Tom Petty is dead.
I had expected to hear those four words ten or 20 years from now. I’d be driving home from work in my electric car, listening to classic rock radio (which, by that time, might sound more like the Chainsmokers than the Rolling Stones), when it would be announced that Petty, then 70 or 80-something, had passed away. I’d arrive home, then listen to some of his greatest hits. My children, returning from space school would ask what strange, bizarre music I was listening to and I’d tell them, “this is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mr. Petty died today.” And then regale them with tales of his classic rock mastery.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, I sat studying in my usual spot on the Leavey Library patio, only this day was distracted by the electric hubbub and churn of other students close by, rattled by false reports of a shooter on campus. The night before over 50 concertgoers had been brutally murdered by gunfire in Las Vegas, a city just an afternoon’s drive away.
I scrolled through Facebook, looking for updates on the Vegas shooting, and saw a post from a guy in my fantasy football league named Brian: “And now Tom Petty passed away. Thanks, October 2nd. You suck. #RIP.”
I reeled backward.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”’ Their hits. Their style is heartland rock, speaking to the American experience. Heavy riffs and soothing, harmonic vocals. Head-bobbing music.
I first saw Petty and band live in 2010. It was at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. I was with my mom, dad and brother. We each had our own musical interests, my mom disco, my brother punk rock, myself electronica, and my dad…ABBA, strangely enough. I had just turned 21. This was also the site for my first concert beer. Petty and crew sounded fantastic. Red Rocks doesn’t have chairs and we forgot to bring cushions for us to sit on, so we were uncomfortable, but still having a blast. There were no noisy strangers or overly-drunk patrons. Everyone was cool and collected. We left before the encore, so as to not get caught in traffic.
We saw them again in 2012 at 1stBank Center Arena in Broomfield, CO. I can’t remember if it was the same band or crew, but the show wasn’t as good; the acoustics weren’t as refined as with the Red Rocks show. Petty broke his guitar string while beginning the opening riff to “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” “Oh man, I broke my guitar string!” he shouted—or at least I remember him shouting—before a roadie either fixed his guitar or handed him a new one. People thought it was funny, I thought it was annoying. Maybe it was the beer. I walked around the venue to change my mood. There were some shirts for sale, which I usually buy from any concert I go to, but didn’t feel inclined to this time. What’s the point? I’ll see him again and can buy a shirt then, hopefully at a better venue. We left early, again.
I’ve had dozens of opportunities to see Petty since, but the two most recent were the Arroyo Seco Music Festival in Pasadena this past June, and his three-night block of shows at the Hollywood Bowl in late September. Arroyo Seco was too expensive, I couldn’t justify spending a hundred dollars to see Tom Petty, sans Heartbreakers. I thought about riding my bike down to the Rose Bowl to see if I could overhear any of his set, but decided to watch a movie instead.
I didn’t go to Hollywood Bowl in September to see Petty either. There was no sense of urgency.
His performance on Monday, September 25 at the Hollywood Bowl would be his last show ever.
We never believe a celebrity can die. We have some sort of understanding that because this person has achieved so much fame, success and wealth as an artist, they are immortal.
This changed for me when David Bowie and Prince died. Ruled by the fear of a beloved rockstar’s impending death, I saw Eric Clapton twice in September.
But when it came to my dealings with Tom Petty—my adoration for him — this sense of urgency did not exist. A Tom Petty concert was always just a couple of months out.
Petty was lumped into the classic rock fraternity but often perceived to be younger and more energetic than his peers. Few of my friends list Petty or his band as their absolute favorite band, but he was always among their favorites. His music was simultaneously energetic but a sound that one could drift in and out of, acting as an alarm that causes one to speed down a highway in “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” or a soothing, melodic and harmonious embrace that one could drift and nap to in “Free Fallin’” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” His only true fault or qualm was being overplayed.
Tom Petty’s specialty wasn’t his vocals, his guitar playing, his dreamy lyrics or his energetic performances. It was his unabashed, unmatched all around appeal. He dispelled judgment.
And that is the pain of having lost him. When he went, so went “taking for granted,” a phrase so cliché it means something. We all need to rely on the reliable. Petty lifted us to a common plateau where many, many of us feel comfortable and our language is shared. Shared perceptions, shared dreads, shared hopes. Petty connected people to their humanity, and that is an extraordinary and exceptional and complex gift. No one should take it for granted.