Sunday, October 08, 2017

Heartbroken Over a Heartbreaker: RIP Tom Petty


In recent years we've lost an awful lot of notable musicians and actors -- particularly those that were at the top of their game in the '80s and '90s, my growing years -- at an alarming rate, but to be honest very few of those deaths had little effect on me. The sudden passing of Tom Petty last week, however, felt like a sucker punch.

He was only 66. Maybe to some that doesn't sound exactly young but it isn't exactly old, either. I was signing out of one of my hotmail accounts and signing onto another one Monday evening when I caught the news on MSN (my browser's homepage; don't ask me why) that he had been taken off of life support after going into cardiac arrest at his Malibu home. Then came the premature announcement from CBS that he was dead, which they later retracted. When I woke up Tuesday morning, the first thing I did was check the Internet about Petty's condition, and that's when the sad news was confirmed.

Maybe it hit me a little hard because I always considered Petty to be one of the good guys. He wasn't a sellout and turned down sponsorships and licensing his music to advertisers. He genuinely cared about his fans, famously refusing to allow his record label to raise the price of his band's 1981 album Hard Promises from $8.98 to a dollar more (the record was almost renamed Eight Ninety-Eight in retaliation.) His group also resisted raising ticket prices during their Echo tour. And in 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers thumbed their noses at the increasingly vapid music industry when they released The Last DJ, which contained tracks like the title song, "Joe", and "When Money Became King", all with acerbic lyrics aimed at egotistical head honchos that valued style over substance.

He also seemed a lot like one of us. Didn't we all know some mild mannered, long haired kid in high school with an artistic streak? He wasn't wildly considered a good looking guy and yet there was something about Petty I always found sexy and attractive, if not a little bit mysterious. (His creepy Alice in Wonderland-inspired video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" is the stuff of nightmares, but it's one of the best ever made during MTV's heyday.)


He also had a wry sense of humor that seemed very similar to that of his good buddy and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison. It's no surprise to me that they became fast friends when The Traveling Wilburys was formed.

"The soundtrack of my childhood" is a rather overused cliche, but in the case of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, well, it's true. Their success took off in the late 70s and the hits kept coming throughout the '80s and '90s. I can remember driving to my hotel job for a late shift in the '90s when "Learning To Fly" came on the radio and suddenly I didn't want to go into work. In fact, a lot of Petty's songs made good driving music: "Runnin' Down A Dream", "American Girl", and "Free Falling" just to name a few immediately come to mind.

Throughout the years, in my head, I often adopted one of Petty's hits as my own personal theme song: "I Won't Back Down" while job hunting and "Refugee" and "The Waiting" when nursing a broken heart.

In the week since his passing I've read some remarks online saying that he was overrated, that his songs were overplayed, and that he didn't deserve superstar status. I couldn't disagree more. The band had just wrapped up their 40th anniversary tour shortly before his death, and I don't think you stay together and keep recording that long if you're making bad music. Petty also had an arsenal of underrated tracks that never really hit the airwaves; "Jammin' Me", "Letting You Go", "A Woman In Love (And It's Not Me)", and the Wilbury's "Last Night" are standouts. His solo album Wildflowers is also quite good. (At some point I'll compile a blog post of ten underrated tracks.)

Making the news even sadder for me is that I never got to see Petty in concert. This past summer I caught the double billed tour of Hall and Oates and Tears for Fears. Great show, but I now regret not making the effort to see the Heartbreakers. Like Paul McCartney, I just assumed Petty would be around for a good deal yet. His trademark slightly nasal/slightly southern drawl voice was still strong and on point during this last tour from what I've seen on performances posted to YouTube.

The day after he died I took my mother grocery shopping and was ordering a sub from the prepared foods counter while my mother gathered cat food. One of the women behind the counter brought up Petty and we all started talking about him...how sad this was, how the music brings back memories, etc. Somehow sharing that bit of fan camaraderie with others that felt the same way helped me feel a little better.

Petty almost seemed to sense that the end was near; he had recently told an interviewer the 40th anniversary tour was probably going to be the last one, as he wanted to spend more time with his family and watch his granddaughter grow up instead of being on the road.

I guess fate had other plans. To quote the lyrics from one of his tracks on the Wildflowers album, "It's time to move on. It's time to get going. What lies ahead I have no way of knowing. But under my feet, baby, grass is growing. Yeah, it's time to move on. It's time to get going."

RIP Tom Petty.


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