theory of both America and girlhood. And that set the pattern for Petty’s long and fascinating career: on his best records and his weakest, he knew better than anyone else how to get you into a song.
That ability allowed him to compress his character sketches into diamonds. The lover in “Refugee,” laying his cards on the table: ” We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it.” The Southern wastrel of “Rebels,” protesting, ” Honey, don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow.” The one who made it out, announcing his return in “Down South”: ” Headed back down south, gonna see my daddy’s mistress.” The last is a nine-word line that starts with a cliché and ends up establishing what could be the premise of a novel.
And it allowed him to construct rock songs around constellations of contradictory feelings rather than a single passionate impulse. Any folkie can arrive at a mood of wistful regret by the end of the chorus, but if you want to make music with the immediacy of rock and the bittersweet ambivalence of post-Dylan singer-songwriting, which was pretty much Petty’s project, you have to be able to fit passion and hope and disappointment into 16 words, all but one of them monosyllabic, like ” I used to think that when this was all over/ You might feel different ’bout me,” from “Letting You Go.”
Petty’s songs are typically in the past tense; the passion in them was vivid and present and, at the same time, always already over. ” It was nearly summer, we sat on your roof,” he wrote in “Even the Losers.” “Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon/ And I showed you stars you never could see/ It couldn’t’ve been that easy to forget about me.” It won’t be.