When I was about twelve and started falling hard for this whole rock ’n’ roll thing, I remember reading an article in the original Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock N Roll about Creedence Clearwater Revival, in which the author wrote (approximately), “They became my favorite band so gradually, song by song, that I didn’t even really notice it was happening.” I was fascinated by the idea of an artist sneaking up on you like that, choosing you as much as the other way around.
Turns out that may have been the case with me and Tom Petty, whose death I’m feeling unlike any previous celebrity passing. I was horrified by Cobain’s death, but it didn’t feel to me like I’d lost someone I was close to. And I never met Tom Petty, and never really even tried to, but I saw him in concert twenty times (including two weeks ago in Berkeley), and listened to his songs thousands more, and felt… connected. And I’m not usually that way with an artist. With art? Definitely. But I’ve never had the gene that connects the art and artist together for me in terms of importance. And I admire a lot of things about Tom Petty, but he’s not a “hero” to me— I know myth-making when I see it.
So why is this one different? Why can’t I stop listening to him and surfing for information and live shows and random b-sides I may have missed along the years? (I hadn’t, by the way— including live tracks and bootlegs, there are over 400 Petty songs on the Pod. I’m an exhaustive super-fan.) Why do I feel like a friend has died? I have certainly loved other bands and other music more then Petty’s at times, and we’ve lost several figures in the last year that meant a lot to me. But it turns out that there’s no artist who I’ve been so interested in, so consistently, for so long. Since 1979, when I first heard him on the radio, I have never stopped listening to Tom Petty, and he never stopped making music worth hearing for forty straight years. His best music sits right alongside any other music that matters most to me, and the realization that he’s now made all his music keeps gnawing at me.
After a few days of chewing it over, I think it comes down to three things that Petty gave me as a listener that gave him such staying power in my life.
1— Petty was a lodestar for me. He’s about 20 years older, but we were born in the same town, both had our lives changed by rock n roll, and both eventually found our spiritual homes in California. There were important differences; I gave up on musical stardom (rightfully) and went all-in on teaching (where my talent most lies), and saved myself the weariness and perils that a life on the road offers. My own upbringing was far less traumatic and toll-taking. And it turns out I’m a critic more than an artist, which puts me on a different side of a conversation about music from him. But I felt like Tom Petty made music for me to listen to— that he knew I was out there as an audience. When I heard Wildflowers in my 20s, I felt like my older self was warning me about the pitfalls of adulthood that lay before me. And I was right— those songs mean more to me now than they did then. I recognize the characters in those songs at their best and worst. Tom Petty’s music was a guidepost for me, and the fact that he’ll never do that again makes me... deeply sad.
2— Tom Petty is the great 20th century transcendentalist poet. The truth that his songs communicate more than anything else is the possibility of a transcendent moment even if it’s fleeting, and even if the life you’ll return to is tough and unsatisfying. That is what is most American about him— not the drawl, or the Byrds-go-to-Memphis hybrid— it’s the belief that a moment alone in nature can bring you a epiphany that connects you to everyone. That’s what a Tom Petty concert WAS at its best— we went there to hear songs that told us that our small, individual moments of joy mattered because it was the common ground in the room: the quest for small, individual moments of joy. That’s Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson and Hawthorne and Dickinson and Thomas Cole plugged into an amp and offered to thousands of people at a time. Is your life defined more by the veil that separates you than a light leading you toward something? If so, then the American Dream has been a lie for you, and that is devastating. AND: you can still roll down 441 with waves crashing and feel alive even while your life is crumbling. Even if all of your dreams are turning to powder, she can look you in the eye and say we’regonnabeforeverdarlin’. You can have a horrible day and catch a glimpse of your wife and realize that she belongs among the wildflowers, or in a boat out at sea. You can free fall out into nothin’ and leave this world for a while, even if you’re a bad man when you return to it. It was Petty’s particular genius to recognize those moments, and then re-create them as art, and it spoke utterly to my own desire for that to still be an American truth and possibility. I want (maybe even need) to believe that joy is still possible in our current America, that we will allow one another (EVERYONE) to pursue and have it. Am I pouring my grief and rage about Las Vegas into Petty’s death? Maybe. Maybe. If so, it’s because Petty’s art reminds us of moments where, if people could feel them more often, Las Vegas wouldn’t happen. (The gun control conversation will have to wait. I can only handle so much here.)
Thomas Cole, The Oxbow
3— I haven’t tested this theory at all, but I’m ready to declare Tom the greatest first line songwriter of all time (and we can take it back as far as you want). Just think of how evocative these introductions are (off the top of my head, so excuse any inaccuracies):
She was an American girl raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinking that there must be a little more to life somewhere else.
We got somethin. We both know it, but we don’t talk too much about it.
Well, honey don’t it feel like heaven right now? Don’t it feel like something from a dream?
Honey don’t walk out… I’m too drunk to follow.
There’s a southern accent where I came from. The younguns call it country, the yankees call it dumb.
She used to work in a restaurant… well… that’s what her mama did. But I don’t know if she really could ever have put up with it.
She graduated high school; I bought her a trailer in a little park by the side of the road. I coulda had the Army, I coulda had the Navy, but no; I had to go buy a mobile home.
It’s time to move on, time to get going. What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing. But under my feet, baby, grass is growing.
Waiting by the side of the road for day to break so we could go down to Los Angeles, with dirty hands and worn-out knees.
Well, I feel like a forgotten man; I understand the dark.
If these were the first sentences of short stories, I would read EVERY one of them. And they’re BETTER, because they come with beautiful melodies and expert arrangements in that wounded but triumphant American voice.
4-- Petty is smart enough to know that people matter. He got rich and famous, and the people around him remained the same. He had the same roadie for 50 years. He had basically the same band for almost as long. He called the guys who didn't make the cut for the Heartbreakers 35 years later and reformed Mudcrutch and made two albums and did two tours with those guys. Is there a connection between his example and me staying with my current school for 25+ years? I'm open to the possibility of it.
I once got to hear the professor and Dylanologist Christopher Ricks speak about Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” for 90 minutes. Afterwards, I asked him who else he listens to, and he said, “I don’t listen to anyone else. Ever. I don’t want to waste a second of listening when I could be listening to Dylan. Fifty years from now, people will remember him like Shakespeare, and if you have the chance to see Shakespeare or someone else, it’s no contest.” While I don’t share that same ability to focus in like Mr. Ricks, I am grateful to have come of age while Tom Petty made his music; it made me feel seen, and it made me feel aspirational.
This song is my favorite of his, and one of my 20 favorite songs of all time. He played it last month, the last time I’ll ever hear him do it. I savored every moment, and I’m glad I did. Outside at the Greek in the Berkeley hills, surrounded by people, it was my moment of transcendent joy that made me feel… connected. Thank you for it, Tom. I don't want to say anything further; let's all just listen it to it once, alone, together.
I’m so tired of being tired, but sure as night follows day, most things I worry about never happen anyway. — “Crawling Back To You,” Tom Petty, Wildflowers, 1994