His songs were concise and thoughtfully distilled, modest in bearing but often a gutpunch in content and sly in delivery. From another singer, his lyrics might have scanned as sneering, but from Mr. Petty they sounded like smoothly polished stones of accrued wisdom. He smeared out his nasal syllables in a way that telegraphed heart and despair, but always under tight control. By taking a mellow approach and keeping flamboyance and ego to a minimum, he made plain overlooked things that had always been there.
Mr. Petty grew up a student of the Beatles and the Byrds, and was also conversant in Southern rock, new wave and punk. That flexibility allowed Mr. Petty, who had first joined bands in his hometown, Gainesville, Fla., before moving to Los Angeles, to calmly float between eras, never owing too much to any one idea.
He first came to prominence in the late 1970s with the Heartbreakers, shining on the nervy and quietly lustrous album “Damn the Torpedoes.” Throughout the 1980s, as rock was getting increasingly glamorous and louche, he remained resolute, culminating in the 1989 masterpiece “Full Moon Fever.” Staying the course made him something of an unlikely darling of MTV in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the middle-aged post-hippie with the wise eyes, sleepy drawl and occasionally psychedelic sense of self-presentation.
But looking like he wasn’t trying very hard at all was part of Mr. Petty’s game; behind the curtain, he was often taking stands, firmly in control. He was particular, even ornery, about his business. When MCA Records wanted to raise the price of his 1981 album “Hard Promises” from $8.98 to $9.98, he pushed back. In 1992, it was revealed that Mr. Petty had secretly signed a $20 million contract with Warner Bros. three years earlier.
He was particular about his art as well. During a mixing session for the 1985 album “Southern Accents,” he punched a wall and broke his left hand. And he often told stories about cutting Jimmy Iovine’s phone cord to get his attention when he was working with the notoriously hyper producer.
Like many great songwriters, Mr. Petty had a catalog that was ruthlessly pilfered over the years, though he seemed to vacillate on just how seriously to take these offenses. He seemed to shrug it off when the Strokes all but Xeroxed the beginning of “American Girl” for their breakthrough hit, “Last Nite.” But he quietly negotiated credit and payment when it seemed — in a perhaps mildly specious claim — that Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” had too much of “I Won’t Back Down” in it.
When it came to politics, though, he dropped the pretense of casualness. In his later years, he disavowed his early use of the confederate flag during the marketing and touring of “Southern Accents,” calling it “downright stupid.” And when it came to politicians trying to align themselves with his songs, he made his desires plain. He asked the George W. Bush presidential campaign to stop using “I Won’t Back Down.” When Michele Bachmann used “American Girl” at a rally, he fired off a cease-and-desist letter.
But when Al Gore conceded the 2000 presidential election, there was Mr. Petty an hour later, serenading him with “I Won’t Back Down,” an easy song about impossibly hard things.
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