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.

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.