A year after his passing, many of us are still mourning Tom Petty — and celebrating the release of his new box set.
God, Tom Petty was cool.
In a world where posers proliferate like viruses and the truly cool come around about as often as the Hale-Bopp comet, the loss of someone who’s the real deal can reverberate for a long, long while. Just ask Petty’s fans, who remain devastated a year after his shocking death on October 2, 2017. He died a couple of weeks shy of his 67th birthday from what would turn out to be an accidental drug overdose of a powerful cocktail he was taking to blunt unbearable pain and keep the music and concerts coming.
It was incomprehensible when the news first broke that Petty had been hospitalized in hopeless condition. And it only became more surreal in the days and months following his death that this musical force — risen out of Gainesville, Florida, obscurity in the 1970s with his country-rock band, Mudcrutch, to decades of global rock prominence as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — had been extinguished. The unpretentious songs and edgy videos, the shaggy blond hair and toothy smile, the Fenders and Rickenbackers, sunglasses and top hats, flowing scarves and floral shirts, tight jeans and long jackets, leather vests and heeled boots — Petty’s authentic rock swagger just didn’t track with a mortal guy in his 60s with emphysema (a lifetime of looking so badass with a cigarette hanging from his lips) and bad knees and a fractured hip (all that rock-star jumping off drum risers).
The hip fracture eventually broke clean through during a grueling final concert tour — celebrating 40 years with the Heartbreakers — that ended just a week before Petty finally collapsed and was found unresponsive at his home in California. We listened with horror and heartbreak to the tragic recording of a 911 operator trying to talk his frantic wife, Dana, through a resuscitation attempt.
None of it made sense, and all of it hurt. The idea that the last concert ticket stub really was the last, that there’d be no new SiriusXM shows, that we’d never see or hear him interviewed or perform live again — impossible.
Which is why it was welcome news and needed consolation that on September 28, Reprise Records released the Tom Petty box set An American Treasure. The 60-track set, available on CD and LP in multiple editions, includes dozens of previously unreleased recordings, alternate versions of classics, rarities, momentous live performances, and deep cuts.
“A tribute and love letter pointing to the music in between the hits, and a strong musical portrait of the person they know in their hearts,” according to the press materials for the box set, the collection was curated by those closest to him: Tom’s wife Dana and daughter Adria Petty, together with Heartbreakers founding members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench — bandmates of 45 years — and longtime studio collaborator Ryan Ulyate.
“Everyone involved in this project chose each track with tremendous care and deep respect for the body of work Tom Petty created over the course of 40 years,” Adria and Dana say in the press materials. “He also accumulated a wealth of unreleased music in his vaults, and we have collectively uncovered one gem after another that will keep us all listening and discovering new facets of Tom’s talent for many years to come. We can’t wait to share with Tom’s fans this musical portrait of an artist who deeply affected our culture and indelibly touched the lives of fans the world over.”
That might read like a canned quote for a press release, but it’s also heartfelt and speaks to and for everyone who’s been missing him. You can’t page through the 52-page booklet of rare and previously unseen photos (accompanied by track-by-track liner notes by Petty aficionado and noted music writer Bud Scoppa) without going for the volume on an alternate version of “Here Comes My Girl” and feeling the love and the coolness wash over you.
“One gem after another” isn’t hyperbole. Tom Petty really was an American treasure. For the sake of all the heartbroken, we can only hope there’s even more to mine.
Photography: Courtesy Reprise Records/Sam Jones