Anyone who knows me is aware of my tendency to get on “kicks.” I’ll find an artist or a film or a TV show and I’ll talk about it with anyone in earshot until they’re left in complete and total exhaustion. I’ve done it for Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, Wes Craven, The Beatles, Doctor Who, Buffy, and many, many more than I can count. However, my love of Tom Petty, which began when I was in middle school, may be my most enduring obsession. It started so simply. I heard “Free Fallin” in the film Jerry Maguire, bought his Greatest Hits package, and an obsession was born. I bought every album, spent way too much on a poster on Ebay, jumped for joy whenever I saw him on a magazine cover, and tried to tell people how much I loved him at every possible opportunity. As time went on, my obsession lessened and morphed into new obsessions, but I never hit a point where I didn’t love Tom Petty.
Many of my feelings for his music probably stem from timing. I found him, or his music found me, at a low point in my life. Without major specifics, suicide was a thought running through my brain on constant repeat, coupled with two half-hearted attempts. I looked for escape in any pop culture I could find, and I most frequently found solace in his music. Petty wrote about flawed, broken people, trying to make sense of their lives and understand everything that had gone wrong. Feeling irredeemably flawed and irrevocably broken, it was so easy to relate to those songs. He wrote about characters that masked pain with a bravado-filled snarl. They were cynical enough to tell those who wronged them “don’t come around here no more,” but maintain the optimistic hope that “even the losers get lucky sometimes.”
By Petty’s own account, he was a bit of a neurotic, but he presented himself as the epitome of laconic cool. He clearly loved music and wore his influences on his sleeve, but that can mask how chameleonic his musical identity could be. His early albums were Byrd’s-inspired harmonies and jangling guitars, but his later albums could be new wave inspired, stripped down to acoustics, or blues-infused. Over forty years, he evolved from angry, leather-clad rocker to a rock elder statesman.
It’s also easy to miss how strong his writing was. He was often compared to Dylan, with his distinctly nasal vocals, but his lyrics weren’t abstractly poetic. They were blunt and straightforward, yet capable of cutting to the bone. Since his death Monday night, social media has been flooded with posts of favorite lyrics or references to favorite songs. Personally, my favorite song is “Walls,” but my favorite line is from the mellow, near funereal “Wallflowers:” “You deserve the deepest of cover. You belong in that home, by and by.” However, those are my favorites today. They could be different tomorrow. I love too many Tom Petty songs and cherish too many Tom Petty lyrics to pick just one.
I’ve seen him in concert twice, including this past June, on what would end up being his final tour. I drove three hours to Kansas City, knowing how tired I was going to be the next day but not really caring. Predictably, any minor discomfort on my part proved completely worth it as Petty and band were in fine form. You could tell they loved performing, fed off the energy of an ecstatic crowd, but more importantly, they still sounded fantastic. Petty’s voice, with its distinctly Southern, nasal sound was just the same as it always had been. Everyone played like a band that had been together for years and wouldn’t want to do anything else. Petty was appreciative of the crowd’s response, humbled to still be filling arenas after forty years of making music, and I ended the evening so grateful to have seen them again. There had been talk it would be the final tour, but they didn’t play like a band that had any intention of slowing down. Now, I’m even more grateful to have seen them one final time. I would have hated to have missed him and never had the chance to see him again.
Sometimes, I struggle to explain why the deaths of actors, musicians, composers, authors, people we’ve never met can hit us so hard. I’ve often argued that it has to with taste forming you into the person you eventually become. Movies, songs, books, they influence our development and we feel gratitude towards those who create the things we love. Even if we never meet them, we have a connection to their creations and to them by default.
For me, Tom Petty is different. His music saved me. It gave me the break from the world I so desperately needed. It made me think that if I could still love something as much as I loved his music, then it made sense to keep going. I’ve heard he came from a difficult background, and while it’s a cliché to assume he poured the pain of his upbringing into the music he created, it feels true when you listen to his songs. However, it doesn’t really matter to me why he created them. They spoke to me. They kept me tethered to the world. I’m grateful to Tom Petty, and even though I never met him, I’m mourning his loss. Playing his songs these past couple of days, all I can say is “thank you.”