Bad news breaks differently now. Before, when a musician died, you heard about it over a conversation at a bar or a day or two later in the newspaper. Some artists would warrant a radio DJ dropping in to share the bad news. They had to be Elvis of John Lennon to get the breaking-news treatment on television.
Now, however, the five stages of musical grief are pretty-well established. 1. Social media rumblings begin. 2. A frantic search for details. 3. Confirmation from a “real” news source. 4. Heartfelt tweet or Facebook post about how gutted one is. 5. Collective remembrance of artist through posts from other fans.
One year ago we tumbled through these steps for Tom Petty. The memories of Prince and David Bowie were all still fresh in our minds, but this one hit a little differently. With them it was a shock because; through their aura and mystery, one could be forgiven for thinking they were immortal. For Petty the shock came because his everyman compartment made him so relatable it was more like losing a relative; the uncle who you always could count on at family gatherings to deliver stories and smiles. This may have been even more the case because of the recent release of Warren Zanes’ definitive biography of the man.
The overall relatability of Tom Petty and his songwriting genius was on full display in the days following his death. The final step expanded beyond the usual as artists quickly amended their setlist to include covers of Petty’s songs. This, in and of itself, was not a surprise. What was remarkable was the wide range of bands that paid their tributes through song: classic acts, country and Americana bands, punks, rock stars, and on and on. Thanks to the ubiquitous cell phones at shows, most of these were captured for YouTube posterity. A sampling.
Bob Dylan – “Learning To Fly”
There are few truths in this world. One of them is if Dylan chooses to pay tribute to you and your music, you’ve left your mark.
John Fogerty - “I Won’t Back Down”
There are many parallels between Fogerty and Petty from tone to attitude, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. Adding to the poignancy of this performance is his story of how he uses this song as his personal pump-up anthem and the fact he performed it at a show in the wake of the Vegas mass shooting.
Little Steven – Even the Losers
It’s not much of a surprise that a rock and roll historian like Little Steven would pay tribute.
Foo Fighers – “Breakdown”
Dave Grohl, obvious by now, knows just about anyone who has ever picked up a guitar. I’m going to assume, though, that his friendship with Petty ran a bit deeper than others and there is, indeed, an alternate universe where he joined the Heartbreakers instead of forming the Foo Fighters.
Eddie Vedder - “Room at the Top”
Eddie Vedder, like Grohl, is always happy to join someone on stage or invite someone else up. And, like Grohl, had a genuine friendship with Petty and the Heartbreakers. Just last week he and Scott Thurston performed Petty songs at the Ohana Festival. Probably his most public tribute, though, was when he performed the underrated “A Room at the Top” during the Oscars’ in memoriam segment.
The Killers – “American Girl”
The Killers, with their flash and neon, would seem to be anthesis to Petty’s back-to-basics style, but they more than do justice to “American Girl” kicking off their ACL Festival set.
Miley Cyrus – “Wildflowers”
Also from the I-did-not-see-that-coming category was Miley Cyrus and her dad using her Tonight Show slot to pay tribute. She also did an even more stripped-down version for Howard Stern’s show.
Aaron Lee Tasjan with Patty Griffin – “Insider”
Guitarist Mike Campbell has said he could imagine a tribute show where multiple singers join the Heartbreakers to perform the Wildflowers album. If it comes to fruition, Aaron Lee Tasjan deserves consideration for one of those slots. Consider his solo version of “The Waiting” and “American Girl” performed the next night, as well as his duet with Lilly Hiatt of “Walls,” Finally, he teams up with Griffin in the Stevie Nicks role for this duet.
Wilco – “The Waiting”
The Petty influence on Wilco was much more evident on their first two or three records, but they still made a point of adding this song for a handful of shows last October.
Against Me! – “Running Down a Dream”
This may seem to be the most surprising act to pay tribute, but Laura Jane Grace’s story of pretend-playing along to Full Moon Fever on a tennis racquet makes the connection obvious.
University of Florida Football Fans.- “I Won’t Back Down”
Finally, there’s this tribute from the crowd at a University of Florida football game.. It’s not exactly an impromptu gesture – the song was played over the loudspeakers and they may have even put the lyrics on the scoreboard like it’s the Star-Spangled Banner – but when the crowd belts out the “heeeeeeey baby” you’d have to be pretty heartless to not get lost in the moment. Petty may have been all-too ready to get out of Gainsville as a hot-headed rebel, but as he would show later — particularly on the Southern Accent and Highway Companionalbums — part of him never really left. And, in this clip, his hometown remembered and appreciated that fact.
Others to check out: