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Cridlin: Tom Petty was the scruffy Florida boy who helped us feel

For all the losers who got lucky in life, all the scruffy and spindly overachievers who believed in their heart that three chords and the right line could win over the American girl next door, there was Tom Petty.

He was the one who wouldn't back down, who chased that dream into the great wide open, and held it up high with a shaggy, cockeyed smile. He led his band of Heartbreakers from a swampy college town to international fame as one of the longest-running, most successful rock bands in history. He was the boy who grew up crazy about Elvis, and who wound up peers with Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

And on top of all that, Tom Petty was the most beloved, influential and popular musician ever to come out of Florida.

The Gainesville native, whose indelible heartland anthems about outsiders striving for the American dream, died Monday at 66, a day after suffering cardiac arrest at his longtime home in Malibu, Calif. Medics at the scene managed to revive his pulse, according to TMZ, which first reported the news, but Petty's condition never improved. He was taken off life support Monday afternoon.

He died hours later, his longtime manager confirmed in a statement to the media, "surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends."

Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers had just wrapped a major tour celebrating their 40th anniversary, which included a semi-hometown stop at Tampa's Amalie Arena in May. "Oh, I feel that mojo in this room," he said that night, with a dressing room of friends and family waiting to toast him backstage.

But Petty's contributions to the music of Florida, and American culture at large, run much deeper than those four decades.

"He was very much part of a particular time, but the thing that's crazy about him is he transcended that time period and has been able to write incredible songs throughout his life," Cage the Elephant singer Matt Shultz told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year. "I do actually consider him as on the level of a Bob Dylan or anyone like that."

Here's Dylan himself, with whom Petty toured and played in the Traveling Wilburys: "It's shocking, crushing news," Dylan told Rolling Stone in a statement. "I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I'll never forget him."

Inspired to pick up a guitar after watching Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream in Ocala, Petty spent part of his pre-Heartbreakers days down Interstate 75 in Tampa Bay. He dated a local art student, according to 2015's Petty: The Biography, and for a while worked at a funeral home in St. Petersburg.

The Gainesville band that finally got him noticed was Mudcrutch, featuring future Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keys. This was the band that in 1976 helped land Petty a new record deal with Campbell, Tench and fellow Gainesvillians Ron Blair and Stan Lynch. Other than Lynch, who left in 1994, all remain Heartbreakers today — an achievement in loyalty and longevity virtually unparalleled in American music.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' debut self-titled album was a smash in England, but more of a slow burn in the United States, where Breakdown and American Girl — later all-time staples of the Petty canon — were minor hits at best. But by Petty's third album, Damn the Torpedoes, you could hear it all coming together. Twangy riffs laced with New Wave jitters; chiming guitars that shone with a Byrds-like shimmer; a soulful organ pumping beneath Petty's nasal, desperate yowl.

The Heartbreakers sound was so rich and pure, yet so simple on its face that Petty never quite inspired the same cult of devotion as Dylan or Springsteen, the Beatles or the Dead. That, his fans would tell you, might be because the world never looked past his unglamorous, aw-shucks demeanor. "The young'uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb," Petty put it in Southern Accents.

"The Southern, blonde, waify rocker belies the absolute breadth of knowledge that the man really has," Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba told the Times this year.

The world kicked Petty around a time or two in songs like You Got Lucky and Learning to Fly. He kicked back in I Won't Back Down and Even The Losers. He found love in The Waiting, Yer So Bad and You Wreck Me. He released a handful of stone-cold classic albums — Damn the Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers — that are tough to find used on vinyl, because no fan ever wants to sell them.

"It's just timeless, timeless songwriting — great pop sensibility, but with really great, relatable lyrics," Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley said this summer. "That's hard to do, you know?"

For a skinny kid from the pine scrub of Gainesville, it must've seemed impossible; the ensuing adulation — a handful of Grammys, 80 million albums sold — inconceivable. He dealt with personal darkness as he worked his way through it — disastrous battles with his record label, a stretch of heroin addiction, a 1987 fire that destroyed his home.

Petty once lamented in song that we didn't know how it felt to be him, but that's not exactly true — we all know what it feels like to scream down the freeway, windows down, roaring Free Fallin' at the top of our aching lungs. Cameron Crowe had Tom Cruise do that in Jerry Maguire, and it worked, because that feeling of catharsis, of beating all the odds and succeeding, is universal. That feeling is the truth.

Before his Tampa show in May, I wrote an argument for why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers might be the greatest American rock band of all time. Few others can match their longevity, their consistency, their classic songs that appeal to so many. Some readers thought it heresy to elevate them above, say, the Eagles or Grateful Dead.

But then there were the rest.

I have been saying the same thing about this national treasure for years.

I grew up with my brother introducing me to his music, and now I am bucket-listing, taking my 22-year-old daughter to the best seats I could get.

Could not agree more. Tom Petty: Rocker, rebel and still relevant.

I'm surprised more people don't feel the same.

True, the deck was stacked in his favor. Florida is the state that gave the world Tom Petty. He is ours, and we are his. We will always revere his incredible gifts more than most.

As we should.

Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Cridlin: Tom Petty was the scruffy Florida boy who helped us feel 10/03/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 3, 2017 8:16pm]
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