How do I write about the death of Tom Petty?
In a day that saw the unfolding story of 59 people murdered, and hundreds injured by a domestic terrorist in Las Vegas, and in the wake of so many lives lost and upended from natural disasters in the past several weeks – lives that are no less valuable and no less significant than that of some famous rock singer – it would seem almost like collectively there’s no room left for any of us to mourn.
And then right smack in the middle of the gut-wrenching mess, we lost a legendary musician. And then we didn’t. Petty, 66, a music legend had suffered a cardiac arrest and was found unconscious in his Malibu home. After being rushed to the hospital, reports of his death began coming in Monday afternoon. However those reports were premature, as Petty was still on life-support. But after being removed from life support Monday night at the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, Tom Petty left us on his terms.
And with news still pouring in from Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Mexico … how do I write about Tom Petty. That’s the question I find myself asking. I can imagine someday in the coming weeks, when I am alone at home or driving to work, I’ll be able to listen to him and truly process what he managed to bring to my world. But maybe it should be sooner, rather than later. Because one of those things he brought was an understanding of pain, how to process sadness and move forward.
There’s always been a kind of uncomplicated fire and determination to a Heartbreakers song. Each song was like a musical cyclone of guitars and backbeat, with Tom at its center, beautifully howling and barking – as only he could – with desperation and lost love. It was an instant listenability: verses that crafted a familiar story, followed by a hook that you had memorized the second time you heard it – and singing along the third time. One needs only to recall the name of the song for the chorus to echo for hours. Refugee. Breakdown. Don’t Do Me like That.
Tom and the Heartbreakers were rock and roll mainstays, starting in 1978. Never the “it band” of any year, they quietly racked up a mountain of hits and more quietly a string of beloved folk and blues songs. And yet, as good as those early songs were, the best came later – as age, pain and experience improved Tom Petty.
He wasn’t the least bit subtle, but it hardly mattered. Songs like I Won’t Back Down, or Runnin’ Down a Dream were anthems of approaching middle age – and knew it. Some songs, like American Girl seem destined to be sung at the top of our lungs. Still other songs had a slower burn. They spoke of the strength in letting go – strength found in Learning to Fly and the song that musically captured its title so perfectly, Free Fallin’. It was honest and it was unforgettable – something many of us maybe took for granted because it seemed to come so easy.
By 1989 Petty wasn’t even 40, yet musically he felt more than seasoned enough to stand alongside living rock legends Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. And that was the Tom Petty I remember. That the musician singing alongside artists my Dad listened to – folky and free-spirited – was somehow also the singer in the Free Fallin’ music video framed by skateboarders and Southern California mallrats. And it still felt honest – with all the sincerity and authenticity that a John Hughes movie wished it had. His music didn’t just cross generations, it connected them.
The late 80s was the era of the aging rockers who, by the early 90s, found an oasis in Adult Contemporary music, but Tom Petty remained relevant for some time. And for me, ever the pointlessly-jaded Gen-Xer, it would have been hard to relate to a musician as earnest and straightforward as Petty; but he was no lightweight. His solo album Full Moon Fever and the Heartbreakers follow-up Into the Great Wide Open spoke of that tightrope of youthful wonder and idealism, where cynicism and fear are just underfoot. He understood youth and he understood adulthood. And he understood the dark corners of both.
That’s how I remember Tom Petty.
I remember Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and even while it could be (and was) dismissed as an allegory for pot, it was also so sad; so tortured. I didn’t care about the “Mary Jane” stuff or the video. Just those words. “Tired of screwing up; tired of going down; tired of myself; tired of this town … It was too cold to cry when I woke up alone …”
I remember how comfortable he seemed in the video for Don’t Come Around Here no More, and the ease with which he slipped into the role of the Mad Hatter – and for years seeing him in those top hats made perfect sense. He was a wise trickster, a genius of a fool.
And I remember the video for You Don’t Know How it Feels, that feeling that there were still a million stories we hadn’t heard yet from the Mad Hatter. How in the middle of that song, like so many others, he paused and smirked at all of us, knowingly and lovingly, and went right back to his harmonica. Right back to making music.
How do I write about the death of Tom Petty? As with so many musicians we have lost in the past few years, maybe it’s easier to just listen to the legacy he left us. To his honesty and the power he had to heal.