Today, I tried to explain who Tom Petty was and what he meant to me growing up as a teenager — to my own teenaged son.
I put my shock and grief aside to give James a small music history lesson, in a kind of daze. As I did so, I felt sorry for him and his auto-tune-loving generation, because they will never know a musician like Petty in their lifetime.
Petty, 66, was pretty damned special, although he’d be the first to look at you strangely if said this out loud.
The Gainesville, FL native suffered full cardiac arrest last night, found in his Malibu home — right around the time a lone gunmen went on a shooting rampage in Vegas.
As usual, the mainstream media went with ratings instead of responsible journalism, sending out early reports that he died, that his family pulled the plug on his life support. His daughter’s pissed at “Rolling Stone” for the premature ejaculation.
Her Instagram post is a thing of beauty:
“my dad is not dead yet but your fucking magazine is ⚡️⚡️⚡️your slim😵has been pieces of tabloid dog shit. You put the worst artists on your covers do zero research. How dare you report that my father has died just to get press because your articles and photos are so dated. I will fucking shit down your throat and your family’s . Try not being a trump vibe. This is my father not a celebrity. An artist and human being. Fuck u”
The guitar rebel who composed and performed music his way — fuck the establishment — provided a huge chunk of the soundtrack of my childhood growing up in Aiea in the late 1970s-’80s.
While everybody else vibed to the fleeting trends of the day — mindless electronica, disco, funk-lite, Journey (vomit) — I listened to Tom Petty, my life raft in a sea of manufactured, corrugated pretense.
Petty lived for music. He refused to settle. Not exactly Loverboy or Poison pretty, the rock guitarist nevertheless shook his own special brand of rebel next door, the kid who sat in the back of your class, looked out the window, and bolted the second the bell rang.
He voice was real, his songs, casual, honest musings with friends while cruising empty one-horse towns.
His songs spoke directly to the outcast and the rebel in me, dying to get out without fear of reprisal. They promised the imperfect, but eternal love of the damned, in a sinking boat together, watching the stars power out before the world went insane. He was literally that boy who winked and rolled his eyes from across the crowded cafeteria of cheerleaders, jocks, and band geeks, (the boy you wished so badly were real) — as if to share a private joke, as if to reassure you that it’ll be okay, these people are fucking morons and we’re gonna make our own rules.
I used to marvel at his effortless songwriting, blending infectious, mesmerizing hooks that rode on for miles, embedded with deceptively deep lyrics that bled and slipped seamlessly into roaming, racing musical pockets.
Just listen to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Running Down A Dream,” “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “You Wreck Me.”
I would hear “Running Down A Dream” — written with Jeff Lynne and Michael Campbell — in a loop whenever I rushed from one appointment to another, trapped in my car during rush hour, watching the world whiz by in the passenger seat, on to the next mundane adventure.
His guitar in the fade took me to another place, one where I wasn’t afraid to strip down and trip out, where the mundane became quietly spectacular.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” featured the best opening guitar riff in the history of rock. That lovemaking riff invited you inside this sick, sad, lonely world immediately until you wanted to be a dead and gone Mary Jane.
His guitar may have riffed, but his lyrics danced in a slow-burning bump and grind. “I feel summer creepin’ in and I’m tired of this town again” defined me.
I remember hearing “Don’t Do Me Like That” on the radio my sophomore year in high school, and going out of my mind, thinking this can’t be possible: rock, grit, and this driving, awesome rhythm for days. I went to Hungry Ear Records for a 45 vinyl copy. It was Petty’s first hit in a string of them.
The post-hippie crowd embraced Bruce Springsteen as their prophet. I had Tom Petty, who IMHO, was just as profound in his own reluctant way, because he, too, spoke of what really mattered in life, beyond the bullshit.
He sang of relationships, of fighting through crippling insecurities to find one minute of bliss — whether it was one last fling, or the feel of an open road, windows down, wind at your back.
G-d I loved his music. I will miss him most of all, if he does indeed move on soon.
*Tom Petty died Monday, 8:40 p.m. PT.