By Chris Takahashi | Contributing Writer
When word broke that Tom Petty passed away two weeks ago, on the heels of the Las Vegas tragedy from the night prior, that Monday really morphed into a “rock” of a day.
I’m personally referencing the first lines from the opening track of Petty’s “She’s the One” album that goes, “Some days are diamonds. Some days are rocks.” It’s a dichotomous pairing of statements that is about as poignant as it gets in summarizing any one lifetime. That was the beautiful thing about Petty’s lyrics. He spoke the truth without wasting his breath.
I think I speak for many in saying that Petty’s passing is a real loss. Apparently, his most current tour, with his band the Heartbreakers, was quite possibly his last; Petty just wanted to spend more time with his granddaughter.
Though he may be gone, Petty, through his music, has left such an indelible impression on myself and others by way of a literal soundtrack to life. His music is timeless. There’s always a Petty song that, in my opinion, will shine a mirror on your innermost feelings yet refrain from being too sappy.
I grew up listening to classic rock by virtue of my parents, as did many of my friends, but Tom Petty wasn’t necessarily in the mix. My mom was a fan of the likes of Jackson Browne and Carole King, which I can definitely appreciate, but it’s not exactly the music that will leave me jamming along lyric by lyric.
And, it wouldn’t be an aberration of the truth to call my dad a “deadhead” since he’s probably seen the Grateful Dead in concert close to a dozen times. I remember asking about his thoughts on Tom Petty when I first started to really explore his music.
“It’s pop music,” he’d always point out indifferently.
Whereas the Jerry Garcia poster in my dad’s office has always been a permanent fixture, so too will the Tom Petty poster in my bedroom, at least for the foreseeable future.
The first time I was able to see Petty live in concert was nearly ten years ago. I remember that weekend as if it was yesterday. It was the inaugural Outside Lands Music and Art Festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, and being in the company of two of my best friends from high school, the weekend was an absolute riot from start to finish. One of the standout moments came during Petty’s headlining set that Saturday evening.
In one of those fleeting moments of solitude between songs and the roar of the crowd, my friend Ben hollered, “I love you Tom!” at the top of his voice. Since we were less than ten rows from the stage, it was more than audible to Petty, who replied with a drawn out, “yeahhhhh!”
I think that was the inflection point in making me a lifelong Petty fan. If not for the seriously laidback demeanor—that fusion of southern rocker and Golden State sensibility—then it’s for his anthology of hit singles and lesser-known tracks that keep me coming back for more.
And, if I’m pressed to answer that cliché question, I would choose Petty to be the musician for the backdrop soundtrack to my life. His music has already tagged along for some moments along the journey.
Petty was there that time that I got a speeding ticket not more than a month into my license when I was 16. The song was “Rebels” and the lines, “Yeah with one foot in the grave, and one foot on the pedal, I was born a rebel,” precipitated my acceleration down that straightaway.
The somewhat important background context involved me leaving a god-awful high school water polo practice and Petty’s “Rebels” was the perfect catalyst to let out some frustration toward my coach, if only for a few seconds. Since my parents wanted to take my head off, they certainly weren’t going to buy any lame excuse of “Tom Petty made me do it,” so that was muted from the dinner table discussion later that day.
My senior quote in my high school yearbook was lyrics from Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” and around that time my Facebook “religious views” changed to “Tom Petty.” It’s not as if I actually regarded the man to be some sort of deity—it was really done in jest —but it’s not an entirely inaccurate reflection of my sentiment toward the subject. You’ll find me in the ocean on Sunday mornings, and Petty might just happen to be on that pre-surfing playlist.
I spoke to my Mom a couple days after Petty’s passing and she expressed regret for not having seen him in concert, especially since he had just played at the Hollywood Bowl the week before. She was a bit saddened as well, and was re-listening to some of his music.
I made her laugh when I told her about how a couple of his songs always make me think of a crush from high school days. Maybe if Petty’s music is not overtly affectionate like say, the Beatles, his songs will still have that effect on the careful listener.
There’s something of a blueprint that can be found in his music, and you can see that Petty remains truthful all the while evolving his sound over time. He never shied away from balking at authority (his album “The Last DJ” goes after the recording industry), which is inspiring, but he also knew how to cut loose. His old band “Mudcrutch” used to throw Woodstock-style festivals back in Florida complete with psychedelics and hippies.
Perhaps though, in this fast-paced, stressed-out world of the current, we can turn to Petty for reassurance through his lyrics and music. The following quote of his helps too, “Most things I worry about never happen.”