What Tom Petty Taught Me About the Great Wide Open
The legendary rocker died at 66 on Monday, but left us with so many life lessons.
The first time I heard Tom Petty, my family and I were driving south down Highway 101 from Oakland to Los Angeles. Or maybe it was to San Diego. I don’t remember. I was 10 or 11, maybe. What I can recall is my father popping in a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits cassette, and being greeted by the uptempo rock track that I would later learn was classic Tom Petty — “American Girl.”
“Well she was an American girl, raised on promises…”
I don’t remember much at all about that trip. Memories bleed together. But it was then that “American Girl” hit me on the head like a revelation. It was hopeful and inspiring. It was a feeling and it filled me with an idea that I could go anywhere and do anything, if only I could dream it.
After that, Tom Petty’s music became essential road trip listening. “American Girl,” “Don’t Come Around Here,” “You Got Lucky...” It was a family ritual I was more than happy to partake in. However, those long and listless road trips eventually became less frequent, until they stopped all together. I was older and more impatient. Cool kids didn’t hang out with their parents. (I wasn't cool back then, but I wanted to be.) My parents didn't have time to hop in the car for a week at a time either, as they were getting older and busier, too.
Finally, I was old enough to leave and explore that “great big world with lots of places to run to” on my own. There were so many possible roads to discover for myself — and so many of Tom Petty’s Mad Hatter rabbit holes to stumble down. I was ready, but not sure where I was headed. As a college-bound 18 year old, it didn't matter.
Thankfully, Tom Petty’s music stayed with me long after I'd outgrown those family trips. In college, he was with me when I mustered up the courage to sing my first karaoke song alone (“American Girl,” naturally). Somehow I've shied away from solo karaoke performances ever since. But back then, I was a naive, amaretto sour-drinking 21-year-old running down a dream. As I got older, Tom Petty was with me on those after-college car rides when I wondered with impatient enthusiasm, "What’s next?! What’s next?!". I wore out “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” — my go-to Tom Petty road jam — somewhere along the way.
But then somewhere in all that things changed and got complicated. Growing up is hard. Tom Petty sure knew that; just listen to his lyrics. When I graduated from college in 2008, the economy had tanked and people were losing jobs and their homes. In turn, the rocker’s great wide open realm of possibilities shrank before my eyes. So, naturally, I panicked, took out loans, and went to grad school in New York.
During my year in NYC, I was a ball of stress. I graduated jobless and missed my family. Mostly, I felt alone. And where some peers seemed to have it so easy, I began to understand that the world doesn’t always promise good things to people who put the work in. Life isn't fair. I began to think maybe “American Girl” wasn’t about me after all. During that time, Petty’s “Time to Move On” played on repeat. It was the beautiful anthem of my defeat. It was time to get going.
And I did. I returned to California and my family and got a job. I got back to listening to "American Girl."
Tom Petty’s untimely death on Monday has sent me, my colleagues, and his fans into a deep reflection. Tom Petty and his music will always represent endless possibilities, even when it doesn’t feel like there are any. His music will always feel like childhood, family, rebellion, nostalgia, heartache, the pangs of adulthood, joy, and the open road. It’s hard to believe that the man whose music accompanied me through so many big moments — who taught me when to move on or not back down — is gone. The world is a chaotic mess, and his death feels like hope and inspiration are gone, too. But they're not. They never are. Tom Petty taught me that.
Less than two weeks before Tom Petty’s death, I had the honor of seeing him perform for the first time. (It’s funny how you can spend a lifetime idolizing someone and never get to see them live.) We drove 350 miles south down Highway 5 to Los Angeles to see him and The Heartbreakers perform the first of their final three Hollywood Bowl shows on their 40th anniversary tour. The lights dimmed, Tom Petty took the stage, and all the familiar tracks played out like a wonderful, magic dream. I belted out “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Yer So Bad” like I was a first-time karaoke star all over again. Who could guess that this would be one of the last times anyone would ever hear Tom Petty sing those songs live?
After a short break, Tom Petty took the stage again to thank us for 40 years (40 years!) of love and dedication before diving into the final encore song: “American Girl.” There was the familiar guitar intro, the thump-tha-thump-thump-thump-tha-thump-thump of the drums. The crowd went wild. I quickly became overwhelmed by the moment and felt tears of joy swell. I was 10 or 11, 18, 21, and 27 all over again. I was on the open road with my family, I was hopeless in New York contemplating another life change. I was the weight of all the ups and downs of my post-grad California life. I was everywhere, and I was with Tom Petty. And in that moment, I was reminded that as down and out as you can feel, as messy as the world can be — those roads of dreams and possibilities exist somewhere. You just have to be brave enough to find them.