I don’t know what my life would have been like without Tom Petty, and now I don’t know what the future holds without him sharing this earth with me. He’s one of those artists for whom my emotional connection has been unshakeable for the vast majority of my life. As with Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, and George Michael, Tom Petty represents my childhood, and the loss of this ingenious artist and extraordinary man is more than just the passing of another celebrity. Some people laugh when we mourn celebrity deaths like they are our family, but when you spent the better part of your life feeling inspired and entertained by somebody, it doesn’t matter whether or not you knew them personally; we do know them through their work, and that’s what makes it so heartbreaking when they die.
The first time I was aware of Tom Petty was when I saw the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when I was 12. I’m positive Tom Petty was blasting at roller skating parties when I had feathered hair and headbands. A devoted MTV watcher, I probably saw “Refugee” and whatever other early videos of his they played, but the fantastical video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” made an impression on me that engraved upon my musical tastes an indelible love for all things Petty.
He just seemed like such a cool guy. I always thought I was cool, but I know now that I was never as cool as Tom. He took no shit, and that’s a quality I admire. He did what the fuck he wanted to do. I don’t remember who said it, but a great description I read about him a few years ago was that he was like that cool dude in high school who hung out in the parking lot smoking cigarettes and seemed pretty intimidating until you actually met him. That’s how I see him.
I didn’t know a lot about his personal life or band’s history when I was a kid. He wasn’t in the tabloids and shit—he was focused on his music, dedicated to continuing to perfect his craft. Everything he did was brilliant and intentional. He fought with his record company on behalf of his fans. He was pretty cool about other artists using bits of his songs in their own, even inviting The Strokes to tour with him when they admitted to ripping off “American Girl” for their song “Last Nite” (read my blog about The Strokes here). He told right wing politicians to fuck off when they used his music without his permission. Tom was a champion for artists’ rights and was as much a fan of music as he was an enormously talented musician.
Tom was man enough to admit his mistakes. A proud southern boy, he unfortunately used the Confederate flag in the promotion of and onstage for the Southern Accents tour in 1985.
“I used it onstage during that song, and I regretted it pretty quickly….I felt stupid. If I had just been a little more observant about things going on around me, it wouldn’t have happened…. Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person.”
A lot of his fans weren’t happy that he was speaking out against the flag in the 1980s, but he stood firm and made it clear that it did not represent who he and his band were.
I listened to my Wildflowers cassette repeatedly throughout my early 20s. There was pretty much no contemporary music at the time that I would bother with, but obviously Tom Petty was not in the category of Shitty 90s Music. I was not into grunge or hair bands or rap, all of which were dominating the radio and MTV. Tom came out with this little slice of perfection just when I needed it most. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” became my theme song at a time when I was, like everyone at that age, trying to figure out my shit. I had always thought I was a very self-aware person, and I think I was when compared to most people in my age group. But that song showed me that it was okay to not know shit, that you could be a badass and still have questions and be confused about life.
Think of me what you will
I got a little space to fill
So let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint
Let’s head on down the road
There’s somewhere I gotta go
And you don’t know how it feels
No, you don’t know how it feels to be me
I had a new best friend around the time Wildflowers came out. We liked each other a lot, but he was gay so nothing ever happened except some show-and-tell one night in his bedroom at his parents’ house. We constantly talked about how bored we were, how nothing exciting was happening in our lives. That sort of co-dependency and us-against-the-world mentality served us well enough at the time. We were in love in our platonic way, soul mates for life without a doubt. We talked all day, every day, first thing in the morning and last thing before we went to bed. Every little thing we experienced was shared and analyzed with each other, always with the conclusion that it wasn’t exciting enough to get us out of the perpetual state of ennui we were so unfortunate to be enveloped in.
Listening to Wildflowers and the rest of his music as an adult I can hear the influences on his sound and lyrics. There are lots of Dylanesque pronunciations of course (listen to pretty much any song on Damn the Torpedoes), but his own Pettyness was what made me love him. The way he drawls out girls in “It’s Good to Be King;” the irresistible hawneh in “Refugee;” and what’s cooler than Oh my my, oh hell yes from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”? Tom really had a unique aesthetic that combined the blues, country, and old school rock and roll with his own particular brand of badassery and—yes—sexiness. I never thought of him as sexy until I saw him on the 40th anniversary Heartbreakers tour. I had seen him in concert a decade or so earlier, but for some reason I was more in love with him as a 44-year-old woman than I ever had been before. He had the audience in the palm of his hand on his last tour. I saw Paul McCartney two nights in a row the year before, and this last Heartbreakers show was just as powerful. Being in an arena filled with fans who are singing every word of “Yesterday,” “Love Me Do,” and “Blackbird” is indescribable. The emotion involved in that experience really was overwhelming, and I often found myself on the verge of tears. Everyone knows Beatles songs, everyone grew up with them, and to collectively express our joy at being in the presence of the man who helped create those moments is an almost religious experience.
I had the same moving experience when I saw Tom on this tour. You could feel the love in the room, the appreciation for Tom and the band and all the joy and comfort they have provided us over the decades. He seemed incredibly happy and grateful to be on stage, showered with affection from thousands of strangers who didn’t feel like he was a stranger at all. We adored him, we worshiped him, and we made sure he knew how we felt.
I’m getting teary-eyed as I write this, because I have been thinking a lot about how I felt that night about Tom and music in general. My uncle passed away from cancer earlier this year. He and Tom were both 66 when they drew their last breaths. My uncle played guitar in a garage band when he was a teenager, and I get my love of music from him and my mother. When I first heard that Tom had died, there was still confusion about whether that was true. One of Tom’s daughters went off on the false news reports, and rightfully so. We forget that famous people are also parents, spouses, friends, coworkers, neighbors. The day after the news first prematurely reported his death, I woke up to hear that he was officially gone. I burst into tears. Tom’s family didn’t have months of hospital visits and dashed hopes that he might survive; they had mere hours before having to remove him from the machine that kept him going. I thought about my uncle’s struggle in his last months, and how the family gathered in his hospital room when he was taken off life support. It’s such a tragedy to watch somebody die, but it’s also beautiful to have the privilege of surrounding them with compassion and love as their bodies succumb to the fate that nobody wanted to admit was coming.
My uncle is probably turning the radio loud and rolling another joint with Tom right now.