Tom Petty Made Life Better

You have yours, because we ALL have one. My own tale is incredibly special to me. Again, as I said about Bobby Heenan, I’m not someone that will lay out Petty’s iconic four decade career in the same way someone like Steven Hyden would, so I urge you to read his piece over at UPROXX. But, as someone that covers pop culture as part of my living, it’s impossible not to comment on Tom Petty’s influence and what he will always mean to me.

Tom Petty, though I was a fan long before this point, takes me to memories of 1997 specifically, and the best experience of my life.

I was a senior in high school, graduating in May of that year, and as many of us do, I was planning that final pre-college summer. Most of my friends were set for a trip to the coast and Senior Beach Week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Originally, I was set to join them, but God had different plans for me.

A few months prior to the end of the spring semester, my best friend and I decided we would do something special, something different, and something memorable. Certainly we could join our compadres on the sand, not remember much amidst alcohol-induced hazes, and dodge police that would be all over us at age 18. We were no better than any of the party goers, but we thought there was something better out there for us.

We chose to purchase a late 1960s orange Volkswagen bus – a hard top – and drive across the country for a month. We left on the same day our friends headed to the ocean, and we never looked back. We were all set. The idea was we would start from our home city in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, drive to Atlanta, then to New Orleans, and then head to Austin, Texas, where one of his brothers lived.

It was a tremendous decision, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. That poor bus gave out on us in Atlanta, overheating badly and leaving us nearly stranded. We would find our way to the Big Easy, where it would break down again, this time leaving us helpless on an overpass overnight. A mechanic took over the next morning, and we were off again. Things were okay into and through Texas, although in the heat, the bus was struggling, and we had to sometimes let it cool back down.

We would break down, have to coast start it, pop the clutch on downhill stretches, and everything else imaginable before we made it to Yellowstone, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Vancouver, Washington. It was a mess, but we continued to get through it together. Incidentally, when we got home, we didn’t speak for months, and I’m not sure our friendship was ever quite the same again. That said, it did more to wake us up to the world around us than anything else ever has. We saw it all.

When I drive, especially over long distances, it’s music that provides the soundtrack for my excursions. We had put a CD player into the bus, knowing we’d need accompaniment, and we had our collections on the trip. There would be arguments over this and that, as sometimes I simply had heard Cake’s Fashion Nugget, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, or Squirrel Nut Zippers one too many times. However, two albums in particular endured, and always brought us back to a place and mood where we could enjoy America’s splendor and beauty.

Those two records happened to come from the same artist, and you can probably guess who it was. Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, which holds an unimaginably dear place in my soul, got more air time than anything else on the trip. His Greatest Hits album came in second place. We would sing loudly with the windows down, and there were occasions in the most serene of locations where we would blast A Higher Place or I Won’t Back Down and absolutely lose ourselves in the journey.

Of all the things I recall from that trip, from baseball games at Candlestick and old Yankee Stadium to walking through Chicago, having a moose walk up to our vehicle in Yellowstone, leaving my friend at a gas station in the middle of the night because I didn’t realize he’d gotten out of the car to use the restroom, visiting one of our closest friends on the week he arrived at West Point, and having a police officer pull us over and say “I wish I could quit my job and just go with you guys, maaaaaaannnnn,” it’s Tom Petty I often think about most.

He got us by, especially when we began to loathe the very sight of one another. His voice, that harmonica, the most American-sounding of guitars, and the heart with which he approached his craft helped us survive. I can make the argument that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers actually assisted that bus in making it back to North Carolina in one piece. We saw multiple mechanics, had to do plenty of work, and at times had no clue if we were going to have to give it up and just fly home, but we pulled it off.

We were safe, and one night in particular stands out. On a steep downhill slope the night we left Yellowstone National Park, around 3 AM, I was behind the wheel and my friend was asleep on his bed in the back of the bus. The engine cut off, and it was steep. The brakes were completely useless, and there was literally a moment where I thought we were going to die on that mountain. I prayed as we reached 85 and still had over a mile of the hill to descend. I begged God to get us through, and I feared a potential turn. Had there been even the slightest curve, I don’t think we avoid a potentially deadly roll to the bottom of the mountain.

Big surprise, Wildflowers was playing. As a matter of fact, I believe it was You Don’t Know How It Feels, and I actually was humming the song, just to stay sane during the moment. Popping the clutch had failed numerous times, but it was the only way to try and get the engine to kick back on. On what had to be the tenth attempt, with Petty’s voice booming through the speakers, the engine came back, and I was able to control the bus enough to tap on the brake and carefully guide us down that hill.

I then began to sing, not hum, out of joy and thanks.

When we were finally out of trouble, I realized I was drenched in a way that made it look like I had indeed gone to Senior Beach Week, and had just stepped out of the Atlantic. My friend woke up, as he had missed all of what just occurred.

But, even in that moment, on the trip of my lifetime, Tom Petty was with me. He’s always been there for me. Hyden said to describe Petty or to review his work is like reviewing tap water or concrete, because it’s a consistent fixture of life and it never lets you down. Earlier this year, when HBO released it’s Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre documentary, The Defiant Ones, Tom Petty’s early days and his rift with Iovine and Stevie Nicks was discussed.

In the wake of that documentary, I rediscovered how much I loved Tom Petty. I immediately went back to Wildflowers, which has now helped me through not one, but two tough spots over the past few months. One occurred just over three weeks ago and nearly broke me in half. And it was Tom’s music I found myself listening to, as he helped me through it.

“It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going. What lies ahead I have no way of knowing.”

I loved that record so much, folks, that I bought the guitar tablature in 1996 and tried to learn all of it. I may have mastered a third of the album, before lazily reverting to Free Fallin and some of the classics. The former is a song everyone that’s ever picked up a guitar can play at least a semi-competent version of…you know I’m right.

Tom Petty came to Nashville last year, and I had the opportunity to go, but something came up. I thought to myself I would catch him next time, because I took this man for granted. I took life for granted, and I will forever regret not being in the same room with that guy while he performed.

Tom Petty is America. He told wonderful stories, put together progressive videos, but he never belittled anyone in his music. He was something that was always good, from beginning to end. His music was so timeless that you could sometimes forget how old or new the tunes were, or even what album they came from, because Petty was ONE THING, and that thing was effortlessly cool. He spoke to us through his work.

He didn’t save my life, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and certainly Petty himself, happened to be with me during the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows of my life. I saw John Mayer in August, and that evening he did his cover of Free Fallin. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to live Tom Petty, but as the 66 year old legend took his last breath yesterday, I’m comforted by the thought that he’s going to be with us forever.

Icons simply don’t disappear. That music, that art, that unbelievable talent that inspired some of the best of both yesterday and today ain’t going anywhere. He wasn’t perfect, he angered some other artists, he could be difficult to work with, he could be selfish, but he was a true professional when it mattered most, and he was an absolute genius.

Tom Petty was the figurative permanent marker on my life’s documents. You couldn’t wash him off, and you never wanted to. His music could make you smile, make you drink, make you roll another joint, or sometimes even make you cry, but it was gorgeous, it was powerful, and of all the greats that we’ve lost over the past few years in music, this loss hits me hardest. It’s personal. There are just so many memories.

That cross country trip simply would not have been the same without Tom Petty. Hell, my life wouldn’t be the same without Tom Petty.

He belongs among the Wildflowers. He belongs in a boat out at sea.
Now, he’s reached that Higher Place.
Truly, It’s Good to be King.

Rest in peace, Tom, and thanks for the time, for the effort, and for an astonishing catalog we remain lucky enough to enjoy until we join you In the Great Wide Open.

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