I have been dreading writing this blog post that I didn’t think I had to write until Monday evening. I don’t think I will be able to get this right. But I’m going to try.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had just finished their 40th anniversary tour, playing their last show on September 25th at the Hollywood Bowl. At this point in my life, I wasn’t really following much of what they were doing as a band. I knew that they had played Wrigley Field in Chicago this summer, and I had kind of wanted to see that show, just because of the historic venue. They had played Tampa in May but I was out of town. I didn’t even know there had been a couple of albums of unreleased music that had been released in 2015.
The only time I saw them was at the United Center in 2008–and that was enough. It was a bucket list concert for sure, and it was a lot of fun. I went with a friend that I used to sing with–a singer-songwriter who played guitar and piano. It was like a big ole sing-a-long.
On the heels of one of the worst massacres in history, when I read that Tom Petty had had a massive heart attack, I was in disbelief. Could there be even more loss today?
He’s 5 years younger than my father and two years younger than my mother. I’m almost as old as his band (I’ll be celebrating my 40th year of life this year). Heart attack? I didn’t think of him as a hard-livin’ man anymore. He was chillin’ in Malibu.
Then Twitter killed him, via the LAPD and CBS News who had erroneously confirmed his death. But TMZ had said that his family had removed life support and that he was clinging to life. After what TMZ had done with bungling the news of Li’l Wayne, I wasn’t trusting them. So I’m angry, but then hoping he’d miraculous pull through.
But eventually, Tom Petty did pass. He was another part of my childhood and adulthood unexpectedly stripped away from me and so many other people.
And just like Prince, he still had some music left in him. I didn’t know there was going to be more music from the Wildflowers session that was going to be released–and who knows what else.
I learned a lot about Tom Petty this past week. Although I’m an erstwhile musician and singer, and I’m an avid lover of music, I’ve never really cared that much about musical artists’ personal lives. I only seem to care when they were gone, which is probably why I love musical documentaries. I watched a four-hour documentary on Netflix, Runnin’ Down a Dream. It was really great to have a better sense of him and his bandmates. But I didn’t need it to appreciate their music as is.
I read most of the obits and tributes I could stand. Some were stupid and clearly written by people who didn’t do their homework (not even worth noting). But most were pretty laudatory, as they should be. I loved reading what my friends had to say about how much his music meant to them.
Petty was a gifted singer-songwriter who wrote for the underdog because he was one. I think Petty was an everyman for a lot of Americans. He was able to capture that American type of restlessness and drive to do better, to be better, to transcend one’s problems and station in life. His songs also have a sense of place that is easily accessible, even if you’d never been in the San Bernardino Valley or in an Indiana town on an Indiana night.
He was also the guy that hipsters and indie rockers aspire to but maybe will never become–because it’s really hard to do. You’ll never hear any of his songs on commercials. He assiduously fought record companies to be paid fairly and to keep record costs affordable. From the documentary and all the articles I’ve read, I learned a lot about Petty’s sense of fairness, his struggles with drugs, his depression after his divorce, his deep sense of loyalty, his championing of the marginalized.
My favorite tribute/obit was from The Bitter Southerner (what a great name for a publication!) because it wasn’t completely fawning–although he more than deserves it. It showed a bit of his Libra double-edginess (which, fighting with lawyers and record companies is pretty Libra already). It was a fuller portrait of a musical legend. The not-so-shiny parts made his shiny parts even brighter in comparison.
My Twitter friend, Bearded Stoner, and I have been kind of mourning online together. I kept sending him tributes that I thought he’d find interesting. It’s been helpful for me to have someone who gets it, as we’re both Southerners. It’s made this grief a little more bearable, especially since what I haven’t been doing is listening to a bunch of his music. It’s too painful still.
And it’s not to say that “Yankees” don’t get Tom Petty either. That’s the beauty and genius of writing great music is that if you’re really good, then it’s not just about the musicianship–it’s about everything. But it’s just different, in my opinion, if you grew up in the South and listened to him, since Petty was from Central Florida (Gainesville, which is just 80 minutes up the I-75 from me) which is pretty rednecky and Southern (well, certain pockets are). The only regret I have is not being able to see him and the Heartbreakers play with the Black Crowes–a band from Marietta, Georgia. I probably would have lost my shit, since I loved that band, too, for very roots rock/Southern reasons.
Even beyond what the album Wildflowers meant to me and other memories of his music, like singing “I Won’t Back Down” in church, what matters to me most in the wake of his untimely passing is me living here. And maybe this is where the blog post should truly start.
Tom Petty inadvertently welcomed me to Central Florida when I moved down here five years ago. I was in the middle of a terrible move with a disreputable moving company. I had to stay with my cousin and his family for two weeks as I waited for my things to bump their way down the East Coast.
The first full day I was here was a Monday, and everyone had gone to work or school. I was watching some cable channel and they were showing Tom Petty, I believe, in some high school gym or auditorium in Gainesville. There was a show back in 2006 when he and the Heartbreakers went to University of Florida, but I don’t think that was it. This seemed to be more of an intimate show. He was really happy to be back. Watching that show, while I was waiting for my new life to start, I felt like he personally welcomed me home.
Even though the next few years were humiliating and gut-wrenching, playing any Tom Petty music, especially the album Wildflowers, made me feel like I belonged here, even if it was just for a few minutes. Besides the warm weather and having access to beaches, this being his home turf was the only thing I could take pride in. Even Wildflowers reminded me of those few good minutes I had with my friends in my youth group while it was hell living at home.
Tom Petty, with or without the Heartbreakers, had been part of the soundtrack of my life for at least 25 years of my 40 years of living. In particular, the wisdom from the song, “The Waiting Is the Hardest Part,” is something I’ve championed over and over. It was something I constantly would quote–partly as a pacifier for my own impatience, and partly as a way of commiserating with others, “I get it. Waiting sucks.”
Yet with Petty’s passing, it definitely makes it even clearer that it’s time to move on from Central Florida. Waiting for something decent and good to happen here is not what I’m destined for. It’s a weird and eerie coincidence and a strange bookend that I never expected, but it is definitely a sign that I will take to heart.
There is a magic and a beauty about living in the South, even with its bloody history. Some of that magic and beauty left last Monday night…
I’ll leave you with a song, “Walls (Circus),” that I was obsessed with right before Tom Petty passed. I don’t know if that was some omen, or just that with better headphones, I could appreciate the brilliance of this song. For me, it’s the background vocals of Lindsey Buckingham that make it so wonderful. The song is also definitely emblematic of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers mantra: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” because I immediately just get stuck in the chorus in a beautiful earworm loop.
I know that Tom Petty knows how much he was loved by his family, friends, and fans, but I didn’t know how much I cared about him as a person until he was gone. It’s a cliche that no one wants to find themselves in, but it seems to be part of the human condition to not be able to fully appreciate someone until something like death, or close to it, happens. I hope he was able to feel the love from all over the world streaming into his hospital room in Santa Monica as he transitioned.
Thank you, Tom, for sharing your gifts with us.