When I was nine or ten years old I used my allowance money to purchase a cheap portable tape deck and radio boombox and a small stash of cassette tapes. I was just starting to take an interest in music though my tastes were still developing. Among the now embarrassing choices (I went through a thankfully brief MC Hammer phase, ditto Guns ‘N Roses) was Tom Petty’s first non-Heartbreakers album Full Moon Fever. I played it so much the tape eventually began to warp and finally break inside its plastic shell.
A few years later I asked for and received a Sony Discman for Christmas along with the first TP and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits set with the brand new track “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” recorded just for its release.
A funny thing would happen during that Christmas break involving these presents. I went to spend the night at my cousins Matt and John’s place and brought the player and new CD with me. After a late night in which John would introduce me to the wonders of the then hard to come by stateside Japanese anime of Biobooster Armor Guyver and Battle Angel: Alita John asked if he could borrow the CD player and Tom Petty disc to listen to before bed. I handed em over and went off to call it a night, myself. I wound up staying up the rest of the night anyway. The following afternoon I got a lift from my aunt into town to spend a few hours at my grandma’s house. Climbing up stairs to get the sleep I fought off the night before I slipped on my headphones and pushed play intending to listen while I rested. As I closed my eyes and awaited the jangling intro to “American Girl.” When a swirling sample of talk show hosts discussing serial killers layered over distorted drum loops, impossibly heavy metal riffs and a snarling voice kicked in instead I sat bolt upright. John had switched cds and forgot to switch them back or tell me. I couldn’t stop listening to whatever this was I was hearing even though, especially in my sleep deprived state, it fucking terrified me. Hell, one repeated sample sounded like someone yelling my name. I played the whole disc before checking to see what the fuck I just heard. It was Ministry’s Psalm 69. Tom Petty inadvertently introduced me to industrial music.
It wasn’t long before I became a frequent visitor to what was then The Record Bar in Signal Hill Mall. I’d continue to shop here through its many transitions from Trax, Blockbuster Music and Armada. Many of my friends would spend time behind the counter and hook me up with store discounts or play me advance store copies of albums they thought I’d like. That’s where I’d hear The Strokes for the first time among many others. My first purchase with my allowance was the self titled debut of Tom Petty and the original lineup of the Heartbreakers. I must’ve played it a million times over the next year.
I would drop a lot of my early tastes upon my punk and indie conversion in middle school but Tom was one of the few to survive the transition. The guy may have played sixties indebted folk rock with country flourishes but his attitude and refusing to play the mainstream game or attach himself to the trends was completely punk rock.
Tom was quick to champion smaller bands and take them on the road. He brought The Replacements on one of their first arena tours (sadly also one of their last tours). Paul and Tommy would join them onstage night after night for a string of covers and originals alike. There was one infamous gig where the ‘Mats played their whole set in dresses borrowed from Tom and his band and crew’s wives and girlfriends.
Upon losing their drummer Tom would be the one to encourage Dave Grohl to come out of hiding following Kurt Cobain’s suicide to play music again. Dave would play drums with the band on SNL and a few live dates supporting the just released soundtrack to She’s the One. Dave would later admit Tom was extending the invitation to become a Heartbreaker full time but Dave ultimately decided to finish the debut Foo Fighters album and move from behind a drum kit to the microphone with a guitar strapped on. He said that turning the gig down was one of the hardest decisions he ever made.
As radio and mtv went through grunge, alternative, nu metal, boy band shit, pop starlets and other trends most of the old guard disappeared from the positions of household names and only get airplay on classic rock or oldies stations. Tom Petty was one of the few to remain a constant in music videos in the top ten and late night talk show performances. All of this was hard won by sticking to his guns and refusing to sell out or make anything but the records he wanted to make. This remaining true to his own vision gained him the respect of younger musicians who grew up on his music like Pearl Jam, Jack White, Superdrag, etc. They would cover his songs, tour with him and sit in when he rolled through their town on his never slowing tour schedule.
Ever the music fan and champion of what he liked Tom became the host of the excellent Sirius XM satellite radio show, Buried Treasure, sharing lesser known tracks from his personal record collection and sharing stories about each cut with a damn near encyclopedic knowledge and wit. The playlist ran the gamut from garage psych, country, jazz, punk and everything in between. Listening to an episode was like a late night listening session with your best friend, breaking out dusty lps and 45’s (“This is that single I told you about finding at the flea market. Check it out….”) Tom loved music and he knew that one of the best parts of music was turning other people onto your finds.
Tom Petty died last night at only 66 years of age. He lived enough amazing moments and bitter tragedies and hard won battles for countless lifetimes. Still, he had so much music left in him and new finds to share on his show. The guy was always on the road bringing true rock and roll to every city on the map. It was true rock and roll made with zero compromises, full of pure soul and passion the second you heard those first chords. It’s impossible to measure the impact he had on music just as it’s impossible to imagine the loss that will be felt all around the world and through music with his passing. Fuck Kid Rock, Tom Petty was the quintessential American bad ass. Half the records he made were instant classics and even his missteps were at least interesting. Dude got to play in Johnny Cash’s backing band on his late career resurgence album, Unchained. I would not be surprised if the choice of covers (Beck, Soundgarden, Tom’s Southern Accents title track) were suggested by Tom personally. Not many other people get to play in Cash’s band AND that of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison. There will never be another one quite like him.
You and I will meet again
When we’re least expecting it
One day in some far off place
I will recognize your face
I won’t say goodbye my friend
For you and I will meet again
I heard you singing to no one
I saw you dancing all alone
One day you belonged to me
Next day I just wouldn’t know
Someday all the rules will bend
And you and I will meet again
I’ve got a feeling
I’ve got a feeling so strong
Maybe someday our paths will cross
A red-winged hawk is circling
The blacktop stretches out for days
How could I get so close to you
And still feel so far away?
I hear a voice come on the wind
Sayin’ you and I will meet again
I don’t know how, I don’t know when
But you and I will meet again