By Adam Waldman
Tom Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainsville, FL. In what has become an all-too-common story in rock and roll, another legend is gone before his time. Just 18 days shy of his 67th birthday, Petty died of cardiac arrest in Santa Monica, CA. These are the facts of the story, but what makes Petty so special is the dash between 10/20/50 – 10/2/17.
Even though it has been proven time and again over the past few years not to be so, we tend to look at our rock and roll heroes as immortal. Often times, we don’t even hear about any illnesses until we are sandbagged by the loss of someone that has always seemed to be a part of our lives.
I can remember the song that turned me onto Petty as if it was yesterday.
Just before sixth grade graduation (before moving on to junior high school), we were all given blue autograph books that were filled with various colored blank pages for our friends to sign. Most of my friends wrote goofy messages or poems that had almost no meaning.
What was meaningful in the autograph books was a list of our favorite things, which allowed us to capture a moment in time. I had two favorite songs that year. One of them was “Refugee” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
Much of the music from back then is nostalgic for me, but only a fraction of the songs stood the test of time and still resonate to this day. “Refugee” is one of them.
Interestingly, the album that the song was featured on (Damn The Torpedoes) was released on the eve of Petty’s 33rd birthday. No one could have predicted at that time that it would have been almost the exact halfway point of this rock icon’s life.
Just recently, I was listening to Jimmy Iovine talking about the exhaustive process that went into producing “Refugee” when he was a guest on the Howard Stern Show. Learning about the recording process of one of my favorite songs of all-time was fascinating. However, the musical aspect almost didn’t matter to me. There was something about that voice, that distinct sound that was unlike anything that I ever heard before. It was nothing like that I have ever heard since.
The rock and roll world is filled with copycats and wannabes, but Petty was an original. There was something so pure about his voice, like it was an extension of his soul. It simply couldn’t be imitated without sounding like an insincere parody. Petty felt like he personified “Americana,” and not just with his music. He embodied a spirit that just felt like a slice of an America that many of us long to return to.
In a complicated, fast-paced society rife with divisiveness, Petty’s music feels like a unifying force that we can all agree upon. There is something about the way that he painted a mental picture with his poetic verses that made the mundane feel special. Hollywood does this with smoke and mirrors. Petty achieved the same results with nothing more than earnest words and a vocal delivery to match.
I can’t even begin to count the amount of times in my life that the lyrics “the waiting is the hardest part” have consumed my mind during times of impatience. It’s such a simple concept, and yet, so powerful and relatable. I never had the good fortune to meet him or talk to him, but still, I found him to have an approachable persona. Because Petty seemed so relatable and humble, he never really felt like the typical rock star to me, more like a friend that I’ve never met.
Having been with my wife for many years, we’ve shared a lot of music together. Her passion for music is not as strong as mine, but every once in a while, I get a glimpse of the true joy that she gets from a song. It always gives me great pleasure when “American Girl” comes on the car radio and she cranks it up, dances in her seat, and sings along with unbridled passion. It’s as if the song sets her free and takes her to another place…her happy place (if you will).
Petty’s ability to make you feel joy (like with “American Girl”) was equaled by his ability to make you feel torment (in a good way). There is an underlying beauty to the melancholy of “A Woman In Love” that has always moved me in ways that I cannot explain. It’s not the lyrics in this case. It’s the mood of the music and genuine emotion in Petty’s vocal delivery that makes me feel something strong.
I’ve always found that the songs that I never tire of are the ones that stir up powerful emotions of any kind. All of “A Woman In Love” does just that, particularly Petty’s delivery of the lyric…“I don’t understand the world today. I don’t understand what she needed. I gave her everything…she threw it all away, on nothin’.”
If there is a female counterpart to Petty’s ability to stir up emotion with words and vocal delivery, it is unquestionably (in my mind) Stevie Nicks. On that same Howard Stern interview of Iovine, he discussed how the duo came to record “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” together. Iovine saw the brilliance of Nicks as a solo artist, but thought that she needed a single to make people interested in her first album. Since he was already working with Petty, he suggested a song that wasn’t going to make it onto the Hard Promises album. The song helped to launch Nicks as a solo artist.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a great male/female duet. There’s something about the contrast of the vocals that makes both shine brighter (the sum of the parts being greater than the whole). In this case, each singer is immensely talented, with an uncanny ability to bring the emotions of a song to life with an impassioned vocal delivery. As far as duets go, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” is among the best that I’ve ever heard.
The beginning of October is always a tough time for me, as my mom’s birthday and anniversary of her passing arrive just days apart from each other. When I heard about Petty’s passing, I went numb. I spent the day listening to Tom Petty Radio on SiriusXM. It was there that I found out that he was actually on life support, something that I lived through with both of my parents. It took many hours before the rumor would become official. As much as I wanted to believe in miracles, I understood from personal experience what was about to happen. It left the grieving process for me in limbo…“the waiting is the hardest part.”
As I listened to the radio station for hours on end, one song stood out above all others. Like a Hollywood movie with a tragic end, “Wildflowers” seemed like the song that plays as the credits roll. It would be heartbreaking enough if Petty was singing this heartfelt song to someone else, but in this case, it seemed like he was singing it to himself as he waited to pass with his loved ones by his side. To get the full effect, I would suggest listening to the song below as you celebrate the life of one of rock and roll’s greatest icons.
Tom Petty’s life ended long before any of us could have possibly imagined, but his music will live on for many years to come. Today, on what would have been his 67th birthday, I have chosen to celebrate his life by listening to his SiriusXM channel and appreciating the gift that he gave to us all.