"Petty spoke to the hearts of guys like me. He was a writer of music for me, whatever stage of life I was in ..."
When my roommate from college emailed me that Tom Petty had died, the news was a last sad stab of sorrow on a long, sad day of bad news coming out of Las Vegas.
I think I know why.
I wanted to call this remembrance “He wrote a long letter on a short piece of paper,” but not many people would have gotten the reference.
It’s from a line Tom Petty contributed to a song called “Margarita” on the first album by the Traveling Wilburys, an odd sort of “supergroup” he formed with George Harrison, Bob Dylan and others. It was a nonsense lyric in a nonsense song but it suddenly makes a kind of sense to me now that he’s gone.
That’s what good pop music does: It connects with us in a way all out of proportion with its form to make a meaningful impact.
Tom Petty made a meaningful impact on me.
He was born in 1950 – about 10 years after Bob Dylan and 10 years before Bono. And that’s 20 years before me.
I remember an admiring review of Tom Petty at the turn of the century that praised him for writing pop songs for their original audience, teenagers, even as he aged.
But for me he wasn’t a writer of music for young people. He was a writer of music for me, whatever stage of life I was in.
When I geekily entered high school and first became aware of the pop music culture, Tom Petty was there. The guy whose desk was near mine at the back of my freshman classroom had written “Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers” on his notebook.
Tom Petty spoke to the hearts of guys like me.
“You don’t have to live like a refugee” he said, and that gave us the ability to give life a try. “Even the losers get lucky sometimes,” he said, and that gave us hope.
“Here comes my girl,” he said, which we couldn’t say yet. But we figured we would one day. ”The waiting,” we discovered, is the hardest part.
When I entered college, new Tom Petty albums provided my soundtrack.
I was one of the few people who bought a vinyl copy of Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) in which Tom Petty with Bob Dylan angrily curses consumerism, demanding the world take it all back (including, memorably, Joe Piscopo). I was also among the first to drop the needle on his album Full Moon Fever. “I Won’t Back Down” bucked me up to face college life. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” described college independence for guys with friends and a car far better than “Free Fallin’” did.
It even captured the next phase of life with its “My sister got lucky / married a yuppie / took him for all he was worth.”
When I got married, “Learning to Fly” urged me on, and Into the Great Wide Open provided a marital cautionary tale.
When my wife and I started having children, I received a lullaby CD from a friend that included the Tom Petty song “Alright for Now,” which I always thought was sung to a woman, but made more sense sung to an infant.
It continued into the 21st century: Before a trip with those children all grown up, a friend gave me “the perfect travel music” which turned out to just be Tom Petty’s 2006 Highway Companion, his final solo album, (which, by the way is perfect travel music).
I was blessed to avoid the bad example and bad advice of Tom Petty, who lazily embraced deadly pleasures like drug use and casual sex.
But I was also blessed with his talent and his ability to speak to my soul from 3-minute songs.
He wrote a long letter on a short piece of paper. And now he has preceded me again, “Into the Great Wide Open.”