Remembering Tom Petty, a virtual friend
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I can’t even count how many times I’ve had to turn to Tom Petty and a cup of coffee. They came into my life around the same time, but I’ve leaned on the former much more than the latter.
Those early dalliances with coffee came towards the end of high school, where a demanding history class necessitated the writing of 10-to-20 page papers every few weeks. So as those things go, that always meant a couple of extremely late nights a day or two before the due date where I’d make myself a cup or two and settle in to examining the finer points of the Battle of Midway or Teddy Roosevelt’s trustbusting or whatever other topic I’d landed on at that point.
The coffee just kept me awake, though. Through the actual act of writing, of focusing on the dates and details that can derail a paper from an A to a D, I had a better friend. Loaded into the CD tray of the computer went Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits, and there it repeated for the next five or six hours before I passed out with barely enough sleep required to trudge into school the next morning.
I know I’ve written about that before elsewhere. By my late teens, while exploring classic rock as an escape from the mainstream rock hellscape of the late 1990s, Tom Petty became something of a bridge from the past to the present. He was classic for sure, but he also felt immediate. He was making new music that felt and sounded as good as everything that had already been officially cataloged among the “Greatest.” In that era, he recorded Wildflowers and She’s the One and Echo, three records I still listen to regularly. He was on TV and he was on the radio and he was in my head, pushing me through whatever I needed to push through.
That started then, and that was arguably the least I ever leaned on the man’s music and words. For the next 20 years or so, his reputation and standing only grew as I climbed in and out of life’s potholes. At the peak of my early concert days, he delivered one of my favorite shows of all time. He saved what could have been a doomed weekend at an oversized festival. He’s been a hit at parties and a late-night companion. There’s no situation that couldn’t be aided by the addition of Petty and the Heartbreakers.
What made the pain of yesterday’s premature announcement and inevitable confirmation so widespread was how many people he affected in similar ways. The examples above are specific but they aren’t unique. The tributes and personal stories are coming in from fans quickly and constantly. As under the radar as a man who was practically ever-present on radio can be, he snuck into countless lives and offered a hand or a wink when needed.
He created these lonely, sympathetic characters throughout his songs with such a masterful touch as to feel exact and still universal. The central figure in “You Don’t Know How It Feels” doesn’t do much to reveal anything beyond generalities, but it pulls the listener into his world to the point that all boundaries are blurred, and the singer and listener are practically the same person. He could shout and belt when he needed to, but here he sings softly, like an audible smile and a pat on the back.
The Greatest Hits was the introduction — defiant on “I Won’t Back Down,” determined on “Runnin’ Down a Dream” — but his work went so much deeper than that. There were the 15 exercises in adult storytelling on the songs of Wildflowers that offered as much guidance as any great tome. He stepped back and let the pain of a breakup inform the music of Echo. He kicked out the jams on Damn the Torpedoes. He decried a failing, greedy industry on The Last DJ. He didn’t just cover the sounds but explored the space of the blues on Mojo. He mined his own childhood and the notion of personal identity on Southern Accents. He mined deeper relationships and their failings on Hard Promises.
The common bond between all those projects is just how much he seemed to love what he was doing. Even when it was painful, it was clear that writing and singing these songs were a necessary compulsion, an honest expression of a man with a point of view and a gift for composition. He offered a glimpse into his world without ever being overbearing, and in turn helped generations of listeners shine a better light onto their own. And in concert, there was never a more gracious and appreciative host. The only thing that rivaled the sing-alongs and cheers were the cries of “Thank you, thank you so much” from the lead Heartbreaker.
But he wasn’t without his demons. Warren Zanes’ 2016 biography Petty laid out his battles with substance abuse through interviews with the man himself, as well as struggles maintaining relationships and a career in such a ridiculous business as rock and roll. The music was an outlet for those issues, and in turn they became something of a companion to millions of listeners fighting their own fights.
He’s so much more than 18 hit songs on a CD. He was a poet, a sneakily nasty guitarist, an expressive singer, a storyteller, an occasional comedian. That was just some of what made him Tom Petty, as observed from the distance of a fan. He was a real person, and more often than not he felt like a real friend.
And so he remains. The reasons change, but the occasional late-night cups of coffee and projects will still be there. So will those solitary drives, the parties that need a boost, the lone moments of reflection via headphones. He’s still there whenever he’s needed. He’s never felt quite as necessary as he does right now.
Oct. 3, 2017
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com