My heart is broken all over again.
It was during the late afternoon of Monday, October 2nd when I first heard the news. I was just ten minutes or so from the end of my day at work when a co-worker, who was just about to leave for the day herself, quickly entered my classroom with her smartphone in her hand and a look of shock and disbelief upon her face. "Tom Petty died!" she said.
"What?!"I asked, quite certain that I had completely misheard her.
"Tom Petty had a massive heart attack and died. They just took him off life support."
In that moment, I heard my voice crack and tears rapidly appeared in my eyes. As I was indeed still in my classroom full of three year olds, I knew that I had to keep myself together. But still, I felt as if I had been punched in the face for how much this news was painful to me.
After leaving the classroom for the day, I stepped into the Teacher's Lounge to check the staff computer for any news. At that point, whatever stories I saw on search engine home pages all listed Tom Petty as remaining on life support while throughout my Facebook feed, friends were already voicing their words of shock and sadness at the news of a musical giant now fallen.
Of course, by that evening, we were all up to speed. The news of Tom Petty's death had been misreported yet the news of the heart attack and his status on life support remained true. "Clinging to life," read one report while "Likely not to survive the night" read another. And even still, I hoped.
I held out hope that perhaps maybe Tom Petty would pull through much like how Joni Mitchell seemed to be ready to depart this mortal coil after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015 yet she emerged from her illness, has partaken in physical therapy to regain strength, she has returned to painting and has even made a few public appearances, most notably, the pre-Grammy Awards event where she was escorted by none other than Writer/Director/Journalist Cameron Crowe. Because of Mitchell's experience, I hoped for Tom Petty. I hoped that he would somehow emerge from this tragedy and maybe...just maybe...he would be able to rise again to write and sing once more. I knew that it would be unlikely but even so, I listened to his music that night as a sort of a vigil. I knew that the night just may spell the end for Petty...but I continued to hope.
The following morning, the news was confirmed. Tom Petty, just a hair over one week from completing his 40th anniversary concert tour with The Heartbreakers, suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu. He was unable to be revived by the UCLA Medical Center team and at 8:40 p.m., surrounded by his family, friends and bandmates, Tom Petty died.
Tom Petty always felt to be as if he were just one of us perhaps because all of the music which he created, the music that formulated his legacy, the music that has indeed become the soundtrack for countless lives over several generations, was music that was essentially about us all of the time. Despite his wealth and fame, Tom Petty was an artist that truly never forgot his roots because those very roots gave birth to the full contents of his entire discography. As he wrote and sang to and about us, maybe all the while, he wrote and sang of himself, about his life journey, experiences, trials, tribulations, defeats and successes and the willingness to keep pushing forwards relentlessly, passionately, and triumphantly, therefore offering inspiration to anyone whoever chose to listen to his work to try and do the same.
How many of us have loved and latched onto a song like "I Won't Back Down"? That song is entirely characteristic of Petty's musical aesthetic. Defiant, direct, deceptively simple and filled end-to-end with golden melodies, harmonies, punchy rock and roll power all congealed into a perfect pop song.
Yet, through the lyrics, we arrive with the very messages he sang about from the very beginning of his career all the way to the end of his life for Tom Petty's music in completion were all songs about the various states of resilience, endurance, tenacity, integrity, remaining steadfast and true and with all of the myriad of references to flight and freedom, Tom Petty wrote and sang of the possibilities, realities, successes and failures of reaching transcendence and deliverance. In doing so, all of his music was superbly built to last, to withstand the superior tests of time and aging as his work would shapeshift meanings and effects for any listener at any stage of life based upon one's circumstances. Tom Petty's music is indeed that malleable and simultaneously rock solid.
And they had existed as such from the very start.
The completely infectious melody, the rhythmic pulse and swirling dynamics of keyboardist Benmont Tench's piano and organ, the punch of those fat, dry drums courtesy of the great Stan Lynch, the six stringed glory of right-hand man Mike Campbell's guitars and the rock steady bass work of Ron Blair. And directly out in front starred the soulful, strutting snarl of Tom Petty's vocals, which magically led the band that more than confidently bridged the gaps between soul, vintage rock and roll and the (then) more dangerous sounding punk and (also then) emerging New Wave scene. It was a song that felt like a classic even though (at that time) it was brand new and to this day, nearly 40 years later, the song still feels so vibrantly fresh out of the box!
And so it was for me and the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from that point onwards. For so many of you that have been reeling from this news as much as I have been, the phrase "soundtrack of my life" has undoubtedly been utilized regarding the fullness of Petty's work and our relationship with it. Again, after watching Bogdonavich's documentary, the reality of that phrase became so crystallized in its clarity for me regarding my own life because from the age of 10, Tom Petty has remained not only so gifted and dependable, he has remained ever present through all of my life phases, filling them with song after song after song that were the equal of "Don't Do Me Like That" in terms of quality and rock and roll power, so much so that I now am unable to imagine my life without having heard and loved Petty's music.
Upon graduating to FM radio, by early adolescence and throughout my high school years, "American Girl," "Breakdown," "I Need To Know," Listen To Her Heart," "Insider," "Even The Losers," "Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)," "Letting You Go," "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," "You Got Lucky," "Change Of Heat," "Straight Into Darkness," "Rebels," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Jammin' Me," the outstanding killer duet with Stevie Nicks "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," and to this day, my number one favorite Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song "Here Comes My Girl," all became permanent fixtures within my life jukebox.
By college, "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'," and "Runnin' Down A Dream" became staples.
And immediately after graduating and just beginning to dip my toe into an adult, post-collegiate world (literally two days after graduating), "Learning To Fly" entered my life like the most beautifully rendered beacon, lighting my way to my future.
Where were you when you heard those songs? Those incredible, downright indestructible songs that are as much products of their respective times while also completely transcending those times to become timeless works of art. How could I ever have taken him for granted? Maybe it was because in addition to his sheer dependability and rock solid quality control, Tom Petty just made everything look to be so easy.
He superbly adapted to all of the changes of the times, even becoming one of the very best artists of the music video era without sacrificing any sense of of grit and integrity. The hallucinatory video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" still gives me the creeps even after 30 years. The playfully morbid humor of the outstanding "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and the sheer storytelling power of the Johnny Depp starring "Into The Great Wide Open" still feel like vivid mini-movies.
Tom Petty earned the respect of his heroes with aplomb as he and the Heartbreakers backed the likes of Bob Dylan for a celebrated tour in 1987, recorded with Johnny Cash near the end of his life for his revered "Unchained" album (released November 5, 1996) and of course, joined up with Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne to formulate The Traveling Wilburys, making him fan and peer all in one.
Through the humble nature of how he presented himself to the often breeziness of his music, it would have been so easy for all of us to think and feel that Petty could dash off song after song in his sleep and not even break a sweat. But, that specific quality showcases precisely just how difficult the level of songwriting Tom Petty constantly and consistently displayed is reached in actuality. To reach his level takes undeniable, strenuously hard work which Tom Petty clearly displayed through the entirety of his career and no wonder he made it look so easy. The man NEVER let us see him sweat!
And by the early 1990's, after twenty years in the game, at a point when Tom Petty already had nothing more to prove to anyone, he only continue to rise. The man inexplicably got even better!!!
Over the second half of Tom Petty's career, he released material which struck powerfully deeper chords with me as they all seemed to eschew any surrounding musical trends or pop cultural distractions and really just got down to the business of crafting material that was sounded even more personal, determined, and distinctly individualistic, all the while earning even greater critical praise and unending fan devotion through albums that sparkled with supreme soul.
"Wildflowers" (released November 1, 1994), his second solo album, remains my #1 favorite release from Tom Petty. The musical diversity and expansiveness of the collection felt like a great double album of the past made so perfectly present (and to think there is still more in the can from this era just waiting to be released). It is an album of pastoral, succulent warmth as the title track, "Only A Broken Heart," and "Don't Fade On Me" stood shoulder to shoulder with more orchestrated epics like the stunning closing track "Wake Up Time" and the sunshine daydreams of "It's Good To Be King," as well as the barn burners of "Honey Bee," "You Wreck Me" and most certainly, the rustic yet anthemic "You Don't Know How It Feels." Just an album of blinding beauty.
The controversial "Echo" (released April 13, 1999), was not only Petty and the Heartbreakers darkest affair, it is easily my second favorite Petty release, even though Petty himself rarely spoke of the album due to his personal behind-the-scenes trauma (a painful divorce, self imposed exile in the woods, reported substance abuse issues) and their influences upon the strained recording sessions and the songs themselves.
With the shattering Dylan-esque title track as the album's centerpiece, "Echo" found Petty at his most inscrutable and even arcane as the directness of his songwriting became cloudy, shaded, muddled and with identities and subjects purposefully hidden from view. It felt like an album where music clearly was the source of healing and even therapy as he created a collection of songs, while not explicit, seemed to say everything that needed or even could be said by him at that time. And frankly, it's all there right in the song titles: "Counting On You," "Won't Last Long," "This One's For Me," "No More," "About To Give Out" and the self-lacerating, brutally ironic "Room At The Top." For a man who built a career of singing songs of hard fought and earned perseverance and freedom, as depicted in "Free Girl Now," it was the work of an artist who at that time may have felt like "Billy The Kid" and he was going down "Swingin'." A powerful, painful artistic statement, quite possibly his version of Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" (released January 20, 1975).
With "The Last DJ" (released October 8, 2002), Petty and the Heartbreakers, created their first rock and roll concept album and it was an embittered one indeed as he took on nothing less than the music industry itself, seemingly biting the hands that have fed him and his band for so long. Yet, I think that concept is sort of a Trojan horse even with mournful, meditative selections like the cinematic "Money Becomes King" and "Dreamville" and the grinding, vicious satire of "Joe" (Petty's vocals are just this close to equaling the venom of Roger Waters) are all positioned at the album's opening stretches.
What I feel Petty was really lamenting was the state of America itself as he utilized the music industry as a metaphor to explore the social and spiritual decay of a nation and how it has all sadly trickled down to our children who are unwitting recipients of our own greed, avarice and lack of compassion. With "When A Kid Goes Bad" and "Lost Children," Petty's anger and ache come to the forefront as he truly, wisely questions what kind of a world are we leaving behind. Yet, with the anthemic Beatle-esque fireworks of "Can't Stop The Sun," hope remains vigilant.
Petty's third and final solo album "Highway Companion" (released July 25, 2006) found the man at his most stripped down and reflective. Working solely with Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell and handling the lion's share of the instruments himself (including the drums!), the album, featuring the crystalline "Square One," "Down South," and "This Old Town," among others utilized the imagery of travel and the open road as an elegant meditation on aging, memories and mortality.
"Mojo" (released June 15, 2010), the penultimate studio album recorded with the Heartbreakers found the band at their most unleashed with a work that found then in celebration with their love of the blues. With clean, crisp, no frills production and Petty and his bandmates performing in white hot symmetry, style and stellar musicianship, "Mojo" is an unapologetically defiant move in the era of Auto-Tune as well as a richly presented love letter to the music that formed the basis of rock and roll.
All of that plus two Mudcrutch albums, a film score in Writer/Director/Actor Edward Burns' working class romantic comedy "She's The One" (released April 6, 1996), an absolutely seamless and splendidly executed 4 disc boxed set with "The Live Anthology" (released November 23, 2009) and "Hypnotic Eye" (released July 29, 2014), the gritty (and so sadly final) statement from the Heartbreakers, I am still stunned that I could ever take an artist of this stature and accomplishment for granted. Tom Petty was, and will forever be, one of the GREATS...and the GREATS even knew it themselves!!!
It may have always looked easy to all of us but the work he placed into proving his stature again and again is staggering. This is a figure that never at any point released one bad album. In fact, some write-ups after Petty's passing have proclaimed that he never, ever released even one bad song.
And now, with Tom Petty's death, I am inclined to agree. I am inclined to believe. For the music of Tom Petty is as timeless as it is indestructible.
With nearly two weeks passed since Tom Petty's death, I have listened to his music more than ever, as these things tend to occur. And you know, even with his determination and artistry, I think what quite possibly has endeared him to me for so much of my live, and maybe for all of yours, is his humility.
Yes, he was a rock star of the first degree. Yes, he was an uncommonly gifted songwriter. Yes, he was world traveled to levels many of us could only fantasize about. But through it all, it really felt, even after all of the fame, fortune, accolades, hero worship and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002, Tom Petty was forever the kid with the smokin'-in-the-boys-room smirk from Gainesville, Florida. He seemed approachable somehow. He seemed to be an everyman. Therefore, he always felt to be just one of us.
Maybe that is a huge reason why his death has been so painful, despite its suddenness. It felt as if Tom Petty was our friend. A friend who was upon the exact same existential life journey as every one of us but he was just in the position to share his songs, characters and stories with the world. He seemed to step right alongside with us, sharing his tales, his woes, his life lessons like the finest, most gracious storyteller all along the way. His language was clear and poetic. His economy of words ever inviting and identifiable. There was no Dylan-esque mystery to his public persona or Springsteen-esque epic-ness either. He seemed to signify an equal amount of comfort sitting at a bar stool or tending the land of his home or on stage in front of 50,000 people because when you were among Petty and his band of musicians, you were indeed among friends.
Sometimes, we take our friends for granted. Not for any real reasons or intent. Sometimes it just happens. But, oh when we do realize the value that we have been so fortunate to have received through the gift of a friend, how do we treasure that person as never before. Tom Petty is indeed that friend to me, a person who was 100% with me from the very start.
Since his passing, the glory of "The Waiting" has revealed itself to me in a startling new way. Just look at these lyrics...words that we all know by heart:
"Oh baby, don't it feel like Heaven right now
Don't it feel like something from a dream
Yeah, I've never known nothing quite like this
Don't it feel like tonight might never be again
Baby, we know better than to try and pretend..."
Let's stop right there for a moment, shall we. Just read and sign them again to yourselves. Right now, those words are not just an urgent representation of teenage romance and the skyrockets of first love. For how rock and roll those words are, right now, I read them and I feel they are designed to echo nothing less than the poetry of Robert Herrick, for those words, merged with the music, create a "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/Carpe Diem" moment if there ever was one.
And then, in the song's bridge, we hear Petty sing the following:
"Oh, don't let it kill you baby
Don't let it get to you
Don't let 'em kill you baby
Don't let it get to you
I'll be your breathin' heart, I'll be your cryin' fool
Don't let this go too far
Don't let it get to you..."
If those words do not signify the entirety of Tom Petty's musical legacy and the words he expressed time and again to himself, as well as to all of us, then I do not know what else could be more representative.
Tom Petty is, and will forever be, a treasure to the culture of American music and to music itself as an art form. He was a true believer in the truth and power of rock and roll and I will be eternally grateful for every single lyric and every single note he wrote, recorded and performed. Never will I be able to thank him enough for all he has given to me. So, at the very least, I will listen, share and rejoice with the legacy he has left behind, even as it brings me to tears right now.
"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."
OCTOBER 20, 1950-OCTOBER 2, 2017
REST IN POWER