- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2017


Tom Petty turned Jim Ladd, L.A.’s “Free Form Radio” kingpin, into a folk hero with “The Last DJ,” his 2002 album with The Heartbreakers whose central themes of the corporatization of radio, the loss of artistic freedom and money winning out over creativity dovetailed with love songs and tentative optimism.

One of the great regrets of my life was not going to see Mr. Petty on that tour. I’ve listened to the album hundreds of times and seen the band not less than six times on both coasts. Never on any of those occasions did he play a track from “The Last DJ,” for he had enough hits and grooves to make even a token song from that album unmissable — for anyone except myself.

Now that he is gone, the album and all his music are more precious than ever. I was privileged to see his show in Philadelphia earlier this year as both reviewer for this publication and as a fan. He did not disappoint, as he never did, and the warmth of his performance and his love for his fans, his band and the rock ‘n’ roll spirit was ever present.

I’ve met hundreds of celebrities, many of my heroes, but never had the chance to meet or talk to Tom Petty. Now I never will.

Mr. Petty’s music, birthed from his formative years in Gainesville, Florida, and refined and perfected among the clubs and streets of Los Angeles, was an American celebration of rock, love and communal spirit — be it through music, drug use or, best of all, with music. Mr. Petty was as known for his spectacular compositions as for letting his audiences fill in lyrics for him, most notably on “Learning to Fly,” during the final chorus of which at his live shows he would vamp on an improvised vocal line as audiences sang: “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings; coming down is the hardest thing.” 

This comedown will be awful.

Mr. Petty’s string of hits included the perennial “American Girl,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Breakdown” and “The Waiting.” Many of his best-known songs were about his adopted hometown, including the San Fernando Valley travelogue “Free Fallin’” with its long days in Reseda and moving west down Ventura Blvd., as well “Crawlin Back to You” from his solo album “Wildflowers,” in which the weary narrator waits by the side of the road “for day to break so we could go/Down into Los Angeles/With dirty hands and worn-out knees.”

The universe is unfair as to the timing of death. Not long after he was rushed to the hospital, a madman pointed his automatic firearms out the window of Mandalay Bay and killed dozens of music fans. Puerto Ricans continue to suffer in the fallout from Hurricane Maria while the president engages in a war of words with San Juan’s mayor over the “effectiveness” of the help. The rapper Pitbull has offered his private plane to help out Puerto Ricans, and I think Tom would have approved of this.

As he would of Jason Aldean’s attempt to even begin to help the Vegas wounds heal when the country star took to Instagram after his interrupted performance: “I still dont know what to say but wanted to let everyone know that Me and my Crew are safe,” he wrote. “It hurts my heart that this would happen to anyone who was just coming out to enjoy what should have been a fun night. #heartbroken #stopthehate.”

Terror has come to our musical celebrations, be they this nutcase in Vegas or the vile suicide bombers who took dozens of lives at Ariana Grande’s performance May 22 in Manchester, England. Miss Grande returned to Manchester June 4, decreeing, “Let’s not be afraid.”

Tragedy and music is hardly a new phenomenon. One need only look back at The Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont show of December 6, 1969, at which a white Hells Angel member stabbed a black concertgoer who brandished a gun mere inches from Mick Jagger and the stage, effectively “ending” ‘60s hopefulness.

Mr. Petty came along at the right moment for the late ‘70s, when a public, exhausted by the likes of Boston, disco and Watergate but not yet ready for the angst of Metallica, needed something more positive. His self-titled 1976 debut album was followed by “You’re Gonna Get It,” but it was 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes” that put him on the map, with “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Even the Losers,” a paean to all of those who believed the world was stacked against them, that it never would get better, that you were laughed at by all.

And that you’d never ever, ever, ever get laid. (This spoke to many young men like myself.)

More than anything, Tom Petty wasn’t content to enjoy his success and ride the groove without trying new things. His solo albums were as excellent as his Heartbreakers work, including “Full Moon Fever” — whose track “Yer So Bad” played often in my 12th grade lunch room at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey — and 1994’s “Wildflowers” the standard for other frontmen to strike out on their own.

Think of all the gold on “Wildflowers,” be it the opening title track, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” or the urge to do something else on “It’s Time to Move On,” a staple of my numerous road trips. As a whole, the album showed how when Mr. Petty stretched his musical muscles in another direction, the results were phenomenal. This he furthered with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, comprising himself, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan, the latter tweeting out today: “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. I’ll never forget him.”

Like Mr. Dylan, Mr. Petty wasn’t precisely known as an accomplished vocalist. To say he was a “decent” singer is putting it kindly — his nasal inflections always on pitch but not the stuff that made Elvis, The Beatles or other more “refined” rockers so adored. Yet also like Mr. Dylan, Mr. Petty’s voice betrayed a sincerity that was as genuine as his smile and his “God bless and good night,” the phrase he used to end every live show.

Of his thoughts on the divine, Mr. Petty said little publicly, but when he did, he pointedly took on religious hypocrisy, telling Billboard in 2014, “I’m fine with whatever religion you want to have, but it can’t tell anybody it’s OK to kill people, and it can’t abuse children systematically for God knows how many years. … It seems to me that no one’s got Christ more wrong than the Christians.”

According to the website Hollowverse.com, Mr. Petty’s future vocation was sealed after seeing an Elvis concert at age 11.

“From that point on, music became my religion, my nourishment,” the website reported he once said.

I saw him not less than six times on both the East and West coasts, the first in August 2005 in Irvine, California, a concert for which I raced back from Seattle after attending a wedding with my girlfriend at the time. She was unhappy about taking me to Sea-Tac at 5 a.m. — and was vocal about as much years after the fact — but seeing Tom for the first time made the exhaustion and the frays in my relationship worth it.

“Wildflowers” became an unwitting soundtrack to that same relationship’s demise during a road trip from L.A. to Oregon in August 2008. We took turns driving, often in silence, and on I-5 between Ashland, Oregon, and Yreka, California, I rolled through “Wildflowers” on my Zune, giving voice to the angst that was still too new in the wake of my supposed partner calling me “stupid” in front of friends the night before.

Precisely two years later, along the exact stretch of highway, I played “Wildflowers” front to back again after having been summarily rejected weeks earlier by a woman I’d longed for. (We are still friends.)

I saw him at least twice more at the Hollywood Bowl, then in Pittsburgh in July 2013. I tried desperately to talk to him for The Washington Times when “Wildflowers” was reissued in 2015, but his representatives said only that he was “not doing press,” as was his right.

Jackson Browne, another of my heroes, opened for Mr. Petty for that first Irvine show. He, Mr. Petty and Bruce Springsteen comprised the “Big Three” of my wish list to one day meet, but their respective reps have all turned me down for interviews.

People die, madmen and religious nutcases murder in either the name of zealotry or for reasons that cannot ever rationally be explained, and even our rock idols fall — as all of us must — to entropy and mortality.

But Mr. Petty had the best piece of advice for those of us, myself included, who are prone to anxiety and depression — that beyond drugs or sex or booze or weed or whatever self-anesthetizing balm we might use to avoid the knowledge of the abyss and its inevitability, many, or most, of our fears are illogical and, if we peer at them closely enough, crumble beneath the light. This he explicated in one prosaic line in “Crawling Back to You”:

“Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

Stand your ground. Don’t back down. Keep this world from draggin’ you down.

Though he is gone now, his music will live on. Doubtless his Heartbreakers will continue with ventures of their own. Personally, I don’t think Tom would want us to wallow for too long. The proof was right there in “Even the Losers”:

“It’s such a drag when you live in the past.”

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