Tom Earl Petty was an American boy who sang about an American girl and produced a love affair that spanned the world.
Petty died unexpectedly on October 2, 2017, leaving family and friends devastated. Tom Petty was undeniably American, and like Dylan, Petty was a storyteller who left a legacy of anthems.
For much of my childhood, I found it hard to resist singing along in his distinct nasal intonation which made him instantly recognizable. It’s hard to imagine anyone else singing these songs with the same conviction and self-assurance as Petty did. There was no doubt Tom Petty meant every word he sang.
Damn the Torpedoes, was one of the first albums I bought with my own money. There was something about the boy with the toothy smile and the Rickenbacker guitar that drew me to it. From “Refugee” to “Louisiana Rain” there wasn’t a single song on it that didn’t have some kind of influence over my teenage temperament. No matter how I felt, Petty had a song to match it.
As I got older, I continued to follow Petty, going to the extent of buying his releases in vinyl and cassette so I could take him with me in the car. I had a crappy part-time job I hated, but it afforded me money for records and concert tickets.
Petty showed up every summer, like clockwork. He was more than just a concert, he was a life-altering event. When Tom Petty came to town everything leading up to it stopped. My first serious boyfriend was also a Petty fan and we spent countless hours sitting on a blanket in the lawn seats surrounded by the magical atmosphere of cannabis scented air, lighted by stars and stage lights, singing along and leaving us hoarse, but blissful for days. I lost track of how many times I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but I haven’t lost the lessons.
Tom Petty taught me that it didn’t matter where you came from if you believed in something. He imparted the idea that “even the losers” had value and their struggles were worth fighting for. Tom Petty taught me that nothing was easy, but nothing was impossible if you were willing to fight for it.
I never met Tom Petty, but there were many times when he felt like my best friend. His death has struck me hard and it’s made me realize just how strong the bonds you form with your early music heroes are. I won’t ever be able to tell him how much he meant to me or how much strength he gave me when I needed it, but he taught me that it was okay to be an American girl who believed in learning to fly.