Some thoughts on Tom Petty

I heard the news about Tom Petty at the end of the work day today. After listening to his music for the rest of the evening, I decided to ramble on a bit over on twitter. (That's what twitter is for, after all.)

Anyway, the Reds season ended yesterday and I don't have a game to write about tonight. I don't even have a game to watch! (Such a strange feeling.) So I thought I'd expand a bit on my earlier ramble, for posterity's sake.

As I sit here writing this, Tom Petty's music videos are playing on my television, via YouTube. I still remember the first time I saw one of his videos. I think I was 14 years old when I saw "I Won't Back Down" on MTV.

I literally remember standing in my bedroom, looking at the television as this video came on. I remember distinctly thinking two things:

"This song is awesome!"

"Who is this old guy?"

I had never heard of him. Now, Petty was only 38 or 39 when that video came out, so he wasn't old (or at least, that's what I keep telling myself these days). But he seemed old at the time. Shortly thereafter, a buddy clued me in: "Dude, Tom Petty is a certified rock star."

Every guy needs an older brother, if for no other reason than to teach him about music. I didn't have that older brother -- I do have three younger brothers -- to teach me, so I had never heard of him. I was mostly into the stuff my friends were into.

I could tell you everything you wanted to know about A Tribe Called Quest or Run-DMC or Eric B & Rakim, but I didn't know Tom Petty from Tom Lawless. So "I Won't Back Down" was a revelation. I had listened to plenty of what I thought was rock and roll, but was mostly just pop music on the radio. It was fine, but it never moved me. I mean, Duran Duran is okay, I guess.

But I had never heard anything like "I Won't Back Down." And that distinctive Tom Petty voice! 

So I immediately decided I liked this guy. Of course, that was the day when the radio was the only way to hear music -- that was a long time ago; yes, I'm the old guy, I know -- and I didn't own any Tom Petty albums, so the next thing I heard of his was the following single off that "Full Moon Fever" album: "Running Down A Dream," with that great animated video.

After that was "Free Fallin'"...and it seemed like that song was everywhere for months and months and months. I was completely hooked. For the rest of my life.

A couple of years later, during the summer before my senior year of high school, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their next album, "Into the Great Wide Open." I bought that cassette and wore it out in the tape deck of my burgundy Chevy Cavalier (I loved that car, even though it once died on me in downtown DC, during rush hour).

Then, when I was in college, that Greatest Hits album came out. I got that one on CD, even though I had all the earlier albums on cassette by that point. I had to have it, once again because of a video: "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Remember that video, with Kim Basinger? Incredible.


In the late 1990s, I was living in the Washington, D.C. area while attending law school (Hoya Saxa). A roommate had tickets to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, and I jumped at the chance to finally see Petty in concert. We walked into the venue -- an outdoor amphitheatre now called Jiffy Lube Live or some nonsense -- and made our way to our seats. Second row, center. I couldn't believe it.

And Petty didn't disappoint. I'll never forget him leaning over and taking that big "Mad Hatter" hat out of a trunk in the middle of the stage. He placed it on his head with a wink and a grin, then launched into "Don't Come Around Here No More" with as much energy and enthusiasm as he could muster. The crowd responded in kind.

That show is still the best concert I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few of them over the years.

In the last fifteen years, life got in the way a little bit. I still listened to Petty all the time, but kids and family and work and life conspired to keep me away from any of the band's live shows. When they announced the 40th Anniversary tour this summer, however, there was no chance I was going to miss the opportunity. After all, Petty had said this was the band's last tour. It was now or never.

So we got tickets to the show at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, and it was fantastic. I never expected that the band would still be so great. They hadn't lost a single step.

At the end of July, our family took a trip with another family to New York City. After we arrived, we saw that the band was playing in Queens later in the week. The other couple wondered if we'd like to go see them, even though they weren't on our pre-planned and completely packed agenda. After all, they said, they hadn't seen Petty live before. There was no question: of course we wanted to. So we got tickets from some fly-by-night outfit that required we download a sketchy app to access our digital tickets, hopped on the subway, and headed out to Forest Hills Stadium. (I was pretty sure that app wasn't going to work, but we surprisingly got into the venue.)

It was another great show, but the best part was that my kids were with us, getting an opportunity to experience Tom Petty live. They went in a bit disinterested. They came out certified fans. My daughter wanted a t-shirt, and started learning to play "Free Fallin'" on the guitar when we returned home. My son played nothing but Tom Petty music in his headphones for a week thereafter.

Now, I don't get emotional about anything related to celebrities. (If you know me, you'd probably say that I get emotional about very little.) Still, it's sad that Tom Petty may be gone. I came to him after he was already well on his way to legend status, but Petty has been the soundtrack to most of my life. If he's gone...well, at least the music remains. I'm playing it tonight, and I'll play it tomorrow. It'll continue to be my soundtrack.

Tom Petty was just a great rock and roll star, that's all.