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Petty Thoughts

Here it is three days later and I’m still bummed out. This doesn’t generally happen to me, not for these reasons. He was a pop star; a rock ‘n’ roller and celebrity who hung out with Harrison and Dylan. He smoked like a chimney and made it to sixty-six, died in fairly unspectacular fashion and on a day when sixty others were tragically gunned-down in Vegas. Moreover he was fucking main-stream and loved by the masses; not some unique trip that I alone had discovered and taken.

It was always easy to underestimate Tom Petty. I didn’t but saw others have at it — those who fancied themselves possessing more “sophisticated” musical tastes and lumped him in with, I don’t know, Boston or Kansas or Skynyrd or even Springsteen. I recall, some years back, driving my small Nissan 240SX up to Sonoma for a company party with my girlfriend sitting shotgun and another coworker who’d requested a lift crammed in back. He was usually an affable sort but had a thing for her and on this hot summer day gave some lip when I went to put a cassette in the player — “I hope Rick isn’t about to play Tom fucking Petty again” — with snotty attitude and accent. I cut him some lovesick slack; people say stupid shit under such crowded, uncomfortable circumstances, even when there by their own volition. But the slight directed at Petty has stuck with me, ridiculously, for 20-plus years. There is something particular about select musical tastes that I possess. It’s limited to precious few and I burn out and come back to the tunes myself all the time. But they are there in my head constantly, triggered by a word or thought. Give me “there’s a dream I keep havin‘ ” and I immediately go to “where my mama comes to me / and kneels down over by the window / and says a prayer for me.”  I’m just lost, at least for the moment. The image is specific and may or may not extend to the south or praying, but is my mom and as real as the day is long. That’s one overwrought example but there are many others, trivial or otherwise. Give me “I was talkin’ with a friend of mine” and I jump to “said a woman had hurt his pride.” It just happens and not because I’m some savant or suffer post-dramatic stress associated with “Damn The Torpedoes.” It is just there and will be until the day either I or my brain dies. Such is Tom Petty to me.

Petty was a lizard, a snarling, straw-haired swamp jockey who dragged Gainseville to Los Angeles and got it in the water system. He was, as I often observed, a “weird dude” and had something else going on that isn’t easy to define. He used words to combine the personal and specific with the eternal and relatable. That, as pretentious and grandiose as it sounds, is about as close as I can come. He’d take a phrase like “don’t do me like that,” uttered first by an abusive, southern father, and make it understood by a fifteen year-old high school girl in Tarzana. Years later he’d take a spot just up the road from that girl’s house and write “it’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda / there’s a freee-way, runnin’ through the yard.” If you ever want to get why people both understand and underestimate Tom Petty, listen to “Free Fallin’.” It makes millions who never lived near the San Fernando Valley connect to the place and cements the words to those who have for life. We’re all bad boys ’cause we don’t even miss her,  all bad boys for breakin’ her heart.

Or maybe I’m going too far with this .. it’s possible. Petty was a rock ‘n’ roller in the way I came to understand the word. Some of my earliest memories are from ’77, sitting on the carpet in my brother’s bedroom when he wasn’t home, cranking the first album and “You’re Gonna Get It” on his Sansui receiver through Infiniti speakers. And then, well before the advent of MTV on a local cable show called “Rockvision,” seeing a clip of Petty, shot in glorious film, at the Whisky on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The tune was “I Need to Know” and he seemed to anchor that famous schnoz on the microphone and bob up and down to the beat in so cool a fashion it went straight to your veins. He was the anti-rockstar and the epitome all at once. The second grainy Rockvision clip was “American Girl” and I suppose that was it for me, for life. Mike Campbell’s Telecaster outro solo was the same back then as today and, appropriately, those were the last notes Petty heard before walking off stage last week to end his 40th anniversary tour and the last he’d play in front of fans before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Petty cared about his fans and understood that it was a personal thing, that he got in their blood. Unlike Springsteen who would alienate to make a point and launch into a ten-minute political diatribe mid-show, Petty would never dare stop a show to politicize or take anyone out of the experience. As he put it, it wasn’t hard to figure out what side of the aisle he leaned toward. He played at Al Gore’s concession party and quietly issued a cease and desist order to W. when Bush used “I Won’t Back Down” on the campaign trail. But he didn’t make a big deal out of it, just as he didn’t when his riffs or words were lifted by other artists. “I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs,” he said. He could have been the biggest hack going and those words would still resonate with me. He went to bat, quietly and fiercely, dozens of times for what he believed in. He went up against MCA in ’81 when record companies ruled the land, refusing to let them raise the price of his album “Hard Promises” by a buck for fear that it would put it out of reach for some 16 year-old grocery-bagger waiting on his hero’s new vinyl. He did all of this quietly and tenaciously to the end. Stopped flying the flag of the Confederacy even though it never meant “that” to him or to most of his fans. Did this quietly and respectfully too, despite redneck protests, saying it left him feeling “stupid” and that he’d “never do something to hurt someone.”

But what he did above and beyond all of this was use music with words in most remarkable fashion. He was derided by some for his appeal to many. Going to a Heartbreakers show in recent years was to go to a “greatest hits” show. This wasn’t due to his choice of songs, but rather because of his appeal and popularity .. his talent. Those shows were as cross-generational as they come .. parents, grandparents, kids. As my buddy Dave put it recently “there’s something wrong with somebody who doesn’t like Tom Petty.” I prefer to think that they’re either a) not from “here” (with “here” defined as broadly as America or narrowly as Reseda) or b) they just haven’t listened. The outpouring the last few days has been immense and I’ve taken comfort, and felt a little less foolish, by reading what he meant to so many. Somebody, somewhere wrote that “if you think back on the ten best days of your life, there’s a good chance Tom Petty was playing in the background for half of them.” An exaggeration perhaps, but like all good exaggerations, one that applies to me. So I’ll close it with that thought and a short bit of verse from a more obscure track off a lesser-known album, “The Best of Everything” from “Southern Accents”:

yeah and it’s over before you know it
it all goes by so fast
the bad nights take forever
and the good nights don’t ever seem to last

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