Remembering Tom Petty

Tom Petty’s songs made special moments better & ordinary moments feel significant.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 1977
I first heard Tom Petty’s music when I was fifteen & just getting into classic rock. His songs would come on my classic rock & Beatles-themed Pandora radio stations. I realized that Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly was different than Pink Floyd’s. The Traveling Wilburys bridged my love of the Beatles with my newfound love of Bob Dylan. As my musical interests continued to change, his songs kept finding their way into my Pandora stations. In that way, I became familiar with some of them.
My father & I walked into Guitar Center. Mary Jane’s Last Dance was playing distinctly over their speakers as a guy crouched down cradling a black guitar tuned it. The combination of the two sounds mingled with the sounds of what everyone else in the store was playing. The memory, the aesthetic, of the way it sounded is what I always think about when I hear that song now.
The first time I heard American Girl, I was leaving my neighborhood. The song was playing quiet over the car stereo. My dad was trying to make a phone call so I strained my ears to hear the lyrics. I immediately fell in love with it. There was something about the jangling guitars & the continuous pedal tones & the slightly bittersweet optimism that made me love it. When I got home, I looked up the lyrics & saw it was a Tom Petty song. Months later, I stayed in the car longer in the parking lot at the dollar store just so I could hear it.
A year ago, everything in my life felt stressful. I was overwhelmed. But I always sang along to I Won’t Back Down. Listening to it made me feel better. It became my anthem. I wanted to give up, I wanted to give in, but then I was always reminded of this declaration of strength. & I knew I was going to keep fighting for what was right for me & the kind of life I wanted to live until I got there. No matter what.
My sister & I drove on through the cold dark December night. We were going to watch the play Proof at the theater. The classic rock station was playing. A Tom Petty song came on. My sister turned up the volume. “I love his music.” She declared. I was surprised learning this, because I loved his music & yet I never knew she did. We talked about this. I told her there was a Tom Petty concert happening in a few months, if we saved money maybe we could go to it. We made plans to do this, but by the time we had the money, all the cheaper tickets were sold out.
I was driving across the Overseas Highway on the forth day of my road trip. I’d driven from Key Largo to Key West & now I was driving more than two hours back to Key Largo in the same day. It was late afternoon, the space between the beginning of sunset & the beginning of twilight. I came upon the Tom Petty section of my playlist. All my favorite songs of his. The likes of Free Fallin’American Girl, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Breakdown, Refugee, & I Won’t Back Down were my soundtrack. His music sounded like a road trip, like the open road. The songs felt special, hearing them halfway through the road trip, in the purity of freedom, on a very long highway when the sun was setting over the ocean.
I heard it on the radio when I was sitting at a stoplight. A few Tom Petty songs had played consecutively; I wasn’t sure why. “Remembering Tom Petty.” The announcer said. It felt like a slap to the face. The second of the day; the first was hearing about what happened in Las Vegas. They said he’d passed away earlier. More songs played, but now they all sounded bittersweet. I wanted to hear them & turn them off at the same time. He couldn’t be dead. He couldn’t. I thought about Mary Jane’s Last Dance in Guitar Center & American Girl in the parking lot & I Won’t Back Down on my stereo & Overseas highway. I thought about how my sister & I never did get to go to that concert. That we’d missed our chance. It hurt like when David Bowie died. I couldn’t believe it.
A few hours later on the way home, Don’t Do Me Like That finished playing. The announcer said, “Despite earlier reports that Tom Petty had passed away, apparently he isn’t actually dead. He’s in critical condition, but he’s alive.” I grinned & slapped my steering wheel. “YOU BASTARDS! You bastards! He’s alive! He’s alive!” I laughed. I came home. “Did you hear Tom Petty died earlier?” My sister asked. “Yes, but he’s not actually dead! Not yet!” I explained. No one online was sure now whether or not he was dead. Please be alive. Please, please pull through, I prayed. When I woke up the next day, I learned he really was gone.
How many people have been inspired to pick up a guitar because of him? How many of us have listened to I Won’t Back Down & decided, once more, to keep moving forward? How many moment of specific, perfect aesthetic moments have his songs soundtracked? Those are the things he has left behind for us. Those are the things we can keep close. Music, & the memories surrounding it, are something that cannot be lost. & what an amazing catalog of music he has left behind. But what’s perhaps an equally important legacy to me as his music is the reminder that even in a world that would rather we be what it wants us to be, we can still be ourselves if we choose to.