I can’t remember the first Tom Petty song I ever heard. I have no big revelation, no singular moment that sticks out as the moment I discovered Tom Petty. That’s because Tom Petty was always there.
He was at the local pool where I spent every long summer afternoon as a kid. The radio was never not tuned to the classic rock station and it seemed like they had some rule that a Petty track had to play at least once an hour.
He was there on VH1 every morning while I got ready for school. Those were the days when my parents deemed MTV too racy for my eyes, but the “adult contemporary” that circulated on VH1 was just fine. Still half asleep, 7 years old, maybe 8. Sometimes it was “Don’t Come Around Here No More” on the classics hour, “Swingin’” when it switched to the top 20 countdown.
He was there on every single mix cd blasted in my mom’s car, my dad’s car, my car as I learned how to drive. He was the soundtrack for my friends and I every time we tried to escape the boredom of our small suburban town by going on endless cruises. He was the ridiculous dance to “Don’t Do Me Like That” my youngest sister and I coordinated in bits and pieces any time we sat in traffic. Both my sisters scoffed and rolled their eyes at everything else I played; it was too old, too obscure. They wanted One Direction and Miley Cyrus and whatever else was cool on the radio that I was blissfully unaware of. But somehow Petty was always accepted without complaints.
I have so many memories tied up in Tom Petty, yes. That’s true for any artist or band that I love. But what I’ve realized over the past week, what I keep thinking about, is that I honestly thought those memories were still being made.
Tom Petty was always there because Tom Petty never left.
The old bands I’ve loved my whole life have largely been, sadly, just that: old bands. I was born in 1991. Led Zeppelin had been long done by that time; Talking Heads split shortly after then. Fleetwood Mac made one album of new material when I was 12 and then that was it. Their music has all been consumed from a slightly removed perspective, forever preserved on vinyl, but never to evolve any further.
But Tom Petty persisted. He just didn’t stop. He never split from the Heartbreakers when he achieved solo success. He resisted the changing musical landscape, refused to let streaming or the industry-wide decline in album sales persuade him to just quit making albums in favor of becoming another legacy act on an endless cycle of greatest hits tours. No, I could always count on something brand new from him to come out every few years. I could eagerly go to the mall and buy the Elizabethtown soundtrack solely for the new Tom Petty song that would be on it. I could buy a Heartbreakers album — a new one, not a reissue — on vinyl and feel the satisfaction of being able to hold it in my hands and anticipate going home, putting it on my turntable, and lying on the floor and letting the music seep into my pores. Times changed, but Tom Petty didn’t.
He was so special to me for so many reasons. His character was something I aspired to: humble, beyond the definition of loyal, kind, always looking out for the underdogs. He seemed effortlessly cool, but still like he held onto a bit of that scrappy kid from Florida.
His music covered me in so many different ways. Sometimes it was a leather jacket when I needed to feel tough and defiant. But sometimes it was a blanket when I needed comfort, when all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and hide from the world.
His songs were magic. They just were. How else can you explain a 10-year-old girl, a 16-year-old girl, and 26-year-old girl not only falling in love with, but finding identity within lyrics written by a young man, a middle aged man, an old man, ones that were often deeply personal? On paper it doesn’t make sense, but I did. I do. I can see a bit of myself in almost all of his songs: The American Girl raised on promises. The jilted narrator of “You Got Lucky.” The resilient punks of “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down.” That wandering person still figuring out life, still learning to fly.
Between the Heartbreakers, his solo work, and Mudcrutch, Tom Petty made 10 new albums in my lifetime. Ten. He was a constant. Every couple of years, there was something new, and it seemed like it was never going to stop. I was always a little angry at my parents for not taking me to one of his concerts as a kid, a little angry at myself for never getting around to seeing him live until after I was out of college. It was such an amazing experience: hair-on-my-arms-raising and tears-in-my-eyes-forming. My face hurt from smiling so big and my voice was hoarse from singing along so loudly. How many of these nights had I missed out on? Plenty, but I felt secure in my self-assurance that there would be plenty more to make up for lost time.
I guess what I am trying to say, as I continue to process why this has hit me so hard, why this all feels like a tremendous gut punch, is that I wasn’t ready. That I’m not ready. Just barely two months ago, I was standing in the second row at Forest Hills Stadium (another reason to love him, in that it cost what a floor seat should cost and not an entire paycheck), shouting out the “Hey!“s in “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” clutching my heart during “Crawling Back to You,” crying to “Learning to Fly,” laughing at his knowing grin as the audience sang “Let’s get to the point / Let’s roll another joint” extra loud during “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” clouds of smoke hanging low in the air. I still have a fresh scar on my right leg from not even a month before that, when I cut myself climbing over folding metal chairs at the Prudential Center to get to the pit for the encore. I didn’t even register the pain until after; I was euphorically singing along to “Refugee.”
He was just right there and I was just right there, marveling at how he somehow oozed cool guy and dork dad and chill bro all at the same time. Not once did I think it would be the last time. Nothing about it felt like the last time. Even thinking back now, combing my memory, rewatching the few videos I took, it doesn’t seem real. It seems so illogical it hurts. He wasn’t supposed to leave us like this, and not right now. He was okay. He was okay. He was okay.
Until he wasn’t.
The world feels a little darker. It feels a little more unjust. A little more cruel. But it also feels a little bit more full of love, paradoxical as that sounds. In the wake of Tom’s untimely death, countless tributes and remembrances have poured out from all corners of society. He was loved by everyone, from your Bernie bro hippie friend to your conservative uncle, your boomer parents and your college-aged sisters. We seem to have been reminded, in this ugly time, of goodness that still exists.
If I’ve reached any conclusions over the past week of thinking, it’s these few: that unifying power of music will continue to live on if we want it to. The joy and the comfort that we get from it doesn’t have to go away, it’s just different. But life is short and unpredictable. Don’t take any of it for granted. Buy that ticket. See that show. Remember why you love music in the first place.