Tragedy struck our culture Monday — not once, but twice.
It seems almost benevolent now, that we were given a sense of hope after initial reports were refuted with wide-eyed alarm. News agencies gladly walked it back, eager for a better resolution — the “preferred fiction,” so to speak. Such words proved impossible to print or read. It’s just as difficult a day later, 20 hours after the inevitable announcement came, this time as ugly truth:
Tom Petty is dead.
Yeah. Still doesn’t read right. Subject, adjective disagreement.
He was 66 years old, just months younger than my father, an energetic sort born in 1950 who I’m certain will be landscaping his front lawn in 2112. My mother was born in 1952, a year that still doesn’t seem so long ago, and I couldn’t imagine being without her counsel. To acknowledge Petty’s mortality is to accept the mortality of the people I love most. And to lose Tom Petty is to tear an essential chunk from my existence and maybe from America’s own soul.
Naturally, my dad discovered and loved Tom Petty long before I did. His Tom was a sun-blonde rail from Florida draped over a guitar, a cocky young Lothario channeling his best Roger McGuinn across poetically rendered everyday language — breeze-shoot conversational, at times — that nevertheless demonstrated a relaxed intelligence. In that sense, dude was rare as Bob Dylan, though the latter was more intimidating and the former seemed more like us.
Tom may have looked cocky, but he knew his limits, and he wasn’t afraid to confess those frustrations with the Heartbreakers, one of the greatest straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll bands of this or any time. Like most musicians of their generation, they were informed and raised by the Beatles and Stones but drew further inspiration from any noise buzz-sawed to sentience in their young lifetimes, whether they came from studios or suburbia.
My memories of this Petty are primarily aural, “Breakdown” and “American Girl” (recorded on the Bicentennial, it rings with freedom) on perpetual childhood rotation. Our artist/fan relationship doesn’t truly begin until “Damn the Torpedoes” in 1979, an unimpeachable front-to-back masterpiece. (You may not hear “Louisiana Rain” often, but I guarantee you won’t skip it.)
It’s home to my two favorite Petty raps (patter not hip-hop): “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl” — likely my favorite Petty song, period, where the instrumentation and the singer's rapid-fire proclamations threaten to burst past the beat, capturing the helpless, near-unbearable ebullience of being in love.
This is the beginning of my Tom, author of such timeless rejoinders as “You got lucky, babe / when I found you,” which somehow marries bravado, uncertainty and relief into a catchy chorus; “Honey, you’re the judge, there ain’t no jury / And I’m just an innocent boy used to being guilty” (“Make It Better (Forget About Me)”); “Take back Vanessa Redgrave / Take back Joe Piscopo / Take back Eddie Murphy / Give ‘em all some place to go,” from “Jammin’ Me,” the angry yawp that opens the underrated “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)”; and “My sister got lucky, married a yuppie / Took him for all he was worth” (“Yer So Bad”). My Tom swapped Nudie-suit jackets for Mad Hatter garb — and who better to portray him? — in the bonkers video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (the Heartbreakers took to the new form with aplomb), an equally bonkers breakup song that employed sitars, soulful call-and-response, and Beatles-esque strings.
As he got older, Tom settled into stone-washed casual, rubbing shoulders with the rock ’n’ roll deities he now counted among his friends. He name-dropped Del Shannon (“Runaway”) on “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” In an all-star coup, he joined a legendary summit of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne in a musical brotherhood called the Traveling Wilburys.
He also concocted human menageries of good girls, bad boys and vampires crawling around California on a solo album, “Full Moon Fever,” which — in case you were curious — features my second-favorite Petty song, “A Face in the Crowd,” a beautifully understated statement of gratitude and wonder.
I saw Petty in concert precisely once: the Great Wide Open tour of 1992. I went as a reporter for the LBCC Commuter with staff photographer Christof Walsdorf in his 1950s-model Mercedes that made it to Portland and back on rustbucket gumption.
We had press passes and primo seats just off the Memorial Coliseum stage. Christof took photos, I think, though it would have been a shame to witness any of the spectacle through a lens. A large tree was rooted near center stage with a travel trunk off to the side. The Heartbreakers strolled out from backstage, but Petty emerged from the trunk. Strobe lights flashed during “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Men in Reagan and Nixon masks chased each other while the Heartbreakers jammed for their lives. Our ever-gracious host allowed us to sing the best line from “Into the Great Wide Open,” the pun he introduced to our lexicon: “A rebel without a clue.”
The band vamped up “Breakdown,” parted it like a curtain as Petty stepped out of the song to address his audience as its narrator, railing against cheating and unfairness and finally, announcing his rules for a successful relationship. By then he was beneath a solitary spotlight, guitar downtrodden at his side. “The last thing,” he said, “the one thing you gotta remember.” Bassist Howie Epstein pulsed beneath Petty in anticipation. “Don’t you never, ever, EVER,” Petty continued, allowing guitarist Mike Campbell, organist Benmont Tench and drummer Stan Lynch to settle into a soothing lull. Petty paused, then took a dramatic breath and pouted, wounded, “make me cry.” Then: “BREAKDOWN!” and a cathartic explosion of sound.
My God, it was awesome.
I leave you with Tom Petty near the end. No tears necessary. This video was recorded at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25, the final date of the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour. Here we find the band absolutely wrecking “You Wreck Me,” then launching into their final song: “American Girl,” that anthem for the ages, as young and fiery and loose as it’s ever been. It stomps with unfettered joy, refusing to end. Tom is happy and grateful, not ready for goodbye.
Speaking for myself, neither am I.