So, on what I’ll consider to be one of the most gut-punching days in recent memory, with a nasty cocktail of Puerto Rico’s devastation, the deadliest shooting in US history occurring last night in Las Vegas, and the complete lack-of-confidence I feel in the people running our country to do anything about anything in particular, I need to take some time and talk about Tom Petty… because he wasn’t one to stand for any of that shit.
Tom Petty died today at the age of 66. That sucks.
It’s kind of hard to recall everything Tom Petty means and has meant to a 21-year-old, life-long dreamer.
When you’re a kid, you’re obviously very influential, and for me, what my parents played in the car is a lot of what I’ve become. With my mom, we listened to a lot of Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac. With dad, you could hardly go a day without hearing the Who or Elvis Costello.
However, there was this quirkily-voiced guy who really introduced me to the way a hook sounds. See, my dad was sort-of old school in the age of the CD; he’d burn about 15 songs onto a CD, which would turn into this crazy catalog of mix-tapes. I’d estimate about 90% of the mix-tapes possessed the quirky voice.
So, eventually I catalogued some of the lyrics, and while my brother and I sat in the back seat on the way to a bonfire at one of their friends’ house (I couldn’t have been more than five or six), the lyric, “awh yeah, awwll right, shake it easy bayybay, make it last all night,” stuck in the back of my brain… and it stuck in the back of my brain for good.
Years later, probably right around the time I started high school, I emerged from a long phase where I’d only been listening to stuff I’d been listening to from the pop-punk factory (see Green Day and Fall Out Boy), dabbled with rap (Eminem and Kanye West), and found a home in rock’n’roll.
This metastasized in numerous Pandora stations, where I learned all the classic songs I’d known nothing and everything about; those songs from my dad’s mix-tapes creeped back into my life. Among those songs, I found one of my all-time favorite cuts, “American Girl”.
I set Petty aside until I was about 15, where he found me, lifted me, and helped propel me to be a lot of what I am today.
It was here where I started learning to play guitar, in a high school class, from a teacher who clearly fucking loved music in a lot of the same ways I did. It was here I learned the first song I learned (it’s the first song everybody learns on guitar… credit this note to Mr. Win Butler) “Free Fallin'”. A simple tune, but nevertheless completely and totally profound.
Free Falling was the first (and one of the only) songs I learned on the guitar. Massive influence. What a day 😦
— win butler (@DJWindows98) October 2, 2017
My teenage brain was driven to seek out more of Petty’s music, because the way such simple, brilliant lyrics could create these perfect rock-pop hybrids.
So, when I go home and tell my parents that we’re learning Tom Petty songs in school, being like the coolest parents in the world, they insisted I listen to Damn the Torpedoes, because I was listening to a lot of John Mayer and the two kind-of make sense in terms of taste pairings.
I go on YouTube. Then I listen to Damn the Torpedoes. And from there, my mind is blown. Never knew you could kick off an album with “Refugee” and “Louisiana Rain”, but it turns out it’s like best way to do an album.
All of the sudden, I’m one of ten guys walking around the hallways of high school humming the lyrics to, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” having never consumed a drug… and I felt cool as hell, because I got to know about something no one else was doing.
I took some time off from Mr. Petty, until a few years later (we’re talking like 17), I found out my favorite band (Foo Fighters) do a cover of Petty’s “Breakdown”, so I listened to that… and then it was on.
I don’t think I’ve made a playlist in the last four years that didn’t include some Tom Petty cut; his music is so unanimously lovable, but so personal that it fits any moment in the world.
Hell, one of the first records I ever purchased on vinyl was the first record he’d done with the Heartbreakers back in 1976 and there’s not a bad song on the fucker. So many great songs on that thing. It starts with “Rockin’ Around With You”, it stabs you with “Breakdown”, ravages you with “Mystery Man” and then teleports you to a half-drunken July night with “American Girl”. I bought it brand-new (unfashionable for 2015) from Everybody’s Records in Cincinnati on my first college winter break as a Christmas gift to myself.
Four times in the last two years, I’ve had a chance to see Tom Petty in one form or another, or at least he’s been close enough to where I thought about it. One time last summer at Bunbury Music Festival, where he performed with his first band, Mudcrutch. Then, he played Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus this summer with the Heartbreakers, but the tour was a little out of my budget.
I got the chance to sing-along to a Petty song once, when The Shins hit an “American Girl” cover this summer at Lollapalooza, which one of my favorite moments in life ever, but it was perfect, because shortly there after, Arcade Fire kicked my dancing shoes to smithereens. I can’t help but know “American Girl” made the air in Chicago a little lighter, and brought that crowd a little closer.
And it’s only been a few months since then.
So, here I am, sitting in my room, wearing my David Bowie t-shirt (another hero), and spinning that debut record with the Heartbreakers, and fittingly I’m heartbroken. Tom Petty will live on forever, because his music is undeniably going to outlive me, and outlive the generations to follow; he’s a titan, an icon, and a hero.
Alive or dead, Tom Petty will continue to be a personal hero and what I view to be an American Icon.
In summation, we lost one of the coolest motherfucker today. His long, blonde hair, his cherry red Rickenbacker, and his dorky, but potent voice are totems of rock’n’roll.
Rest easy, Tom.