Minutes after the initial news of Tom Petty’s cardiac arrest came a slew of texts from friends and acquaintances. “How are you doing?” “You were the first thing I thought of.” “He is a part of you.” I have loved Tom Petty, wholly and fiercely, for four-fifths of my life. He is, indeed, a part of me.
I was almost 9 years old when MTV entered my house and my life. I loved the pretty boys of Duran Duran and flamboyance of Michael Jackson as much as anybody, but the inventive videos of Tom Petty were what truly captured me. Here seemed a man — a man, not a boy — of a different character. Intelligent, attuned, maybe even smug. I wanted in on his secret. I wanted to understand his worldview.
I would stop everything to watch the “You Got Lucky” video each time it aired. And I do not know anyone who was not blown away by the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” So bold! So clever! So outrageous! People are still blown away more than 30 years later.
When I took my first trip to the used-record store at age 13 with my sister, I was thrilled to find the LPs of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the $1.99 bins. I gathered them all. Now I truly had a chance to hear the band’s full narrative. A secret world was opened to me.
My sister is the music journalist, the one who lives and breathes and understands popular music. She was the one with an ear for instruments and musicianship. I always liked a good tune, but as a hyperverbal and fairly literal person, the lyrics needed to reach me. And something about Tom Petty’s lyrics, sung in a rough voice that is so smooth, described so fiercely the joy and pain of the everyman. There was anger, there was melancholia, there was resignation, there was nostalgia, there was pain, there was ennui, there was empowerment — all expressed so cleverly and fiercely with words, within original, kick-ass tunes, played by the sharpest, tightest musicians in the Heartbreakers. Rock ‘n’ roll finally coalesced for me.
When Tom released his solo enterprise, Full Moon Fever, I truly felt I finally had my finger on the pulse of something real and big. That I was part of history. Since then, I have attended nearly every tour that has passed through my city, and watched the crowd grow younger and younger through the years as Petty reached and touched more generations. When I last saw the band play at the Arroyo Seco festival this year, my heart swelled to belt out the lyrics to a multitude of his hits along with a giant crowd. In front of me were couples in their 60s, behind me were millennials, and we all sang “American Girl” and “Free Fallin'” in unison. We were all equally charmed and seduced by Tom’s aw-shucks swagger, his presence and musicianship. We all loved the songs. We all loved the man. It had occurred to me that Tom Petty had truly become the coolest guy on the planet.
This has been a hard couple of years of music legend losses, but this one truly hits me. Not just because he was only 66, or that it seems so sudden, only a week after his run of triumphant shows at the Hollywood Bowl. And not just because I think he was brilliant. While it feels like a personal loss, as though a large witness to my life has left me, in reality the only thing I will actually lose is the ability to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform live once again, one of my biggest pleasures in life. Further, we are all robbed of hearing his future songs, as he seemed to have an ever-evolving, unending output. Yet beyond this pragmatic standpoint, I feel real grief at letting go of someone who helped narrate my life and validate my experiences, who has had such a special influence in my life and engaged me to try to understand him more as a person and artist — not just through his albums, but through the interviews, the biographies, the documentaries, as if his music had not already made him familiar and relevant enough.
In many ways, Tom Petty seemed ordinary. A regular fellow. A conflicted man. Not slick. A guy who fought the record companies. A guy with pain in his past. A father. Just authentic. It made him relatable, one of the common folk. Yet what made us elevate and celebrate this man was a truth more powerful: Tom Petty was not ordinary at all. He is extraordinary: an extraordinary artist, lyricist, musician, storyteller, visionary. And that is what awes and inspires.
Beyond all my admiration of his brilliance and gratitude for his contributions to my mental well-being, I confess I have felt connected to Tom Petty over the years in the secret recesses of my mind, as someone who grew up in the San Fernando Valley just miles from his Encino home. I harbor an amusing list of less than six degrees of separation: my best friend went to school with his daughter and got to go to dinner with Tom and family in Chinatown; my sister’s beau was roommates with his daughter years later; I worked at a bank down the street from his Encino house, then tutored students in their Malibu homes near the house he later shared with his second wife (and got to hear a story or two about their famous neighbor); my parents still live in the Tarzana home I grew up in, not far from Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.
I suppose I spun these threads to make Petty’s already large presence in my life seem more real or intimate. In some ways, having him be part of the local lore, and hearing him sing about Reseda and Ventura Boulevard, helped me feel some of the regional identification that is difficult to experience for someone growing up in Southern California (as opposed to, say, growing up in Gainesville, Fla., and writing a whole album — Southern Accents — about that identity). And yet none of these things genuinely connect him to me or me to him. And I have always respected the man’s privacy. The real connection is in what he has given me and countless others, in bridging the loneliness of the human experience with his song.
The music outlives the man and thereby makes him immortal, and I personally will always have the music and what it means to me. I do not want to live in a world without the vibrancy and voice of Tom Petty. It is true grief to know he does not walk and create among us any longer. I hurt, but more so, I hurt for him, his family, and for all who were touched by the man, the legend. Bless you, Thomas Earl Petty, and your legacy.