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Remembering Tom Petty, an American icon

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/3/2017 Maeve McDermott
Tom Petty performs during halftime at Super Bowl XLII in 2008. © Timothy A. Clary, AFP/Getty Images Tom Petty performs during halftime at Super Bowl XLII in 2008.

What an awful 24 hours for rock ‘n’ roll.

As if the death of more than 50 people at a concert in Las Vegas wasn’t too much heartbreak for music fans to bear, Tom Petty died Monday evening after going into cardiac arrest.

"We are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty," his longtime manager Tony Dimitriades said in a statement to USA TODAY. "He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends."

Petty’s premature departure feels almost cosmically cruel, considering the 66-year-old had just wrapped a mammoth 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers, which took him on the road from April through August, with more dates planned next month. For fans who didn’t get to see him on this tour, who maybe promised themselves they’d catch him on his next outing, there will be no next time. This is an artist who was seemingly always on the road, who embraced MTV and played at Super Bowl halftime shows and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and never seemed too far away from fans’ reach. Knowing he’s gone is enough to buckle your knees.

Losing Tom Petty now, during a year when the soul of the country seems wracked with uncertainty and turmoil, seems even crueler. Because Petty’s music sounded like America, the kind of yearning, big-sky rock ‘n’ roll songs that generations of imitators will try and fail to replicate.

His most iconic singles are lean and unpretentious, and airtight in their perfection. Petty was rock's quintessential underdog, with the characters in his songs always fighting for some version of survival. He approached his songwriting with a director’s eye for a compelling narrative, explaining to Billboard last year, “A good song should give you a lot of images, you should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song."

Over the course of his career, Petty won three Grammys (and 18 nominations) and sold tens of millions of records with the Heartbreakers, the group that carried him from the dive bars of their Gainesville, Fla, hometown to the world's biggest stages. Not a decade went by when Petty didn't release a good album, from the Heartbreakers' scrappy 1976 debut and his hits-packed 1989 solo release Full Moon Fever (home to Free Fallin' and I Won't Back Down), to his stunning 1994 release Wildflowers, which delivered stripped-down Americana in the middle of the grunge revolution.  

Petty's 2014 album Hypnotic Eye, which would prove to be his last release, earned the Heartbreakers their first No. 1. In an interview with USA TODAY about Hypnotic Eye, Petty struggled with the state of the country, calling it an album about "what's happened to the human that's lost his humanity."

"I'm not extremely political. I just look at what makes sense to me," he said. "I would think we'd be in the streets demanding that our children be safe in schools. I see friendships end over politics. I've never seen such anger. That's not how it's supposed to work. In a two-party system, ideas are argued and you compromise. You're not supposed to stop the process."

Fast forward three years, and America has never seemed angrier. And now, with Petty's death, rock fans have one fewer voice of reason to explain our national conscience in song, or to help us seek catharsis in the form of a live show.  

But, as Petty told USA TODAY in a prescient moment of self-reflection, his music would endure after his death.

"I do feel as I get older that there's a finite amount of time left," he said. "It's made me more interested in making records. They last longer than me, and they don't go away."

And through all the mourning that will consume the nation this week, Tom Petty's timeless visions of American resilience will endure, from an artist eternally searching for a little more life somewhere else.

Tom Petty: Life and career in pictures (Provided by Photo Services):

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25:  Tom Petty of Mudcrutch performs at The Fonda Theatre on June 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harmony Gerber/WireImage) Tom Petty: Life and career in pictures  

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