Tom Petty’s four-decades-long run as America’s premier power-pop troubadour had plenty of unexpected phases: There was his late-’70s, working-class-hero years, in which he sparred with his record label, arguing that his music should be priced cheaper; his on-again, off-again stint as the youngest, most starry-eyed Wilbury; and his smash-hit solo-star era, thanks to Full Moon Fever, an album that unfussily fused ’60s guitar-pop sparkle, ’70s bad-boy bonhomie, and late-’80s weariness (and if you listen closely enough, you can even hear an early preview of the ’90s in the surf-sludge guitar riff that kicks off “Runnin’ Down a Dream”). There was a Tom Petty era for everyone, which may be why he appealed to well-heeled senator’s daughters, future punks, and sports agents alike.
But Petty, who died late Monday at the age of 66, was also an unlikely music-video star, pumping out a series of vibrant, innovative clips that helped redefine the medium just as it was getting underway. Petty, who was in his late thirties by the time MTV came around, lacked the art-school backgrounds and big-screen aspirations of many of the musicians who’d make the network famous. So he treated it as just another part of the gig, albeit one he clearly enjoyed, using the medium to play up his love of detailed storytelling and southern-weirdo charms. Consider his clip for 1982’s “You Got Lucky,” which opens with an ominous, John Carpenter-like instrumental score, and eventually finds Petty—bemused but determined—ambling around a dusty apocalypse. It’s one of the weirdest song-to-screen interpretations imaginable—who listens to a curdled eff-you like “You Got Lucky” and thinks, Hey, we should rip off Mad Max for this!?—but Petty makes it work, in large part because he never acts like he’s above being in what’s essentially a low-budget sci-fi short.
Petty’s most infamous clip arrived just a few years later, when he hijacked Alice in Wonderland for his oddball 1985 track “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and turned it into a loopy, ominous anti-love story. Petty plays the smirking Mad Hatter, who, by the video’s end, has turned Alice into a giant cake that’s devoured by the band (an image that yielded nearly as many Reagan-era nightmares as Michael Jackson’s Thriller eye-glow). Petty may not have had Springsteen’s innate charisma, or Dylan’s alluring aloofness, but there’s a wicked drollness in Petty’s performance that made this already dark-hearted clip all the more creepy.
Then, in 1989, Petty released one of the most counter-cultural clips of his career. By the time “Runnin’ Down a Dream” arrived, music videos were emphasizing sleek effects, big-star megalomania, and future-thinking visuals; Petty responded with an animated homage to the work of Little Nemo in Slumberland creator Winsor McKay, an illustrator who’d been dead for more than a half-century. The video finds Petty in his most unlikely phase to date, his sardonic-rocker transformed, just temporarily, into a free-spirited, Saturday-morning-ready cartoon (the fact that it accompanied such an urgent, riff-riding bit of let’s-hit-the-highway spiritedness made it all the more joyful).
Still, Petty’s best-known on-screen performance would come just a few years later, when he played a stoic morgue employee in the VMA-winning video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (a song that been recorded a bonus to his 1993 Greatest Hits compilation, and wound up becoming one of his highest-charting tracks ever). In the gothic, lovingly creepy clip, Petty’s attendant brings home a corpse (played by Kim Basinger), brings her home, and dresses her up for a candlelit slow-dance before slipping into the waves. By the time “Mary Jane” was released, Petty was a worldwide star, but he was still somewhat unknowable—a guy who’d managed to radiate relatability, yet never had an easy-to-pin down persona. That built-in mystery be why his turn is so effective here: We have no idea if his body-grabber’s a saint or sinner, but either way, it’s impossible not to feel for him. “Last Dance” was wry and surprising and a little bit smarter than everything else on the air—kind of like Petty himself. We got lucky.