Tom Petty Wrote the Soundtrack to My Life

Just listen, he’s still around.

Petty at Bonnaroo in 2006. (Getty Images)

"Oh yeah. I'm alright. I just feel a little lonely tonight."

Tom Petty's sudden passing yesterday at the young age of 66 has many of us soul-searching. Petty meant a great deal to many people. He had always been there for me. I grew up on his music, and I still listen to him today. His immense catalog spans decades, although I definitely have my favorites. 

I don't weep for the famous. They're strangers. Still, Petty's death hit me hard. He wasn't old and knocking on heaven's door. It's a tragedy. Cardiac arrest. God damn it. God damn whoever thought Petty's time was up. The Reaper got it wrong. 

The guilt comes in waves. Did I take him for granted?

No, he was a stranger.

Yes, he was my friend.

I used to belt his tunes out as a kid. Michael Jackson was the greatest thing alive and my brother and I would dance glorious to "Man in the Mirror" and "Smooth Criminal." There's video evidence. Forget I said that. Know who else we used to dance to? Thomas. Earl. Fucking. Petty. 

Who was this guy? Bob Dylan's down home little brother? Buck-toothed with effortless talent, Petty was a fixture on MTV in the '80s and '90s and I must've spent hours watching his videos, singing along with my mouth barely moving trying to mimic him. He was so weird. My introduction to Petty came in the form of this trip down the rabbit hole:

"Don't Come Around Here No More" was not my favorite song. I kind of hated it, actually. (Forgive my youth, Lord, my doubtless ignorance!) The video played ad nauseum on MTV so I blame them. The thing was, I never changed the channel. I didn't love the song, but the video was magic. The Alice in Wonderland stuff enraptured me and, over time, I grew to love the music too. It's an otherworldly freak of a song.

The other Petty song that got major play in my living room dance party zone wasn't even a Petty song. It was, Petty wrote it originally for his band, the Heartbreakers, but it appeared on Stevie Nicks' first solo album as a duet with Petty. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" was another karaoke favorite. I wasn't afraid to perform as both Tom AND Stevie. 

As shameless youth gave way to pubescent self-consciousness, my Petty performances went the way of my He-Man action figures. They disappeared somewhere into the dark void of my attic, never to be seen or heard from again. But, my love of Petty's music endured. In fact, it reached new heights.

MTV and radio were my gateways to new music and they made me a bigger Petty fan. I was 12 in 1991 when Into the Great Wide Open was released. I bought it on tape first and wore the track list off the cassette jamming it into assorted boom boxes and car stereos. Although, I didn't know about it until I saw this, thanks to MTV:

The title track was the first Petty song I truly worshiped. I loved the storytelling and I loved the video, which played the song out like a movie starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway. Famous people had been in videos before, but these cameos felt bigger. Depp's presence alone gave Petty credibility in my feeble young mind. He didn't need it, but I gave it to him anyway.

"Learning to Fly" was the other song I wore out off the same album. It's a raucous anthem similar to the Queen songs I loved as a kid: "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You." You could sing it out and smile. You could sing all Petty's songs out. 

One Petty favorite I loved from the radio which I did not own at that point in my life was "American Girl." It's arguably Petty's signature song and I figured out it was a young Petty song after Into the Great Wide Open made me a fan. "American Girl" was featured in the film that had the most profound impact on me as a teen: The Silence of the Lambs. It remains my favorite movie today and it rose to that (ahem) lofty perch by utterly terrifying me. I had never seen anything so viscerally scary. 

The Silence of the Lambs didn't make me love "American Girl." I already did. But it's proof of how popular Petty's music has always been. Pop songs weren't used very much in dramatic films at that time. Director Jonathan Demme chose it as the victim's song in Silence. It conveys her innocence in the time it takes for the chorus to end. "American Girl" is an all-time song that'll be played in films and commercials, at weddings and car dealership openings until the oceans swallow us all.

Speaking more to Petty's gigantic presence in the '90s, I need to mention "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Released on Petty's 1992 Greatest Hits album, the song was on MTV all day and night. Kim Basinger appears in the video as a dead girl whom Petty steals from the morgue and makes his corpse bride. Typical rad weirdness. I loved this song until MTV ruined it for me by playing it out.

Wildflowers was the first Petty album I bought when it was initially released. I looked forward to it. I was 15-years-old in 1994 and my friends and I loved Petty talking about rolling another joint on "You Don't Know How It Feels." My favorite song on the album though was always the catchy, "Crawling Back To You." I put it on every mixtape for every girlfriend I had. It was also the album Petty toured on when I first saw him in concert.

In 1996, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released another album I looked forward to. She's the One was highly anticipated because of the single, "Walls," but the album became a favorite of mine because of two others: Petty's cover of Beck's "Asshole" and the romantic "Angel Dream (No. 2)" which contains some of my favorite Petty lyrics:

"Sing a little song of loneliness/Sing one to make me smile/Another round for everyone, I'm here for a little while."

Backtracking now, I bought Full Moon Fever somewhere after Greatest Hits and before Wildflowers. I remember buying it not knowing any song on the album (by name). That was real love. Most of my tapes and CDs as a 13-year-old idiot were embarrassments by one hit wonders (C+C Music Factory comes to mind). Albums were usually bought only for one song. Any extra tracks I liked were just a bonus. Petty made me come to my senses on that front. His albums could be played through, like the Beatles.

Full Moon Fever gave me my two favorite Tom Petty songs: "Yer So Bad" and "Alright For Now." I love the strum of the acoustic guitar on "Yer So Bad" and the harmony of the background vocals. It features upbeat Petty on lead, which I always preferred over downtrodden Petty. It's a darkly comic song about love so good it's bad... the question, of course, is what Petty loves that much.

"Alright For Now" is my lullaby. It's 121 seconds of comfort. It's the voice. Put it on and watch me drift off to the land of blinkums.

For all his goofiness, style, storytelling, wit, grace, and charisma, it was all about Tom Petty's voice. There are people who grace the earth with their talent and make us believe the universe has a soul. They lift us up. They speak to us, and for us. Tom Petty is gone, but he'll always speak to me.

Tom Petty (1950 - 2017)

Tom Petty Wrote the Soundtrack to My Life
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Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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