Remember Tom Petty

C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on the same day as the JFK assassination. It’s an odd bit of historical trivia that often gets cited to show how even important markers can get lost amid earth shattering news. It might be as stretch to compare Tom Petty to those intellectual titans, but it would also be a mistake to underestimate what a beloved figure he was. That Petty died in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history seems somehow too coincidental not to notice.

It’s an especially cruel irony, because one of the reasons why Tom Petty was so beloved was that, beyond his musical output, Petty was the rare rock star who wanted all of the attention focused on his prodigious and worthy catalog of hits. Petty’s death at age 66 might be the one time where the attention deserved to be focused on the man himself, and that’s understandably very hard to do right now.

Over the course of a 40-plus-year career, the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers experienced some of the inevitable rock ‘n’ roll drama. One of the band’s bass players, Howie Epstein, died of a heroin overdose in 2003. There were the requisite divorces. But somehow it was never the stuff of sordid rock ‘n’ roll gossip. Unless you were some kind of superfan, you likely knew none of these things. All you knew is that when a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song came on the radio, the dial stayed where it was.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous first record came out the year I was born. I have never known a time without Tom Petty reliably on the radio, and even as a burgeoning rock music obsessive, I sort of took them for granted. About a decade ago, I realized that I reflexively knew every word, guitar lick, drum fill, and keyboard accent for more than 50 Tom Petty songs. And yet, I had only owned exactly one Tom Petty record. (That was his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever with “Free Fallin’,” “Running Down a Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” And even that CD I possessed solely because one my sister’s friends left it at my parents’ house.) Oddly, this realization coincided with another, more startling realization: I liked Tom Petty. A lot.

My musical awakening came in the late ‘80s/early ’90s, and those younger than that might not have a sense of how oppressively omnipresent classic rock radio had become. In an FM dominated, pre-Internet world, pop music fans basically had a choice between radio stations that played Whitney Houston all the time or radio stations that played Led Zeppelin all the time. When Nirvana cleaned the Augean Stables of rock ‘n’ roll my freshman year in high school, it was quite a relief.