Tom Petty died October 2, 2017, at the age of 66. With his band The Heartbreakers, Petty had just completed his final national tour marking the 40th anniversary of their self-titled debut. He left behind an incredible musical legacy and a legion of fans among whom I am proud to count myself a member.
I want to tell you what Tom Petty and his music meant to me. I want to do so without suggesting what his work should mean to you–I want to spare you the generic platitudes that so often follow the death of an icon.
My parents never really played the “100 songs for kids” or owned a Rafi album. My siblings and I learned about rock and roll, folk, and soul from the backseat of our parents’ car. My dad brought his love of Bob Seger, Jim Croce, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Creedence Clearwater Revival on every road trip. My mom peppered every ride to the grocery store and drive to school with Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison, The Eagles, and heavy doses of Motown.
I first discovered Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers–as many did–through the multi-platinum selling 1989 album Full Moon Fever. My path to fandom was slightly different than most. I was 18 and working part-time. Since I had no expenses, I spent all of my meager income on CDs. I had amassed quite a collection, mostly comprised of artists my parents had introduced on those car rides. I had a CD slipcase housed in a wooden box that held all 60 of my musical treasures.
One night while working late, some nefarious soul broke into my 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis and absconded with $10 in loose change from my cupholder and my entire CD collection. I was, to say the very least, devastated. I remember that drive home from work as one of the most depressing experiences of my young life. The radio in my $600 car only picked up the local country station, so I drove home in silence quietly lamenting the loss of my traveling companions.
The next morning as I got back in the car for my 30 min commute to college, I wondered if maybe the radio might be good to me and at least tune in the local classic rock station. It didn’t.
There are moments in your life when you can look back and divide time between a certain second and everything that came after it. Just as I was about to give up and set the dial to the pop-country sounds available on my radio I dropped my hand to my side and felt something in-between the seats. My skin knew the hard textured plastic to be a CD jewel case.
I had completely forgotten that a few days before I had purchased Full Moon Fever. I bought it because I had heard “Free Fallin” on the radio and felt that the sound fit my tastes. “This band was bound to have a couple more songs that I would enjoy,” I had thought. Why I hadn’t played the CD before that moment is lost to me now. I slid it into the CD player and listened with thankful ears to what would become my favorite album, mostly because it was my only album.
After a month or so of exhausting that record and learning the lyrics to every track, I needed more. At the local record store, I studied the available selections. After much deliberation, I bought a copy of Echo. At the time it was the most recent release. It didn’t sound the same. The music was more subdued, the singer sad, the lyrics were more expressive. I didn’t like it. On repeat listens (remember I only owned two CDs), I came to appreciate the darkness of Echo in contrast to the light of Full Moon Fever.
Not long after purchasing my second Tom Petty record and boring my two best friends to tears analyzing the lyrics, pointing out the musical subtleties and repeatedly calling Tom Petty a genius, I discovered his tour was coming to Columbus, Ohio. I purchased tickets with money I didn’t have and convinced my friends to do the same.
We arrived at the venue early and quickly found our seats. Chatting with several of the people seated around us I quickly discovered that this being my first show placed me in the minority. Most of the other attendees had seen Tom Petty multiple times, a few of them had seen a few shows on this tour following the band from town to town.
The Heartbreakers were amazing to watch. Tom was in complete control of the crowd. The set included most of the hits and went on for nearly 3hrs. I rode the high of that experience all the way home. I quickly began devouring any Tom Petty record that I could find, and within a month I had them all. Those ten records sat perfectly on the shelf above my computer. A complete set. I wrung each album dry for the next year. Listening to those records, I felt I had reached the end of the line. Then I discovered the Playback box set, and the magic began all over again. Every time I felt like I had exhausted the catalog, I would read about another release Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had played on. I would track them down and begin all over again.
Through Tom Petty’s musical style, I discovered many incredible artists. His music had elements of The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Tom Petty also played on many tribute albums and in collaboration with artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. Through his liner notes, I learned about many artists who played on Tom Petty’s records: Donald Duck Dunn, Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, Steve Jordan, Jim Keltner, Richard Manuel. Learning about the artists who worked with Tom Petty taught me about Stax Records, The Band, The Beatles, and many others. I studied each of those artists with the same ferocity with which I had attacked Tom Petty’s catalog.
No matter what I was listening to at the time, I always cycled back to Tom Petty. Every year or so I would plow through my collection again and get something new out of most of the songs. There was always a depression that followed placing that last album back on the shelf. Every time my collection started to feel incomplete, like clockwork, there was a new album a new concert DVD or documentary film. Every two years there was a new tour. Tom Petty became a constant in my world.
Lyrically, I found a Tom Petty song for every occasion. Each time I experienced highs and lows in my life, it felt as though Tom had already been there. He became like an older brother going before me into the world and sending back his findings. Tom Petty’s music helped me through a divorce, career changes, the loss of my father, and even the loss of a child. Tom Petty may not have experienced those specific things, but his music told of grief, disappointment, lowered expectations, and loss.
The characters in his songs seemed like real people. The narrative that began with each opening line told of a lifetime. I got to know them all. They weren’t all likable, but they were all relatable. Tom Petty handled each one–hero and villain–with the care and concern that each of us would ask for if it were our story being told.
Being a Tom Petty fan made me a better fan of music in general. His work set a standard of songwriting that each artist must meet to find themselves a place on those shelves that hold my collection. He was a master storyteller with reverence and deep respect for those who came before him. Tom Petty gave me a master’s course in what it means to meet people where they are and see where they are coming from.
Tom Petty’s work was the first music that was truly mine. I discovered it independent of my parent’s tastes, and just as they did with their favorites, I share it now with my own children. They will follow that path to find their own things and pass them on to their children; the big old world keeps spinning round.
The point of this piece is to honestly say thank you to a friend and a mentor: thank you for being a piece of the unfolding journey that is my life. I also want to say thank you to the thief who stole my CDs. Without you, I might never have dug in and discovered all that Tom Petty had to offer to the soundtrack of my experiences. “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” (I said I wouldn’t quote lyrics… I lied.)