I still remember Tom Petty

A remembrance of an all-time American great

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Tom Petty died on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. The news of his death hit me hard. Why?

I never knew the man. And yet, I feel I did, thanks to his ambition, success and creative gifts. If you’re reading this, I bet you felt like you knew him too. At least a little. Petty was an icon — a term often thrown around too loosely, but a well-deserved label in this instance. He was, at various times, king of American pop culture through much of his 40-year public career.

It’s good to be king.

Petty has taken his turn in death; a dance we will all do. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe many years from now. But I feel a particular loss right now.

Death is sad. We mourn loss and losing Tom Petty to death saddens many. What have we lost, exactly? The music is still there; easily re-callable on our myriad devices. It lives on in our memories. Petty’s music is still as available today as it was before he died.

The news of Petty’s death came on the heels of the Las Vegas shooting tragedy, which clearly impacted the context around which I could absorb more bad news. Vegas. Petty. Puerto Rico. Trump. Shitty week. Choose your sadness.

Petty was not just an American success story. His music affected people. It spoke to them. It still speaks to us to this day. Recently, a writer I respect and admire shared his top 10 favorite Tom Petty songs. If I were to make my own list, I might have included only two of his choices, in addition to what I feel are the great milestone recordings of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (and his other collaborators).

Such is the depth and greatness of the Tom Petty catalogue.

It’s alright

Petty was a singular talent, aided by a band of also very capable and compatible musicians in The Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, Stevie Nicks, David Stewart, Jeff Lynne, The Traveling Wilburys, Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Del Shannon, others. Collaborations and unions came and went. Petty kept delivering, through ups and downs, both personal and professional.

In a 2006 interview with Teri Gross on “Fresh Air,” Petty let on that he was proud of his music’s legacy and that it pleased him (at least, at times) when fans shared with him how much his music meant to them. “The songs mean a lot to people, and it means a lot to me.”

Had I ever met him, I would almost certainly have done the same. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are well-woven into the fabric of my youth. I would have felt compelled to gush about how much his music meant to me. I’m not a gusher by nature. But I know what would have happened. He had that effect; that status. That must have gotten exhausting fast for Petty.

My wife is friendly with one of The Heartbreakers, from years ago. That’s not a brag; I’ve never met bassist Ron Blair, though I’d like to. He seems like a genuinely good dude. I’d have lots of questions. I don’t know Blair or Petty any more than you do, but you’re still reading, so we are united in our affection for their creative output. What does that unity do for us now?

My point is that as much loss as many “fans” are feeling right now, there are those far closer to him that are feeling loss much more. I feel for them too, in addition to my own personal sadness. I’m sad that Petty has left us. I keep coming back to that sense of personal loss we’re feeling.

It’s this: we — completely illegitimately, yet still genuinely — feel some ownership of Petty. Because we took the songs to heart. The jangly, up-beat, slap-in-the-face of “American Girl,” the slinky, playful (with the deliciously geographically untraceable accent Petty uses throughout) “Breakdown,” the tight, rocking power pop of “I Need to Know,” and Byrds-esque, heartland rock of “Listen to Her Heart,” are each firmly some of the best moments of 1970s pop culture.

I don’t care how long it took for “Breakdown” to become a hit, nor how much each of those songs sold or what chart position they peaked at. When you heard them, you knew. This was us. It was discovering something you needed, that you previously had no idea you needed.

That’s just his first two records. To my mind, the Heartbreakers’ peak came in October 1979 with the release of Damn the Torpedoes, a masterwork from start to finish. I claim it as the most consistently good-to-great album of his career. Torpedoes is a rare album that a suburban teen could spend his allowance money on and not fear getting stuck with a bunch of filler in-between a handful of hits (I’m looking at you, Southern Accents). Torpedoes was worth the money then. It holds up today.

Has anyone ever sounded cooler than when Petty rap-drawls on “Here Comes My Girl”? The answer is “no.” The playing, arrangements and production are crisp, exact and full of life throughout the album’s nine songs. I could go on, but I won’t bore you with my gushing.

I’m not afraid of you running away, honey. I get the feeling you won’t.

Commercially, Petty (and The Heartbreakers’) trajectory continued upward with 1981’s Hard Promises, after some well-documented battles with his record label and the industry at large. Promises yielded one of Petty’s most enduring songs, “The Waiting,” which marks the end of Petty’s first act as a music icon.

From then on Petty took to alternately continuing his work with The Heartbreakers and exploring collaborations with Stevie Nicks, David Stewart (“Don’t Come Around Here No More”), and all the Wilburys (Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan) — some collectively as the temporary supergroup, others individually.

As far as second-acts go, it was a stellar run. That he followed that era up with a third act that included such classics as “Learning To Fly” (1991), “Into the Great Wide Open” (1992), “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993), “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (1994), “You Wreck Me” (1994), “It’s Good to Be King” (1994)— all of which came after the five-single success of 1989’s Full Moon Fever, explains how 1990s era Tom Petty is as formative for many as 1970s/early 1980s Tom Petty is for early fans.

And on it went. Until it stopped on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Tom Petty took his turn in death on this day, shocking many — not the least of which, probably, himself. Death came too soon for the 66-year-old.

It’s just the normal noises in here

Petty’s death forces us to confront our own mortality. Petty was part of us. Petty is now gone. Petty reportedly died of cardiac failure — an ailment that afflicts the old and unhealthy. Just a few weeks short of his 67th birthday, Petty was a senior citizen (whatever that means). My paternal grandfather died when he was 67. My paternal grandmother is still alive now at 97, though not living a quality life. I’m not sure who got the better deal.

Dying at the age of 66 seems early, but still Petty was an aged man. He dealt with the pains and illnesses of aging and a hard life. His health habits from earlier life may or may not have impacted his death now. Just like us, still reading, still living on. We don’t know. We ask now, again, because Tom Petty is gone.

It’s been a few days. The shock has worn off a bit. But I still remember Tom Petty. I don’t want to let go. I want his youth back. I want my youth back. I can get a glimpse of it — just a slice — when I play his music.

What a luxury it is to be able to be sad about the passing of Tom Petty. Far better I mourn this than something more personally tragic. Those days are coming, but not right now. Fucking life.

Thanks, Tom. Rest in peace. We’ll all join you some day. Maybe we can talk then.

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