Tom Petty, the legendary guitarist, songwriter, and frontman, died Monday night at the age of 66. Below, Ringer staffers share their favorite songs from Petty’s extensive catalog; more of The Ringer’s writing about Petty can be found here.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels”
Lindsay Zoladz: What a benevolent, golden-hour shrug of a song, sung by a gaunt Buddha with a fat joint between his grinning lips. “Think of me what you will, I’ve got a little space to fill,” he sings near the end. Depending on how it catches the light, the line’s either a joke about how he can’t think of any more lyrics to round out the verse, or the kind of Zen-like, life-encompassing epithet you’d want carved on your tombstone. Tom Petty was good like that, halfway between a jester and a saint. You could take it either way. He was, constitutionally, Not Stressed About It.
Petty’s were songs you shared with other people, because, quite simply, everybody else liked them too. This one will always remind me of one of the first house parties I ever attended. Very late in the night, after most people had left, our host was trying to find music to fit the mood; everyone was too tired for dancing. But he put on “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and without a word everyone got up and started doing this goofy, downtempo strut around the coffee table, picking up random people’s jackets and scarves and adorning ourselves in odd outfits to the beat and all silently having this late-teenage realization that, even though our parents liked this song, we did too. It was a warm, silly scene, and if Tom Petty were there he would have laughed.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” isn’t the flashiest or most urgent ditty Tom Petty ever wrote. It’s not straining to prove his status as a guitar hero, which he earns on plenty of other songs. It’s not straining to prove anything, actually. His first single from 1994’s gorgeous Wildflowers has, instead, the rhythm of a rocking chair, and an overall vibe of middle-aged self-acceptance I’ve always found to be aspirationally cool. May we all grow this gently wise in time. May we never grow cold. Just young.
Michael Baumann: “Refugee” hits hardest in its first two measures—the high drone of the organ, the growling guitar, and the thumping drums all come in together and fully assembled. All throughout the song you hear the gears churning, and that connection is immensely satisfying, the way typing on a mechanical keyboard feels more real than typing on a touch screen. My favorite Tom Petty songs, “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down,” are laid-back and have a strong commitment to the downbeat, which gives them a warming quality, like falling asleep on a summer afternoon with a NASCAR race on TV. No matter how high the highs of the chorus, or how impassioned Petty’s growls, for me this song is about easing in the clutch and shifting the guitar into fourth gear.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
Andrew Gruttadaro: “You tangle my emotions.” That’s what Tom Petty sings just over halfway through “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the Heartbreakers’ lead single off their 1985 album, Southern Accents. It’s an indescribably fragile moment—a matter-of-fact statement that feels more like a desperate plea—and Petty treats it accordingly, letting his voice quiver and crack.
Steeped in the ’80s, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” doesn’t resemble Petty’s earlier hits—not the rock ’n’ roll wall of sound of “Refugee,” nor the idealism of “American Girl.” It’s a mishmash of synthesized percussion and sitar; fittingly, the video is a riff on Alice in Wonderland. But anchoring the song is Petty, his raw emotion, a voice that has always felt timeless, and an otherworldly ability to make songs feel like they’re for you and about you. It’s the best evidence of his power that I can think of.
“Learning to Fly”
Matt James: One of the hallmarks of Tom Petty’s songwriting has always been the accessibility of his lyrics, and there might not be a more widely relatable song in his discography than “Learning to Fly.” We all “started out all alone.” We’re all heading “God knows where.” We can’t plan for life’s ups and downs but we can do our best to take in the view when we’re lucky enough to find ourselves soaring.
Tom Petty knew the power of this song. He rarely performed it as it sounds on Into the Great Wide Open, choosing instead to present it to his adoring audiences as a heartfelt acoustic sing-along; the song became more powerful this way. Here’s a performance from 2006 with the help of Stevie Nicks:
A couple of weeks ago I was one of 17,500 voices in the Hollywood Bowl summoning the words of this song from the core of my being. Today I’m coming down, and it’s the hardest thing.
Alyssa Bereznak: “Free Fallin’” epitomizes a particular California-bred “I’m-bored-of-all-the-sunshine” ennui with the limitless charm Petty is famous for. Every verse builds off of a new character study: the good girl from Reseda who loves Elvis/Jesus, the vampires moving west on Ventura Boulevard, and our dear narrator who’s so very ready to escape from his suffocating confines / Mulholland Drive. This is the perfect soundtrack for speeding down a highway with nowhere in particular to go, or wandering listlessly through a pristine aisle of nail polish at CVS, or loitering outside a Starbucks for, like, eight hours. It’s a song for being sick and tired of your perfectly OK, suburban life. And no matter how many times I hear it, it still makes me wistful about being a spoiled suburban teen. Not to mention, there are some sick skate moves in the music video.
“I Won’t Back Down”
Kate Knibbs: “I Won’t Back Down” does not showcase Tom Petty’s wittiest lyrics, and it’s not his most musically virtuosic song by any measure. It’s a straightforward heartland anthem so basic it feels timeless, universal, and stirring instead of corny, no matter how many times politicians and sports teams have tried to make it their own. It’s urgent and angry without feeling strident, a car-ride sing-along with muscle, and it’ll never lose a spot on my playlist of tunes guaranteed to turn a defeated mood into a defiant one.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
Katie Baker: Tom Petty music is driving music. The opening notes of “Learning to Fly” are the exact ones needed as your car backs out of the driveway and into the world; the entirety of “Free Fallin’” is best enjoyed turned up so loud on the car stereo that the sound of your own wails can’t be heard. His music works on back roads or on interstate highways; his voice and his guitar make running errands feel like epic journeys through Americana. Which is why I really appreciate that there’s a meta-Petty song with these lyrics: “It was a beautiful day / the sun beat down / I had the radio on / I was drivin’.” Same!
The song’s message is so optimistic that I remember him closing out his Super Bowl halftime set with it and feeling, strangely and for the first time, that maybe the Giants could win. The power strums during the chorus are what a child instinctively does when handed an instrument, except they sound awesome. The biggest danger of driving to this song is that you’ll take your hands off the wheel in order to imitate the closing solo. Petty is talking about an old ’60s Del Shannon song when he sings: “Trees went by / Me and Del were singin’ / Little ‘Runaway’ / I was flyin’.” In my case, it’s always been me and Tom.
Amanda Dobbins: Tom Petty’s last concert was Monday, September 25, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. I didn’t get to see him that night, but I happen to live a couple of miles from the Hollywood Bowl, in a neighborhood where applause from the venue sometimes echoes through the hills. The music had never made it to my house before, until around 10:45 last Monday night, when that giant, literally uncontainable guitar riff—the one you’d recognize anywhere, even in a Strokes song—traveled over the canyon and into my living room.
I went outside in time to hear 17,500 strangers screaming, “God it’s so painful / when something that’s so close / is still! so! far! out of reeeeeach,” into the Los Angeles night. Because it was the encore, Petty and the band extended the guitar solo a little (or at least that’s how it seemed at the time), and every last note rang out over a city that, for many years, existed for me in only hazy Tom Petty lyrics. “American Girl” is the obvious Petty song—the one that has been copied and repurposed and karaoked and misinterpreted by teenage girls (guilty) for almost 40 years now. On Monday night, I was reminded why.
“Time to Move On”
Sometime later, getting the words wrong
Wasting the meaning and losing the rhyme
Like breakin’ up a dogfight
Like a deer in the headlights
Frozen in real time
I’m losing my mind
It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going
After graduating from music school (where mostly I learned that talented people don’t go to music school and certainly don’t spend four years there), I moved to Santa Cruz, California, on a lark. I had spent my whole life in the Northeast, shuttling the gray corridors between New York City and Boston, so Northern California, with its prehistoric rains and postcard sunsets, was a revelation. A dream place. The town is nestled, like a pebble in god’s hand, between the ocean and the mountains. The perfect place to assuage the indignities of couch surfing and minimum-wage toil while chasing vague notions of greatness. And it was for a while.
After a few years of watching the world spin on while I stood still, I realized it was time. Too many high school friends starting families and buying homes. The shock of seeing people my age in commercials for automobiles I couldn’t afford.
So, hounded by doubt and regret, I dragged my worldly possessions to the curb and moved back home, to my mom’s house on Long Island. Back among the barren housing tracts and decaying shopping malls of Nassau County, there was no ocean or mountains to look at when I clocked off my shift at Old Navy. Just the hiss of tires along the parkway and, when it was quiet enough, the whistle of a Long Island Railroad train.
“Time to Move On” was the soundtrack of that move. The anthem of my defeat. It’s a song that feels less like a piece of craft and performance than an exercise in archaeology—an uncovering of something so deeply felt that it had to be true. Time to get going.
Chris Ryan: Tom Petty had a genius for the obvious, and this song is a testament to that genius. It contains some simple truths: The Beatles are good; everything sounds better with sheets of Lindsey Buckingham backing vocals; “Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.” As so often happens when an artist passes away, “Walls (Circus),” became almost unbearably sad to listen to almost immediately after Petty’s death. Lines like, “half of me is ocean, half of me is sky” scanning more like a self-penned eulogy than a love song lyric. Soon that will fade. I eventually started hearing Bowie and Prince again, outside of the shadows of their deaths. The same will happen for Tom Petty. It has to; his songs are too deeply ingrained in my life to be symbols of grief. For now, though, I can imagine Buckingham’s ecstatic singing as a fitting tribute. You’ve got a heart (HEART) so big, it could crush this town.
Sean Fennessey: “I remember getting [that line] from something I read, that Janis Joplin said, ‘I love being onstage, it’s just the waiting.’”
Petty had an unreasonable knack for aphoristic phrasing that stuck to your brain like Juicy Fruit; it’s a hallmark of all god-level songwriters. The Phrase: It’s a string of words that is both deeply specific and also Xeroxable onto the lives of anyone who hears the song. For Janis Joplin, “the waiting” was about a yearning to hit the stage, where she felt most safe, most herself. For Petty, it’s about something else: the interim between encounters, the dead time when you’re far from the person with whom you’ve become obsessed. “The Waiting” is not the stickiest song in his songbook, nor is it the best. (That’d be “Free Fallin’” and “Yer So Bad,” respectively.) But it is most emblematic of a vague perfection—or maybe it’s a perfect vagueness—that defines Petty’s writing. Most of his lyrics don’t stand up to Dylanesque interrogation—they’re bar napkin poetry. But Petty was the Patron Saint of Rock Song Opening Lines. And the opening strand of “The Waiting” has never felt more appropriate: “Baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now.”
Mallory Rubin: Tom Petty had as many gifts as hits, but his most miraculous might have been his irrepressible ability to capture the essence of life in a single verse, line, word. “Wildflowers,” the 1994 title track from Petty’s second solo album, isn’t a signature anthem, but his catalog is so rich in part because of the quiet companions resting alongside the rousing displays of Americana. On “Wildflowers,” the gently probing acoustic thrum amplifies the insights that Petty manages to cram into nearly every syllable.
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free
Is there anything more achingly human than wanting to belong, than wanting to be free? The best people in life make us feel that way, and the best songs do, too. Petty’s music frees, often because his lasting lyrics are deceptively loaded, the kind of seemingly simple observations that carry defining truths. “Wildflowers” is a testament to the power of that accessible poetry, a lullaby to longing and possibility.
Run away, find you a lover
Go away somewhere all bright and new
I have seen no other
Who compares with you
Trying to describe why Petty matters can feel like trying to describe why the very air around you matters: It’s fundamental. It’s there, always, fueling your thoughts, filling your heart, forever stitched into the fabric of your day. It’s part of being alive, and so is he. We have seen no other who compares with him.