I wrote recently, in a tribute to my favorite filmmaker George Romero, how I was typically unaffected emotionally by celebrity deaths. Even when the bell tolls for artists whose work I really enjoy, I just don’t get swept up in the communal mourning that’s so embedded in fandom. Romero, I said, like Robin Williams before him, was an anomaly.
Then Tom Petty died.
*Nods to the sky…
“Well played, Universe. I didn’t see that one coming. Almost had myself a not sucky Monday there for a second. As if the news wasn’t bad enough already. Guess you win again.”
Side note: If anything happens to Stephen King anytime soon it’s going to be all but impossible for me avoid the need to seek professional help … and/or medication. Somebody please check up on that guy.
Tom Petty has been my favorite musician for as long as I can remember. My parents tell stories of me as a young child wandering the house with a robot-looking cassette player in tow — the kind with the blue feet as the base, the mouth into which you’d insert the tape, and a microphone on the side, attached with a twirled yellow cord — blasting the “Full Moon Fever” album continuously. I wore that tape out.
I learned all the words to Free Falling right about at the same time I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Or my home phone number. It was that essential to my life.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the first real concert I ever saw, too. It was Pittsburgh, 2006. A friend of mine got tickets for a show — the Allman Brothers Band was the opening act — as a high school graduation present and invited me along. It was a transformative experience.
I was fortunate enough to see them live again just recently, when the 40th anniversary tour came to Seattle. They were great. He was still amazing, a flawless entertainer and a consummate showman.
One thing in particular that struck me back in ’06, and which did again here in 2017, is the diversity of the man’s fan base. At the Seattle show, I sat in front of a middle-aged Latino-looking guy, there by himself, who screamed and squealed like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert three summers ago. He talked loudly to anybody who would listen about how much he loved Tom Petty, that he always had, and how he’d never had the chance to see him live before. It was nothing short of a pilgrimage for this guy. I shared his joy. We were fellow true believers.
There were teenagers — there alone, there with their families. There were older folks, too, and a whole swath of my fellow late 20s/early 30-ites. There were stoners and there were drunks, and many more clear-headed rock lovers, too. Some danced. Some didn’t. But everybody cheered.
That’s what I love most about the man. He was the people’s rock star. He was never unnecessarily political. It was never more about him than it was about the music. He just rocked. For 40 years, he rocked in an undeniably awesome, wholly American way.
The world needs more Tom Petty.
My phone was flooded with texts when the news broke. Apparently, it’s one of the only things everybody who has ever met me knows — “Hey, isn’t Luke like a huge Tom Petty fan? Better give him the bad news right away!”
One such buddy o’ mine said: “It’s been 40 years since he started, right? He got out there, took a look around the country circa 2017 and said, ‘Nope. No thanks. I’m out.’”
Well, we are living in undeniably strange and trying times. But I don’t think tough times ever got Tom Petty down. He had his share of bad days, and a childhood that would have broken a man of lesser spirit, and he never seemed anything but resolute. Even his sad songs, they’re indomitable. They’re edged with hope.
The man was also a master lyricist. In fact, I submit that his work stands, not just as great song lyrics, but as some of the finest flash fiction of the 20th century. He was a peerless storyteller. So, I guess every fan probably has their own favorite lines that they’ll inscribe on their personal mental Tom Petty memorial.
I’ve been thinking about it, and I believe I’ve got mine picked out:
“I don’t believe the good times are over
I don’t believe the thrill is all gone
Real love is a man’s salvation
The weak ones fall, the strong carry on”
-Straight Into Darkness