Reflecting on Tom Petty

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I have happy memories of listening to classic rock growing up. For some reason I have particularly strong memories of certain songs. I don’t know why these tunes–including “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, and “London Calling” by The Clash–stand out above the rest, if something meaningful was happening when I heard them or if there was something odd or memorable about the songs that endeared them to me. But those are some titles that stood out to me, and that led me to further explore the bands that played them.

One of these tracks was “Free Fallin’,” the classic anthem by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The way Petty belted out that chorus–a simple declaration of freedom–was convicting and made me, too, feel weightless and carefree. That was my introduction to Tom Petty.

I certainly still do love the other artists I mentioned above–The Who, Pink Floyd, The Clash. But the rabbit hole of Tom Petty’s music that I went down wound up being deeper than that of just about every other classic artist I discovered (except U2, who will always be my favorite band). Tom Petty’s brand of swaggering, energetic rock, with its air-guitar-worthy riffs and simple choruses, solidified him as one of my favorite artists in my classic rock phase. Even when I started branching out of my classic rock bubble, he was always a reliable standby, both his beloved older work (do I really need to offer you titles as examples?) and his newer music (his recent work with his original band Mudcrutch and his album Hypnotic Eye stand out). Age can slow artists down and phase them out. Not Tom Petty, though. His energy, songwriting chops, and rock star cool factor stayed with him.

The world has lost a lot of legendary musicians in the last two years, but none of them were particularly sad losses for me. I saw people mourning musicians like David Bowie and Prince, and while I recognized the impact that their music had made, their losses didn’t mean much for me.

The loss of Tom Petty was personal, though. I stared at my computer screen in horrified shock when the initial reports of his hospitalization trickled in. I was hopeful that he would pull through when reports of his death started being retracted. But I checked my phone at around 11:30 on Monday night, after snoozing for about an hour, and my fears were confirmed. A musician that I was attached to, whose work I loved, was gone. I felt a sense of loss that continued into the next morning as I listened to his greatest hits at my desk at work. With all the artists that have died lately, and given the fact that a few of my favorite artists are now aging rockers, I knew it was only a matter of time before a favorite musician of mine would pass. But I never thought that the first of my favorites to go would be Petty. More than 24 hours later, it still feels unreal.

His death has prompted me to consider what, exactly, it was about him and his music that I loved so much. And I keep coming back to the simplicity of his music. His music doesn’t stand out as sonically or lyrically groundbreaking. It’s just simple American rock that tells ordinary and universal tales of love, resilience, frustration, hope, and heartbreak. They’re themes that damn near everyone can relate to. I remember blasting “I Won’t Back Down” when I was up against trying times, “Learning to Fly” when I needed a dose of encouragement, and “You Don’t Know How it Feels” when I felt misunderstood. Petty had a knack for capturing the human experience in language that was straightforward yet still powerful and meaningful. I’ve read a lot of tributes in the last few days that have echoed the same sentiments. He was a perfect testament to the universality and importance of music, to its power to console, uplift, inspire, and unite.

Farewell, Tom. Thanks for the music, the inspiration, and the memories. Your influence will always be celebrated and you will certainly be missed.


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