It seems like I’ve been writing a few too many of these memorial type things as of late. But Mr. Petty, as my wife christened him, played such a large role in my life that I could not not write about him. Yesterday’s news of his passing, while it obviously didn’t overshadow the horrific events in Las Vegas, hit me as hard as any “celebrity death” that I can recall. In fact, the only death I can remember hitting me harder was that of John Lennon. Two artists that on the exterior seem vastly different, but upon inspection share a lot of similarities.
To understand the impact of Mr. Petty’s music on my life, you’d have to go back to a skinny, little 14-year-old sitting in his room cranking the stereo. I grew up a military brat, which meant that I was constantly the new kid in town. I may not have been shy, but I was definitely insecure. It seemed like everywhere we moved, everybody else had a friend they’d known since near birth, save for me.
I don’t know exactly when, but a few years before 1979, I discovered the transcendent power of Rock and Roll. Elvis was my first, soon followed by KISS. The music brought a means of expression to the jumbled up, mixed up feelings I had inside and made my weaknesses somehow… all right. In 1978, and I know I was a little late to the party, I dropped the needle on Never Mind the Bollocks and nothing was ever the same.
I dived deep into the wave of Punk Rock that was sweeping through America from England and New York. Remember this was a time when there was no Google search and no Spotify. You discovered some artists through the radio, but the really special ones had to be rooted out like truffles in the French countryside. I was so bitten by Rock and Roll fever that I searched out artists and their music like I was an attorney prepping for a murder trial. I think that having to actively search for your music, as opposed to typing a name in a search box, made the connection all that more tangible.
Obviously, when you put this much work into discovering people and their music, you end up forming a personal connection. Bands like Robert Hazard, the Skunks, the A’s, Legs Diamond, Storm, 707, and countless other forgotten names, still hold an attachment to my heart despite never selling many albums outside their immediate family. Punk seemed to be over in the blink of an eye and was replaced by the much more commercially palpable “New Wave.”
The debates raged hot and heavy over what was “Punk” and what was “New Wave.” The former enjoying a much greater sense of authenticity, while the latter was written off as a commercial creation. I was clearly on the side of “Punk” and proudly wore my badges on my leather jacket.
In 1979, I came across a video of a young singer who was being touted as a punk rocker, or maybe he was new wave. He wasn’t sporting a leather jacket, but that denim and that swagger… well, maybe. That refugee thing kind of resonated as well. The hook was that he looked remarkably like my cousin John. Every time the video would come on we would all gather around and remark on the resemblance while grooving to the music.
I bought Damn The Torpedoes and though I never figured out if he was punk or not, the songs were pretty damn good. For a young man just discovering girls, with decidedly mixed results, songs like “Even the Losers” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” struck an emotional chord and were played on an endless loop.
I remember the anticipation for the album that would eventually become Hard Promises. Months before the album was released, word filtered out that Petty was in a battle with his record company. At that time records cost $8.98 a piece and the label wanted to charge $9.98 for the new record. Petty threatened to call the new release Eight Ninety-Eight. The label backed down, and I thought maybe he is a little punk rock after all.
The “Nightwatchman,” “Thing About You,” and “The Waiting” were the ones that hooked me here. But the songs became less edgy, and I started to gravitate more toward Black Flag, the Ramones, the Scorpions, and Judas Priest. To steal a line from Foster and Lloyd, I guess I just wanted it louder and faster.
So like that friend from high school who decides to go to a different university than you, Mr. Petty’s music and I began to drift apart. It was always in the background and the albums Long After Dark and Southern Accents didn’t go without their spins. But Petty’s music had a safe and comfortable feel to it, and I was too busy exploring other avenues. Sometimes to my detriment.
I moved to Nashville in 1989. The same week as the infamous Petty/Replacements show at Starwood. The Replacements broke into the Heartbreakers dressing room pre-show and donned the band’s wives’ dresses before hitting the stage. I remembered cracking up at this story and siding with the ‘Ments. They were true Punk rockers sticking it to the man. Yeah, I knew nothing.
1989 was also the year that Full Moon Fever was released. Again, like that friend from high school that you reconnect with after years of separation, the memories of just how good Tom Petty was came flooding back. Man, I played the hell out of that record, supplemented by trips back to Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises. For awhile, I was full on with our reunion, but again we drifted apart.
1994 meant the release of Wildflowers. 1994 was also about the time my addictions began to slip out of control. I remember “You Don’t Know How It Feels” holding special appeal, but like most things for the next 5 years, it was all kind of a blur. At some point during this time I remember seeing Petty and the Heartbreakers live.
Live, nobody ever touched Mr. Petty and his band. Don’t even bother trying to make arguments, I’ll just slap everyone of them down. Night in, night out, nobody consistently delivered as professional and as musically deft a show as Petty. There were no frills; he didn’t need them. I remember somebody once replying when asked about what effects they use: “A guitar, a cord, and an amp.” That was Petty and his guys.
“Last Dance For Mary Jane” was a song tossed on a greatest hits package, but for a young man approaching middle age who was caught up in the throes of addiction, it became a mantra:
Well I don’t know what I’ve been told
You never slow down, you never grow old
I’m tired of screwing up, I’m tired of goin’ down
I’m tired of myself, I’m tired of this town
Oh my my, oh hell yes
Honey put on that party dress
Buy me a drink, sing me a song,
Take me as I come ’cause I can’t stay long
Waking up hung over in the morning, walking to the bar, trudging home after too many drinks – those lyrics continued to play in my head. Somehow I pulled power from them to keep surviving at a time when surviving was always in doubt. I guess the romantic in me considered the song as sort of a soundtrack to the rolling of the final credits.
Eventually things shifted, and they served as a foundation for me to get sober and start a new life. To this day, hearing those lyrics brings me back to that perilous time and serve as a reminder of how blessed I am. Instead of serving as a soundtrack to exit, they signify a grand new entrance.
Around 2003, I started to pay more attention to a beautiful young lady I’d known for a number of years. She never paid a whole lot of attention to me, but I always thought there was something about her. We began to date and when she revealed her love of Mr. Petty, I knew this one was a keeper.
I actually don’t know how many times we’ve seen Mr. Petty together. Four, five, six times… it really isn’t relevant because his music was sort of the unofficial soundtrack to our marriage. The music would play around the house continuously. We’d see him live every time possible, often paying more than we could afford in order to get the best seats possible.
The shows brought their own joy, but for me the real highlight was seeing my wife’s glow upon the dimming of the arena lights. Her smile would become huge, and she’d be up and dancing from the very first note, never understanding why everybody else wasn’t doing the same. It seemed like the music unlocked a special place that she kept just to herself, but for 2+ hours at a Tom Petty show, I got a glimpse. And it again reminded me of how blessed I was and continue to be. I’d watch the shows, constantly stealing looks at her out of the corner of my eye.
Yesterday, I was on the way to pick up my kids at schools when I happened to look at a Tweet by, of all people, Jason Isbell:
I can’t think of an important moment in my life without an accompanying Tom Petty song. Every night we walk off stage to his music. So sad.
It was as if I had been punched in the gut. I quickly scrambled to find out what was going on and when I got confirmation, I was stunned. I texted my wife and then shed a tear. “What are you doing?” I thought. “You don’t cry over celebrities.” This was different, though.
I remember when John Lennon died, and I went into mourning. My father came into my room and demanded that I stop this nonsense. “You don’t even know John Lennon and he wasn’t a part of your family.” With Petty, that doesn’t feel apropos.
I never met Mr. Petty, but through his music, I felt like I knew him as much as I knew anybody. Through his music, we had a deep personal connection. One forged over time. And he did bear that uncanny resemblance to my cousin John.
It’s funny we hold musicians like Mr. Petty at a distance, but they worm their way into our stories through their lyrics and notes. Just a couple of those notes, or a toss of a phrase, can conjure up the most precious of memories – births, deaths, marriages, divorces. The really special artists become almost extensions of our personal lives. To the point, and to echo Isbell, we can’t think of an important moment without an accompanying song. That was Mr. Petty to me.
Tom Petty was always like the middle child among his contemporaries. Springsteen was always about racing in the streets and Mellencamp was saving the heartland, while Petty was just living. Funny, visions of “American Girl” being played live evoke the feel of an anthem to America for me. I always picture a girl in a dress swaying to the song with a Miller Lite in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other raised above her head. What could possibly be more American?
I’m going to miss you, Mr. Petty. Your music began rooted in teenage angst, but you were never afraid to age and grow with the rest of us. I chuckle as I think about your shows as we both grew older. In my younger years, they were rowdy rocking affairs, but as the years went on they tended to get a little slower and the jams seemed to last a little longer. I chalked it up to the pot, but in reflection I think you were just like the rest of us. You weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere anymore, and you just wanted to enjoy the moments a little bit longer.
It was hard to accept living in a world without a Ramone. It’ll be just as hard to accept a world without Tom Petty. Thank you, sir. Thank you for the sign posts. Thank you for the strength. Thank you for modeling how a man can be both a rocker and age gracefully. Thank you for giving us a little extra glue in order to further bond the most important relationship my life.
There is a line by Mr. Petty’s daughter in a recent interview that kind of sums it all up. She asked about what it was like growing up the child of a rock star:
What he was doing was based on a work ethic, and a focus on quality. I wasn’t given the sense that celebrity, or fame, or any of that, was something to be impressed by, or to seek out. It was always impressed upon me that making something well crafted, something respected, was the most important thing to do with your life, and I’ve tried to do that where I can in my field.”
Based on that description, your life was a success, Mr. Petty. Godspeed, and we will miss you. It’s only fitting, though, that you get the last words:
It’s a restless world, uncertain times
You said hope was getting hard to find
But time rolls on, days go by
What about the broken ones?
What about the lonely ones?
Oh honey I’m having trouble letting you go
It’s off in the distance, somewhere up the road
There’s some easy answer for the tears you’ve cried
And it makes me uneasy, makes me feel different
Do you get scared when you close your eyes?
I’m having trouble letting you go.