Tom Petty: One of Us, and the Best of Us

Tom Petty came into my life in the summer of 1993 in the old pool hall and snack bar at Eaton’s Beach, on the shore of Lake Weir in Marion County, Fla.

I grew up there, which is to say that Petty and I grew up about 20 miles apart. We share the same sliver of North Central Florida, the same accent and, as best as I can tell, the same determination to remember our roots while moving onward and upward.

Of course, I didn’t know any of these things back in the summer of 1993. I was 9, playing pool on some hot summer afternoon in a bar that I should not have been in, a bar that doesn’t exist anymore.

Still, when I heard the news Monday of Petty’s passing at 66, I flashed back to running a rack as a harmonica kicked up on the jukebox. It was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” By the time the song ended, it was my favorite.

Tom Petty was our voice

What makes Tom Petty’s music special is the accessibility. His writing and hooks are of the common man without being for the lowest common denominator. Petty connected with the masses and critics alike, penning hit after hit for radio and making albums that could be played from start to finish without skipping a track. “Refugee” — heck, pretty much all of his breakout effort Damn the Torpedoes — sounds just as much like 1978 as it does 2017.

Consider that the Beats By Dre headphones were calibrated to the Torpedoes album. Consider that Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers may be his best effort, even 20 years into his career. Consider his Greatest Hits album as the greatest “greatest hits” album.  And please consider his later work, from the dark and heroin-infused Echo (1999) to the melancholic Highway Companion (2006).

Petty connected with me when I was 9, but his music gained a permanent foothold when I was 19. My cousin, best friend, and a girl I always had a crush on but could never muster up courage to ask out saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach — my first big time concert. By the time the show was over, I thought that I could be a music writer.

My first music piece for the Ocala Star-Banner in 2006: A review of Highway Companion. The first song I learned on guitar: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

My Tom Petty catalog came about with no chronological order, and it didn’t matter. Petty’s music is timeless, even if his time has run out. I will make the argument that Petty’s 40-year career made him the most consistently-great rock ‘n’ roller ever.

Tom Petty was just a guy, and the guy

Warren Zanes’ 2015 biography of Petty ended up in my Christmas stocking, and I had already read most of it by the time I flew home from the 2016 Rose Bowl. If you’re looking for the complete story on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Zanes’ bio is a masterpiece.

Reading it, I learned of Petty’s turbulent childhood, his determination to make it in the music industry and, fairly enough, his shortcomings. Petty was a flawed man who dealt with abuse from his father, his first wife, and the music industry. It’s a rags-to-riches story, but heartache and tragedy are recurring themes.

But what really stands out from the biography is just how human Petty was. Here’s a guy who had to battle demons, a shy and gentle soul who could also do whatever needed to be done to provide. The grit levels are akin to Dale Earnhardt. Neither would be denied from success in their respective fields.

Reading the book led me to filling out my Petty catalog with albums like Into the Great Wide Open, Southern Accents, and Echo. These played endlessly in rental cars as I slogged through a lonely summer in Dallas in 2016. Wildflowers was playing in my car when I called my boss to tell him I was moving back to Florida and taking another gig.

It’s time to move on
Time to get going
What lies ahead I have no way of knowing.

Looking back now, Tom Petty has been the soundtrack to some of my best and worst days. His music has played on many a great road trip.

Tom Petty finished strong

In May, my best friend and I flew to Colorado to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play the venerable Red Rocks Amphitheater outside of Denver. When we bought tickets in December, we did so on the premise that Red Rocks is a bucket list venue. Plus, we reasoned, this may be our last chance to see the legend. Little did we know…

Misting rain gave way to a brilliant sunset over the Denver skyline as we climbed the mountain to our seats. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took to the stage on their 40th anniversary tour and delivered a two-hour validation that they were a band that still loved playing together, with a frontman who took a few extra seconds in the spotlight between songs to acknowledge the cheering crowd. Petty hit more notes and sounded better in May than he did when I saw him in Daytona Beach 14 years earlier. Everyone on stage looked impossibly happy.

At some point, I took a deep breath, stared out over the thousand-mile view and reminded myself to stay in the moment. I turned to my best friend and yelled what Peter told Jesus at the Transfiguration: “How good, Lord, to be here.”

Petty was perfect. The band: perfect. The evening: as perfect and as special as one could ever be. Now, the trip serves as a reminder that, given the opportunity to see or do something special to you, you should take it.

In the end and by all accounts, Petty had overcome his demons and shortcomings from his earlier life. He had found true love a second time around, became a grandfather and was still the coolest cat in any room he walked into.

I hope some of Tom Petty’s grit, determination and appreciation rubbed off on me. Even if that’s not the case, his music will always be with me.

8 thoughts on “Tom Petty: One of Us, and the Best of Us

  1. Well done. Best I’ve seen on the subject. You should think about trying to make some money with that quill.

  2. Loved your sentiment. Agree with so much you’ve said. I can’t think of much that replaces that feeling of the perfect night, at the perfect show, with your most loved singer/songwriter/musician belting out the songs that shaped your life. When people ask me, “How much do you spend on Paul McCartney tickets.” I just smile and say, doesn’t matter, the experience is priceless.

  3. What a great tribute to an amazing entertainer and a clear reminder of how short life can be! I think I need to put on some of those great songs. I wish I would have seen him in concert! So happy that you have these great memories! Great article!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this! The imagery in here is great. I once had an opportunity to see Tom Petty. A waitress at a diner that i didn’t even know said “Hey, i’m going to see Tom Petty tonight in Charlotte (NC), wanna go? ” I was young and shy, and broke and did not go but i’ve always wished i had. Just like you said, take the opportunities that are given to you in life, for you know not if they will ever pop up again! I grew up on Tom Petty. My first album was “Into the Great Wide Open”. I got it from the old BMG mail order stamps that used to come in the mail. It ended up being one of my favorite albums of all time. I still have it!

  5. Great piece. Petty is special to me also. Knowing how much you like him I’ll share some concert photos I took years ago with you. Thanks for writing.

  6. “I Won’t Back Down,” resonated with me as a fifth grader in ways I still cannot explain fully. The 9/11 happened and he offered a solo rendition in TV. Never before had that song made more sense.

  7. I grew up with Tom Petty in Gainesville. He was just a shy goofy kid in elementary school, I remember when he got his first guitar. It changed his life, and the lives of millions of us! RIP Tom.

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