Notes on the passing of Tom Petty. It’s 2:25 AM Tuesday and – officially – about 6 hours ago we entered into a world without Tom Petty. He is part of the reason I am who I am, a definitive part of the soundtrack of my coming of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when you could turn on the radio and rock stations played guitar-driven songs like his that popped us like kernels to pick up guitars and follow. It is uncountable the times since when I’ve played those songs on small stages or taught them to students in small rooms. Woman In Love. Breakdown. American Girl. Refugee. I Need To Know. Mary Jane's Last Dance. Running Down a Dream. Listen To Her Heart. Here Comes My Girl. You Got Lucky. The Waiting. The list goes on and on and on. A personal favorite song is Southern Accents. He, as man on point and name up top, delivered the goods and rocked so many millions of people with one of the greatest bands of our time, for 40 years.
When I heard the news my first thoughts were for guitarist Mike Campbell, as identifiable a voice on his instrument as Tom was at the mic for many of the same reasons. Mike followed him everywhere through band, solo, and collaborations. After all the tapestry these two voices have woven together I can’t imagine one without the other; he’s been the man’s right hand for four decades and probably feels completely lost right now. Where do you sail when your north star goes out in the night? My heart goes out to all of Tom’s bandmates, all of his family and friends, and all of you. We are together in this loss. But what a life, what a way to go – finish your last tour and drop a week later. Truly job completed; mission accomplished. Another thought was this – our heroes are human and we have to let go. Sometimes it’s a shock for unexpected reasons… you expect people to die. You just don’t expect Tom Petty to be 66 years old! How is that possible?
But a star like Petty’s going out as it did offers its last to us in reminding us that, for whatever shock and sorrow, there is something to be said for leaving while the party’s still going. No fade, no slow slide, no decline. Here rocking it one day… and gone the next. The man and his band finished up their 40th Anniversary tour – billed as the last – the week before. The big question as the icons pass is who will replace them? That garden has not exactly been re-seeded and the terrain has changed so much. But that is for the next generations to come up into and make something out of, as they will, as we did, as those before us did. We’ve had our times and we’ve had our Toms. But have some integrity, kids – stand for what you believe in, not just what you're handed, not just what you believe will sell or score the best. Deliver something real and deliver it honestly. And refuse to be bullied.
My favorite Tom Petty work is not a song, but the scene in the Running Down a Dream documentary where he is just dogging this record company man in the studio with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. It’s the early 90s. Tom’s reading the lyrics out loud to this awful paint-by-numbers Nashville cubicle nursery rhyme his hero has been handed to record by the company man. The disgust in his voice – you could cut it with a knife, and the rep is visibly uncomfortable as Petty drawls, “What, are you getting a kickback on this? This is a shit song.”
In an ever more spun world where it’s either-or and nobody will give an inch to come together in reality's vast shades of gray, and as the reap-what-we-sow results of this darker, divided garden we are seeding come to bloom as more tragedy and further lashing out, the music will be there for us as the friend who never leaves our side. The medicine that remains strong. The calming waters that help us maintain center in our lives we navigate as the world spins all around us. Tom Petty’s music will stay in there, and can there be a greater legacy to leave than to be a part of that? I don’t think so. But I don’t know; this is a much bigger stew than me carrot, you potato, and it’s going to get stirred now and then on the way to whatever it’s going to be. I’m not sure where it’s all going but I am, however, certain of this - Tom, I speak for millions that you were a part of the soundtrack to my life and will be ‘til I sail that shore myself.
Listen. Don’t just hear.
Listening to: All things Tom Petty; Aerosmith Rocks; lots of Mississippi Fred McDowell; Grateful Dead Movie soundtrack; Dave Brubeck.