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.