Tom Petty: An American musical treasure. Writing, playing, singing, performing, collaborating, he did it all. Truly a legend. If you’re a Tom Petty fan, you know how extensive his catalog is. Even a causal fan easily knows at least 10 of his songs (Try the exercise, it’s true.) He sounded like no one else, and no one sounded like him.
As WROR‘s Program Director, I’m required to act quickly during crushing moments, like when an e-mail with the subject line “Tom Petty,” punches me in the stomach with no warning. Then, it’s all action: Get audio together. Pick songs to play. How many/how often? Run in and out of studios. Answer calls and e-mails about the action plan. Direct the flow. All exciting, all exhilarating, all why I love my job. But it’s 100% action, no reaction. No time to think…to feel.
I’ll admit it. I get blindsided by these deaths. And I work IN the music industry. I should know better, right? My musical heroes are of a certain age, and… how should I put this? Let’s say they haven’t always treated their bodies as temples. So, why it still so shocking when they die? Well, it sucks, that’s why.
So here’s my reaction, my feelings. I am going to miss Tom Petty. Sure, I’ll have his songs. I’ve always had them. But he always re-appeared with something new, something interesting…something Tom Petty. A new song or album, a documentary, an autobiography, partnerships with high-level musicians (and boy, they were high level). Always simple, but always powerful and full of emotion. And never pretentious.
And concerts? Through the years (since my first Petty show 1985), I’ve never seen a bad show. And now I’ll never see another. (How awesome would that “Wildflowers” tour have been?) I’ll never be able to say “That new Tom Petty album is REALLY good! He just keeps doing IT.” I’ll miss his band: how incredibly tight they were, how they played as one, and how Tom let them each shine in the spotlight at just the right time. Smiles all around.
Obviously, Tom Petty didn’t know me, but I always considered his music a comforting presence, like that hippie uncle or friendly neighbor. When I immersed myself into his music, I pictured him opening his front door and saying “Hey, man, great to see you, come on in and hang out.” And now that house is dark. I keep ringing the bell, but no one answers. So I get in my car, crank up “Straight Into Darkness” or “Rebels” and drive away with tears in my eyes.
Here are some quotes from some Petty fans I know. You might (or might not) know them, but I’m sure you have friends who say the same.
Ted G: “The Heartbreakers/Dylan shows were the best concerts I’ve ever seen.”
Bridget W (Full disclosure the ‘W’ stands for West-my wife): “When we see Tom Petty, I feel like we’re catching up with an old friend telling stories.”
Anyone seeing Petty for the first time: “Oh my god, I didn’t realize how many amazing songs he had!”
Dan V: “What they lack in musical talent, they make up for in good looks.” (This is a thinker. Go back and re-read if you didn’t get it.)
Brian B: “Most underrated American singer/songwriter! People think of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, but forget Tom Petty.”
No music fan ever: “I HATE Tom Petty.”
And the last word goes to Tom Petty himself, my favorite quote/story: When The Heartbreakers played the 1979 ‘No Nukes’ concert at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen was the headliner. Bruce was at the beginning of his superpower status, (and obviously, HUGE in NYC) and Tom Petty was not yet the superstar he would become. Backstage, Jackson Browne told Petty: “Hey when you’re up there, it’s gonna sound like the audience is booing. Don’t let it throw you. They’re actually not booing, they’re yelling ‘Broooooce’.” Tom Petty’s answer: “What’s the difference??”
Ken West is the Program Director of 105.7 WROR and ALT 92.9. He didn’t get a chance to mention “Even the Losers” is one of his favorite Tom Petty songs. Until now.