What an emotionally exhausting week.
The entire country is reeling from the news out of Las Vegas: more than 50 people killed in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I’ve seen footage and photographs, and it’s devastating. I admire those who are standing up in the face of tragedy to try to enact real change. I’m just not sure what that looks like anymore. I’d love it if we could agree to make preventing this kind of horror a priority, but it just doesn’t look like we’re going to. So I’m already mentally preparing for the next one. Which is unfathomably sad.
And then we lost Tom Petty. Which, I know, is not on the same scale, but for fans like myself, it added to the emotional distress of the week.
The first Tom Petty song I can remember hearing was “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” I was ten years old when it was released on Petty’s Southern Accents album, and I remember the song largely because of the creepy video. It was Alice in Wonderland meets surreal horror, with Petty as the Mad Hatter, and it ended with Alice’s body being cut into slices and served as cake to the denizens of Wonderland. I don’t remember a lot of things about being ten, but I remember the unsettled feeling that video left me with.
I know I heard “Refugee” and “The Waiting” and “Jammin’ Me” on the radio after that, but the first Petty I bought was Full Moon Fever, his first foray away from his lifelong backing band, the Heartbreakers. I never loved “Free Fallin’” like most people did – even at 14 I was gravitating away from simplicity – but I loved “I Won’t Back Down” and “Yer So Bad” and “Alright for Now.” My favorite was “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which would go on to be an undisputed Petty classic. My friend Mike and I used that song in an animated short film about the Erie Canal we created for history class. (Yes, we were pretty nerdy.)
From then on, Petty would stay sort of peripheral to my life, but always a part of it. Into the Great Wide Open, particularly the great “Learning to Fly,” soundtracked my last year of high school. Petty was my way into the Traveling Wilburys, and I grew to love (or at least admire) each of those songwriters. I remember exactly where I was – in the kitchen of a house I shared with three guys during my junior year of college – the first time I heard Wildflowers, Petty’s best solo album. We’d watch the video for “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and lament the censorship – “let’s roll another joint” became “let’s roll another jnuuuuh,” or some other indecipherable mess. For us, this was a high crime, no pun intended.
I bought She’s the One at my favorite record store in downtown Portland, Maine, where I ended up working a few years later. I gave Echo a lukewarm review in the music magazine I worked for out of college, still in Portland. I bought The Live Anthology with money I made working as a journalist outside of Chicago, and it finally convinced me that the Heartbreakers are one of the best bands in America. I adored every second of Unchained, the Heartbreakers’ album with Johnny Cash, recorded near the end of the Man in Black’s life.
I think this is how Petty was for a lot of people. He had sort of a stealth effect on my life – I have never considered him a favorite, but when I look back, his music has made a deep impression on me for more than three decades. Of the “pure rock” songwriters I enjoy, he was quite possibly the best. He certainly knew how to make three chords and some keen observations into a smash hit that resonated with millions. They resonated with me, too, and it’s hard to believe that such a constant presence in my life is gone.
Petty died on Monday night after a heart attack earlier in the day. The conflicting news reports didn’t help, with many outlets pronouncing him dead hours before he actually passed on, causing many of us to go through the process of emotionally saying goodbye twice. Petty was only 66 years old, which I used to think was ancient. Now I can see it around the corner from me, and Petty’s death is a reminder that each day is precious. Hold on to the ones you love.
Rest in peace, Tom, and thank you for all the tunes.
* * * * *
That’s going to do it for me this week. If you’d like to read a more eloquent remembrance of Tom Petty, you can’t do better than this one from my friend John J. Thompson.
Next week, Derek Webb, speaking of emotionally devastating. I’m still not ready to write about it. I’m not sure I will be in a week, either. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.