Tom Petty Made Everything Okay Even When It Wasn't
The singer's death feels personal because his music always spoke from the heart.
“Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.”
So sang Tom Petty on his 1996 song “Walls (Circus)”, off his ninth studio album with his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s a quintessentially Petty lyric — simple and folksy, yet profound. Like the man himself, the lyric manages to be both understated and captivating. It enthralls because it says something real in a way that everyone can identify with. Tom Petty’s voice was so accessible and deeply human — you felt like you understood the secrets of life when you listened to him.
Tom Petty was the soundtrack of my childhood. Full Moon Fever was released in 1989, when I was just seven years old, and it’s the first album I remember listening to as an album, from start to finish, over and over again. My mom and dad would pull out the CD, with its colorful, poster-style cover art, and put it into the stereo in our old living room in Southern California.
My brother was five and my sister was two, and we danced to “Free Fallin’,” “Yer So Bad,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” with gleeful abandon. We giggled at the hidden track before “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” when Petty’s raspy voice suddenly intoned “Hello CD listeners…” and asked us to flip sides to listen to the rest of the album. I’m pretty sure I almost broke the stereo trying to play the CD upside down.
Into the Great Wide Open (1991) enjoyed the same kind of devotion and family dance parties. We knew the words to every song by heart, and I’m surprised we didn’t wear a hole in the CD listening to “Learning to Fly” on repeat. I loved the breezy melancholy of “You and I Will Meet Again” even though I was too young to truly understand it.
By 1994, I was 12 years old and a fan of Petty’s music all on my own. I had also discovered The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, but I still preferred the easy coziness of Tom Petty and his guitar. “Wildflowers,” the title track from the album of the same name, came out that year and became one of Petty’s most beloved songs — and for good reason.
It’s the ultimate modern folk song, a song of love and friendship that is deeply poignant without being cloying. It’s a song about nature and freedom, a song about effortless affection. It never mentions California, but I always pictured expansive fields of wild, vibrant poppies. My high school friends and I used to roll down all the windows and drive around with our feet hanging out listening to “Wildflowers” on repeat as the sun kissed our toes. It's a perfect memory.
My life has more Tom Petty memories than I can count. Attending his concerts with friends; listening to "Echo" after I broke up with my first boyfriend; catching "American Girl" on the radio and turning the volume all the way up.
I even used a quote from his 1991 song “All the Wrong Reasons” in my senior yearbook: “And she made a vow to have it all, it became her new religion.” I think it irked my parents, who are devoutly Catholic, but I was at the age where irking your parents was its own form of religion.
Petty was the soundtrack of my easy, sunshine-soaked childhood. Even when life got hard and confusing, even when darkness momentarily descended, nothing could ever truly be wrong when you were listening to Tom Petty.
But this week the iconic singer died while the nation was grappling with the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, and somehow the two feel inexplicably interwoven. On Monday morning we had to explain what a mass shooting was to our four year olds after they overheard the news on the radio. We had to look at graphic images of bloodstained bodies that had been dancing to music just moments before they were cruelly murdered. We had to grapple with knowing that the deaths of dozens of people probably won’t lead to new laws, and that dozens more will die in similar incidents.
The world feels dark and uncertain, precariously perched on the edge of chaos. Tom Petty used to make us feel joyful and invincible, and now that he’s gone the weight of the world presses inward without his musical counterweight. This girl who once vowed to have it all is now worried about the kind of world her sons will grow up in.
I don't want it all anymore. I just want everything to be okay. Won't you write us a song about that, Tom?
Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks. This day is a real rock.