The last few years have been difficult for music lovers, as we have seen icons like David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Chris Cornell all pass away. But for this writer, none of their deaths sting quite so hard and hit home so deep as this week’s unexpected loss of Tom Petty.
While many other sites and media outlets will rehash Petty’s history and glamorize his 40 years worth of contributions to rock and roll, I want to reflect on how this one musician has impacted my life, as he has so many others I am sure.
I remember being a preteen and hearing songs like “Don’t Do Me Like That“, “American Girl“, and “Refugee” on the radio, long before I realized that these singles were nearly 10 years old by the time I heard them.
I remember how I would hum along to the melodies before I eventually memorized the words well enough that I could belt them out loud. I remember recording Tom Petty songs from the radio onto cassette tape so I could hear them whenever I wanted to. This was before I started collecting music, and before I even realized music stores were a thing; that music could actually be purchased.
Eventually, of course, I’d be exposed to Tom Petty music videos on the MuchMusic channel, realizing that this unique musician was an odd-looking character with funny teeth and long hair that seemed permanently messy.
I would purchase his albums in those same stores, and would learn about his involvement with groups like Mudcrutch and The Travelling Wilburys. There was just something intangible about how Tom Petty’s songs stood apart from the rest.
In the late 1980s, bands like U2 were flying the political flag as the shadow of disco was now falling on the rise of hip hop and alternative rock. Meanwhile, Tom Petty’s nasal twang was somehow soft and soothing while being loud and rebellious all at the same time.
In 2012, I finally got a chance to see Tom Petty live in concert in Calgary. My eyes roamed around the sold-out stadium, soaking in the faces of young and old, all beaming with ear-to-ear smiles pasted across their faces and singing their hearts out, just like me. There was an overwhelming feeling in the room of community, fraternity, and kindness. Meanwhile Petty on stage seemed truly happy to be there, thanking the audience time and time again — genuine, friendly, funny, shy, and, most importantly, 100% human. Of course, the band’s performance was simply amazing, alternating between their biggest hits and songs that only die-hard mega-fans had heard before.
We often think about our fallen musical legends in quick flashes of genius or gimmickry — Michael Jackson‘s dance moves, Johnny Cash‘s black suits, and Jimi Hendrix‘s guitar wizardry. But when I think about Tom Petty, all I can see in my mind is his crooked smile, his sly sarcasm, and his simple rock songs that will forever be so incredibly infectious.
Whenever I’ve been asked what albums I would take with me if I were stranded on a desert island, Petty’s double-disc greatest hits anthology has always been near the top of the list.
When I think of Tom Petty, I remember road trips and head trips, dancing and karaoke, romance and grief. I remember the faces of old friends and lovers and just feeling that no matter what life throws at me, it would all turn out all right because I’m not alone in facing those issues that seem too big to conquer.
Thanks to Tom Petty’s catchy songs, I know that other people have faced those same issues before, and they’ve lived to sing about them afterward.
There’s now a sense of foreshadowing lurking in the fact that Petty’s incredible backing band was called The Heartbreakers, because this week I truly feel like my heart has been irreparably damaged — like I’ll never be the same — like it can’t be true — like Tom Petty was supposed to live on and on, for all eternity.
And I know that he will to a certain degree, as his timeless songs will be played on radios around the world for decades to come. Yet, from this point forward, I’m pretty sure that when I think of Tom Petty, my eyes will sting and my heart will ache with grief for this best friend who I never met.
However, even this feeling seems to have been predicted by Tom Petty as far back as 1979, when he wrote these lyrics in his song “Learning To Fly“:
Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I’ve started out for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there
I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down
To Thomas Earl Petty, from Gainesville, Florida, who lived October 20, 1950 to October 2, 2017:
Thank you for all the songs and for all the memories. I hope you truly do rest in peace, good sir, and please know that you will be sincerely missed.