Rockstars don’t always make the best role models. For all of the musicians who might be able to inspire people to pick up guitars of their own and write their own songs, there are just as many preaching about the virtues of living up to the lifestyle rather than focusing on the craft. Even though Tom Petty may be one of the ultimate examples of what a rocker should have been, he learned a lot from watching his idols as a kid.
Before getting familiar with fronting the Heartbreakers, Petty enjoyed any rock and roll across the turntable. While every member of his household would look down upon the music, Petty was known to get a kick out of it just for the joy of listening. Even though Petty wasn’t thinking about being a musician, something clicked when he saw Elvis for the first time.
Being heralded as a musical god among men, Petty was converted to rock and roll when he got to see ‘The King’ up close, having the opportunity to watch him act when shooting the movie Follow That Dream. Although Petty learned the basics of playing guitar whenever he sat down with an acoustic, he thought he found his calling when seeing The Beatles play for the first time.
When the Fab Four hit the stage on The Ed Sullivan Show, Petty was convinced that he wanted to play music for the rest of his life, not knowing anything better than playing music with his friends. Although Petty would eventually strike up a friendship with both George Harrison and Ringo Starr, it was the power of John Lennon that resonated with him.
Standing at the front of the stage, Lennon commended the group through their first handful of albums, creating a new way of looking at rock and roll that was focused on more sophisticated arrangements than standard blues progressions. While the sound of Lennon’s voice knocked out Petty, he became more aware of what he was doing for society in the back half of his career.
After getting involved in various political causes, Lennon would eventually open himself up to the world in his solo career. With the release of Plastic Ono Band, fans saw the former Beatle for the first time as vulnerable, crafting songs about his experiences in primal therapy. Whether it was the greatest joys in life or all the pain that he had inside, Lennon could turn any one of his tracks into gold by staying true to himself.
When talking about his approach to songwriting, Petty would say that Lennon was one of the biggest role models of the 1960s, telling Rolling Stone, “He was a great role model for my generation because you knew when John suffered, and you knew when John was happy, but it all somehow came out OK.”
Throughout his work with the Heartbreakers, Petty would have a similar approach to his songs as well, writing tracks that were about what was in his heart rather than any grand statement on the world. While there may be a lot of pain behind both Petty’s and Lennon’s voices, it was never about being cynical. It was about creating a song to make something better than what had come before.