I was hoping there wouldn’t be such a delay in this post but it’s been a bit of a hectic October for me thus far (Again). The Chicago Cubs are playing deep into the postseason for the third straight year and I also became a father (More on that for another post) but I would be remiss if I did not share my thoughts on the passing of the one and only Tom Petty.
Tom Petty was a true pioneer and an American original who loved Elvis, The Beatles, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan among many others. He took those influences and distilled them into an art form and medium distinctly his own. A chiming Americana with a cinematic and cerebral essence laced with razor sharp wit. He could write timeless classic anthems (American Girl, I Need To Know, Listen To Her Heart, Refugee, Even The Losers, Here Comes My Girl, Don’t Do me Like That, The Waiting, Don’t Come Around Here No More, Free Fallin’, I Won’t Back Down, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Yer So Bad, Learning To Fly, Into The Great Wide Open, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Crawling Back To You, Walls (Circus), Room At The Top, Swingin’, The Last DJ, Have Love Will Travel), pile-driving rockers (Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll, Century City, What Are You Doin’ In My Life?, You Wreck Me, Honey Bee, Sweet William, Saving Grace, I Should’ve Known It, American Dream Plan B), and lilting numbers so delicate it feels like they could disintegrate or shatter at any moment (Insider, Southern Accents, Alright For Now, Wildflowers, Wake Up Time, Lonesome Sundown, Echo, Blue Sunday, Square One, Something Good Coming). I feel even to call him a legend is a bit of a disservice. He was an American institution that galvanized our collective conscience. Almost anyone anywhere has heard a Tom Petty song or has a Tom Petty story that means something deeply to them. He’s woven himself into our DNA.
I’d like to share my experiences with Tom Petty and what he means to me personally. It started in high school when I was still just a casual fan of his. I must confess I had his hits scattered across burnt CD’s and I thought that was probably good enough for me. But little did I know that was just the tip of the iceberg.
I came to be a die-hard Tom Petty fan in probably one of the more unexpected ways with the most unexpected album. It began on a day where I was skipping my college classes as a Freshman in the Fall of 2002. I was still living at home and going to a community college at the time. I had no real reason to skip classes other than maybe to recharge the batteries from one of hundreds of run-of-the-mill house parties I’d attend during those years with my usual suspects from the night before. I remember watching a brief promo spot with Tom Petty on his upcoming new album at the time, The Last DJ. If memory serves me this was on the TV Guide scrolling channel, yes stuff like that actually happened in the early 21st century kids. Now any of you who are big Tom Petty marks know this album was critically maligned and panned due to its scathing commentary of the music industry. I never really understood this backlash because 1.) He was right about everything he said and 2.) The songs are brilliant and The Last DJ as a whole was cohesively strung together with the intensive care of an expert auteur. To this day it’s still my favorite album of his since Wildflowers.
After The Last DJ kicked open the door to my mind for Tom Petty I became an omnivore of his work. Seeking and consuming anything and everything he had ever put a fingerprint to. My musical awakening (As it often does) really was kick-started into hyper-drive with my emancipation from home. With that independence though I still needed guidance. I needed a compass, a true north and I sought comfort and solace in the sage wisdom and divine transcendence of the catalogs of what would become my Mt. Rushmore of Rock & Roll. Those four individuals that became my forefathers are Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and of course Tom Petty.
The spiritual shakedown, the big bang of my musical universe specifically accelerated the Spring of 2004 and with it my record collection exploded, including my Petty collection. After this I knew there was no turning back. I listened tirelessly to masterpieces like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises, Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, Echo, and the aforementioned The Last DJ. Petty’s classic albums helped me through a particularly stagnant and depressing Winter of 2007/2008 both personally and professionally. I was getting nowhere but every time I heard those clarion calls from Petty I felt like I was soaring above all of mankind and architecture. Even in the darkest deepest doldrums of that Winter he would be able to make a smile crack across my face like lightning.
That particularly Petty-obsessed period spurred me on to get a ticket to see him live in Chicago in the Summer of 2008. I was fortunate to see him live three times with The Heartbreakers and it was like watching true masters of mythical proportion cranking out masterpieces like they had always been there on a biblical or classical scale.
At one point I spent 50 dollars ( ! ) on a Japanese import of Echo single “Room At The Top” just for the incendiary blues of the non-album rarity “Sweet William” that only true bleeding heart Tom Petty zealots will know about.
I became an acolyte and an advocate for Peter Bogdanovich’s film Runnin’ Down A Dream on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It’s still my favorite music documentary by far.
New Tom Petty albums that came out after this became milestone events for me. Highway Companion arrived during a personal renaissance for me in the Summer of 2006. I went overboard with it and it became the soundtrack to a large portion of my Summer that year. Mojo came out in 2010, his first with The Heartbreakers since 2002 and I had another soundtrack lined up for June. I loved it’s Chicago style blues showing the dynamic versatility of Petty and co. His last studio album in 2014, also with The Heartbreakers, was Hypnotic Eye. Yet another Summer burner it was an excellent coda for a band and its leader at the zenith of their prowess and powers. The sound of 40 years of symbiosis powering an engine of angst-riddled riffs and Gainesville swamp, sculpted into a career-spanning exclamation point.
Besides the music, I deeply admired the way he carried himself personally and professionally, it felt like a beacon of light to me. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he didn’t take shit from anyone. He was a 24-karat rocker through and through but he was earnest and it was welded into his bone marrow to do the right thing. He wouldn’t budge on his principles and he snarled and raged against the slightest whiff of injustice or corruption. He had a fierce loyalty to his friends and family and I’d like to think it’s one of my better virtues in part because of him. He literally never backed down from confrontation if it was a war fought in the name of being morally sound.
Upon hearing of his passing I sobbed. I sobbed like I had lost a family member, in part because I had. Tom Petty was like a father to me in many ways and he is my hero. Now the world feels more like a bird with clipped wings and it’s less vibrant without him. Somehow, someway we have to learn to fly again.
RIP Tom, you were a good man to ride the river with.