I was 8 years old when I learned who Tom Petty was. It was 1989 and “Free Fallin’” was getting played on WABB in Mobile, Alabama seemingly every hour. I liked it a lot, so much so in fact that my mom bought me the 45 single to play on a tiny maroon turn table I had in my room. I can still see that sticker in the center of the record with a rainbow peaking out from behind a white cloud and the words “Free Fallin’” scrolled across the center.
Since 1989, Tom Petty has been one of the musical constants in my life. I cannot believe he is gone. I have written about a lot of dead musicians for RaleighCo. This one is the most surreal. I like David Bowie’s music a lot more. I think Chris Cornell has a better voice. For some reason though, Tom Petty’s death has hit me the hardest.
It’s not about how much I like Tom Petty. It’s that my sister loves Tom Petty. My mom loves Tom Petty. He was just always there in my life. This will not be the best eulogy written for Tom Petty, but it is the very best that I can do.
After 1989, the next time Tom Petty entered my conscious was the release of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in 1993. I remember not really liking the song when it first came out, so let’s fast forward to 1994 and the release of Petty’s album Wildflowers. Remember the controversy surrounding the song “You Don’t Know How it Feels” and the line from the chorus “Well let me get to the point. Let’s roll another joint”?
I don’t know if my mom was aware of the controversy at the time until my cousin Evie brought it up while we were riding in the car on a family trip to Birmingham. My mom and my Aunt Jo, who recently passed away herself, put up a fight for about five minutes and then just kind of accepted this was a dumb controversy.
The interesting thing about Wildflowers is how it was able to get so much play on rock radio during the height of the grunge era. Tom Petty had a way of connecting with the same kids that found their voice in Kurt Cobain. How did that happen? Because he was actively apathetic long before Nirvana made it cool.
Fast forward now to 1999. I am working at WZEW, an album rock station in Mobile. I am 17 years old and pressing buttons and talking in 15 second bursts between songs from midnight to 7 AM every Saturday. We get a new CD at the station. Echo by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The first track released to radio was called “Free Girl Now” and I was head over heels for it.
See, I had an only-semi-requited crush on this girl named Amanda Satterfield at the time. I can look back now and realize that she was using me to make her ex jealous, but at the time, I thought we were supposed to be together and “Free Girl Now” was the perfect anthem for those feelings. You don’t have to worry about how an ex feels about what you’re doing, baby. Come hang out and not have sex with me!
Echo is a heartbreaking album too – pun very much intended. Petty wrote it as he was going through a divorce and it just drips with pain. Go listen to the title track and try to not at least well up or have your voice quiver as you sing along. It is so intensely personal to the point that you almost wonder if you’re supposed to be hearing this.
So now we jump to 2002. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released “The Last DJ,” a song that has had some real staying power despite a lack of support from mainstream radio. And why should mainstream radio have supported it? The whole song was about how much radio sucks.
At the time I was in college, running WVUA, “The Voice of the University of Alabama”! I know. It makes me want to vomit too. The song spoke to me. I was very much on board with the message that commercial rock sucks and corporate radio sucks. An odd message from Petty, who got a lot of love over the years from commercial radio.
I bought the album The Last DJ the day it came out that October. It featured a song that will forever be one of my favorite Petty tracks. It’s called “Dreamville.”It is all about growing up on rock n’ roll as a kid in the 50s and 60s and realizing that those days and those feelings are only memories now. It’s beautifully somber.
There’s a line in the song where an older Petty wistfully remembers car rides as a kid. He sings:
Riding with my mama
to Glen Springs pool
The water was cold
My lips turned blue
There was rock n’ roll
Across the dial
When I think of her
It makes me smile
I cannot hear that stanza without thinking about my mom, who was responsible for exposing me to so much music. I have heard it easily 200 time and it still genuinely makes my eyes water.
Hell, my son, who has always wanted to play the drums, got his first chance last week at the School of Rock in Cary. You know what song he got to play along with? “Free Fallin'”!
So let’s step away from the timeline here. Tom Petty’s death feels like the death of a part of me, or at the very least a part of my family. I can’t really conjure the words to make myself feel better, let alone anyone reading this. So instead I made a playlist of some of my favorite Tom Petty songs, including Johnny Cash’s cover of “Southern Accents.”
See, as cool as Tom Petty was, I think his legacy will always be what he did for Southern rock musicians. Before he came along, Southern rock had to sound a very certain way. Petty was able to still draw from country and early rock n’ roll music, but no one will ever mistake one of his songs for a song by fellow Florida natives Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I don’t want to stop typing, because if I stop typing this piece is over. And if this piece is over, there is nothing more for me to say about Tom Petty. And if there’s nothing more for me to say about Tom Petty then he is really gone and I don’t know how to reconcile that in my brain.