An Ode to Tom Petty
Katie Baughman | Oct. 6, 2017, 2:20 a.m.
"Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things."
– Tom Petty (1950-2017)
Good music brings people together. And from an early age, no artist brought my dad and me closer than Tom Petty. We spent hours watching concert footage of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on our old VCR, captivated by his charismatic stage presence, jaws agape as his fingers magically strummed.
I’ve been hooked on Petty’s raspy vocals and distinct electric guitar playing since I was four years old. A native of Gainesville, Florida, Petty drew inspiration from Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Petty dropped out of school at 17 to form the band Mudcrutch, determined to make it in the music biz after watching the Beatles’ iconic performance of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show (1964).
Though Mudcrutch broke up after an unsuccessful single, Petty teamed up with bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench to continue making music and form the backbone of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Together, the band released 13 records in 35 years, including masterpiece "Damn the Torpedoes" (1979), "Southern Accents" (1985), and "Into the Great Wide Open" (1991). Petty also pursued his own individual projects ("Wildflowers", 1994), for a grand total of 20 albums over a 40-year span. With several hits, including “American Girl,” “Learning to Fly,” and “Refugee,” Petty's music told timeless stories and still strongly resonates with audiences all over the world.
My dad introduced me to the rock ‘n’ roll legend on the car ride home from pre-school – he popped in Petty’s critically acclaimed 1979 masterpiece "Damn the Torpedoes", flipped to Track 2 ("Here Comes My Girl"), and turned the volume up to 10.
Petty told a story with not only his lyrics, but also his powerful delivery. After Campbell’s signature electric guitar cut through drummer Stan Lynch’s measure-long intro, Petty uses his monotone to set a dismal paint a picture of a hopeless town. Despite the circumstances, he finds a girl who makes the world better. He cannot contain his passion or appreciation, shouting, "This feels so good and so free and so right, I know we ain’t never goin’ change our minds about it. Hey, here comes my girl."
I can’t help but grin every time I hear the song.
If these tracks don’t ring a bell, surely you’ll recognize the undeniable classic, “Free Fallin.’” Nearly 30 years after its release, people of all ages still perk up at Petty’s sweet and supple D G G A strumming that sets the scene for the smooth, simple intro:
"She’s a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus, and America too," Petty sets the love story scene. The good girl is clearly struggling with a recent heartbreak, self-accredited to Petty: "I'm a bad boy, ‘cause I don’t even miss her. I’m a bad boy for breaking her heart."
Suddenly, Petty's sweet tone turns to shouting. "Yeah, I’m free. I’m free fallin,’" he finally declares, breaking through the glass in liberation.
After finishing up a huge tour in late September, Petty suffered cardiac arrest on Monday, Oct. 2. He died at UCLA Medical Center that night, just a few weeks before his 67th birthday.
The next morning, my dad and I discussed Petty’s passing. “He was a good man, respected by his peers,” he said. That couldn’t be more evident in the music world’s overwhelming response these last few days: Crucial artists from Bob Dylan to Taylor Swift have honored his passing and paid homage to his memory.
Though the world lost an icon Monday, we will always have his music and our own personal memories and stories attached to each track. Petty’s songs will always bring joy to listeners, inspiration to fellow artists, and fond memories to my dad and me.
Thank you, Tom Petty, for using your raw vocals, poetic verses, and gripping edgy rock sound that struck the perfect balance between sophistication and simplicity. Your effortless badassery will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.