“Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things…” -Tom Petty
“Are we listening to this again?” I asked, in the backseat of the family car, between licks of an ice cream cone that had mostly melted down my arm as the hot afternoon sun came pouring in through the window.
“Alyson,” my mom exclaimed, “you can never get tired of Tom Petty!”
The first notes of American Girl started up again and my nine-year-old brain started in on the lyrics before the song even got to them.
We were on our way to Tennessee for an end-of-summer family vacation, and Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits album was our soundtrack from start to finish.
I’m not sure that I was so much growing annoyed with the eighteen songs being played on repeat as I was growing curious as to what else this Tom Petty guy had to offer. Over the course of the trip – and in the years of my dad singing us to sleep with Tom Petty songs in lieu of lullabies and my mom whistling his music as she worked – I’d learned these tracks back and forth and inside out, and wondered if there was more to hear. I mean, if the Spice Girls had more than eighteen songs to offer, surely an old, guitar-slinging classic rocker had a bigger library than this, and, as hesitant as I was to admit it at the time, my 90s-girl-and-boy-band loving heart was opening up to a whole new genre of music that I wanted more of.
This, of course, was before the days of streaming services or the ability to one-click order another Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on Amazon, so over the next few years, I took what I could get from the radio, MTV, VH1, and the greatest hits cassette. It was a sad, sad day when the cassette player ate the tape, but it made for an even more exciting one when my parents purchased it on – gasp – a CD!
Then came the summer of 2001. I was twelve-years-old – full of shyness and anger and questions and insecurity and completely out-of-whack emotions that I couldn’t put into words. Music had become my outlet, my comfort and best friend. One morning, my parents greeted my brother and I (it’s safe to say that I was probably in a grumpy mood) with the news that they’d gotten tickets for all of us to see Tom Petty in concert later that month. Instant mood shift. I was elated, and counted down the days.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we made our way to Noblesville; I’d never been to a live concert and while I was excited, I was really concerned that seeing a live performance wouldn’t be as great of an experience as tossing on an album in the comfort of my own room. Because it wouldn’t sound just like what I played on a loop and because I’d have to share the experience with so many other people. Like it may make me less of a fan somehow.
Jackson Browne was the opening act and I was pretty impressed with the set, even wishing he’d played a few more. The stage cleared off and went dark as crews set up for the Heartbreakers, and with a flash of stage lights and the first iconic notes of Runnin’ Down a Dream echoing into the sea of people, I began to weep.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me at the time. Maybe it was the pre-teen hormones or the emotion that comes with anyone’s first concert, but they were absolutely, 100% tears of pure joy. I cried and laughed and belted out all of the songs I knew, and listened with excitement to those I didn’t.
And the whole ride home, and over the whole next week, and in the years that followed, I talked about Tom Petty non-stop. I purchased his music and played it on repeat, non-stop. I studied his lyrics, read his interviews, sought out every single music video. I was worried at a certain point my family would ask me if I was really going to listen to this track or that one again, but they never did, because no one gets tired of Tom Petty.
Through my idolization of this man and his music, my appreciation for others’ grew. Of course, the Heartbreakers were my first introduction into classic rock, but their regard and appreciation for bluegrass and country and jazz opened those doors for me, too. I threw my attention at anyone he worked with or mentioned on stage, in interviews, or in song.
As I got older, I understood how often he used his words for not only expressing his personal feelings on love and friendship and his emotional state, but the state of the world at large – politics, ethics, and the music industry. I grew passionate about these topics, researching and forming my own opinions on them. I often used his lyrics to drive points home in essays, used imagery from his music videos in art class projects, and had occasional side-chats with teachers (and a few students) who shared my love of the music Petty had introduced me to.
My interest in his life – his rough upbringing and his role models and his rise to fame – led me to learn so much about the process of “making it” in the music industry, about music equipment and the recording process, about the explosion of MTV (he was among the first to experiment with music videos), and the social history of rock and roll.
Later, in learning about his hardships – an abusive father, his drug addiction, divorce, and the loss of his house and belongings to a fire – and watching him come out of each of these with a positive “get on with it” attitude, inspired me to be a better person, to be grateful for what I had, and to fight to push past my demons and become a stronger version of myself.
Eventually, my adoration for Tom Petty and all that he had introduced me to gave me the motivation and the confidence to pick up a pen and write my first poem, to pick up a guitar and strum my first chord.
When asked who my role models were, who I looked up to, it was always, Tom Petty.
I saw him every chance I got. Every tour that passed through Indiana from 2001 on, I was there. With family, with friends, with best friends, with boyfriends. Joining in song with thousands of strangers who, for a few hours at least, felt like friends. In extreme heat and in thunderstorms so severe that, for a period of time, we were left singing to the band in a powerless arena.
I sang along in the front row and in the lawn, and in many seats in between. Close to home, and across state lines.
Across an ocean, I requested buskers on the streets and in the pubs of England and Ireland to play a Petty tune and more often than not, they delivered, claiming what fun songs they are to play for a crowd.
His stage presence was something else – he was all smiles and “thank you’s,” little dances, and showers of love for his bandmates. Heartbreakers shows were such a positive atmosphere to be in, from start to finish.
I’m so thankful that, after nearly deciding not to attend due to hazardous conditions, Jeremy and I made our way through thunderstorms and flooding to see him in New Orleans at the Jazz Festival this spring.
Just two weeks later, we had the opportunity to see him one last time, here at home in Indiana. Over the years, he (and others) would often state that this tour or that one might be the last for awhile, or for good. I knew that would never be the case, and he always proved me right by touring again shortly after. But, as we left the venue this year, following the 40th anniversary tour, I turned to Jeremy and said that I had a feeling this was it. That they’d gone out with one of their best shows ever, and that I think the band had earned it being their last big tour.
Petty’s music is the kind that’s always there, a soundtrack for so many occasions and situations in America and beyond.
At a lunch with friends a month or so ago, Mary Jane’s Last Dance came over the sound system and a woman at a table next to us started quietly singing along. Another party at the table claimed, “I’ve always loved this song, who is this?”
On our trip to Brown County a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy and I were belting out Heartbreakers tracks almost the whole way down.
At the salon late last week, Tom Petty songs were coming over the speakers all night and stylists and clients alike were singing along and tapping their feet.
Today, driving into work, I was scanning the radio and lit up when a few familiar chords stopped me from changing the station.
His music is probably playing in a store or a bar or in a car or around a bonfire right this very moment, and someone is singing along.
And I know a kid somewhere out there, right now, is hearing a Tom Petty song for the first time ever, learning the words and feeling curious about the man who wrote it, and wondering if there’s more to hear. And as he grows and hears more and more, I know Tom Petty will change his life for the better, too.
Today, I’m weeping tears of sadness and heartbreak, processing the news of Tom Petty’s passing. When I said to Jeremy earlier this summer that I felt like this tour was truly his last, I never felt it was because death was so near. I simply felt like he’d finally, finally earned a break.
But there are also plenty of tears of happiness and gratefulness as I reflect back on the memories made over the course of my life – during times of celebration and hardship and everything in between – in which a Tom Petty song was playing, or relevant to the situation.
I know we were lucky to have him, and to have had the opportunity to share in forty years of his work, but like so many others who leave us unexpectedly, he was still so damn young and had so much more to offer, even aside from performing. He told reporters earlier this year that he was looking forward to getting off the road so he could spend quality time with his family and granddaughter for the first time in forty years.
His tour just wrapped up last week.
Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
“Petty’s songs are deceptively simple, the kind that could be plucked away by kids first learning to strum their way around a guitar or seasoned players studying how to make music and lyrics feel uncomplicated. The opening riffs to “American Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (along with countless others) work because they are simple, effective stabs, never meant to be grandiose but somehow achieving it. They take basic ideas and routine chord formations, and hammer them in ways that feel newly exciting. They become the kind of songs that sound good when blasted in a sports arena, when heard faintly in the background of a crowded bar, or coming through headphones. There’s no place these songs don’t fit, feeling a part of our shared cultural history yet still personal and evocative.”
I know I speak for all of the fans out there – fans of Petty’s work and of his spirit, and even those who can sing every word to his greatest hits without knowing his name – when I say thank you. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
Rock and roll might not be for everyone, but everyone’s a Tom Petty fan.
No matter how or when you were introduced to him, or what you loved most about the iconic, easygoing musical legend from Gainesville, Florida – even if you only knew him through the occasional hit on the radio – this one stings. It’s like losing a dear old friend and mentor. Someone we thought would stick around for a little while longer, because it always seems impossible for the best ones to go out like this.
I’d love to hear what your favorite Tom Petty song, album, memory, or story is. Because, while he may be strumming our favorite chords on another plane of existence now, what he left behind for us here on earth will live on and “shine forever, like a diamond, in the sunlight.”