Tom Petty at 4am
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I looked at the clock and it was 4am. I was just awoken by the wind and the rain trying to get into the bedroom....scratching at the windows like some sort of feral, hungry cat. When I let the dog out for the last time before retiring, it was near 60 degrees. I didn't want to get out of bed to find out how decimated that number had become....but it sure didn't sound like 60 degrees anymore. I tried to get back to sleep in between gusts, but it was impossible. So I just laid there timing the bumps of the sump pump going off in the basement, in between the contented snores of my dog, who was curled up at my feet, oblivious to what he was gonna be walking out into in a few hours. I tried not to picture my garbage strewn all over the neighbor's yard. Over the sound machine that I can't sleep without, I heard a few cars zipping past. And I thought, as lonely as I feel, at least I'm not out there, in this. There's always some that got it worse than you. My wife was safe and secure next to me. Our kids were away at school, and both had checked in hours earlier. Things were ok. I didn't have to ride crazy storms like this out at 4am inside a car, being blown across 2 lane roads, on my way to do something that I almost certainly didn’t want to do.
But enough of that. When I'm wide awake I read.
So I slipped into the living room and picked up what I had put down a few hours earlier. The Warren Zanes biography of Tom Petty. It was part of my Valentine's Day gift from my wife. An amazon gift card that turned into 5 books. One of the others was an 800 page bio of Mozart, so I had to decide which I was gonna tackle first. Petty? Or Mozart? I couldn't decide. So I flipped a coin.
Wolfgang would have to wait.
I first heard Petty blasting out of the basement when we were kids. My twin brother was cranking "I Need To Know" from the second album....and it sounded fierce. Then it was "Breakdown" and "American Girl" from the first record....the one with the cover of the guitar piercing the heart. My brother picked up on stuff early...before the dams broke. He was down there listening to Price for years....and when "Purple Rain" exploded he just laughed at the rest of us for being so late to the party.
Anyway, I never heard of Tom Petty. He sounded like Dylan with the Byrds as his backing band, and wasn't good looking enough to be threatening to a 12 year old. So I filed him away, just in case. And listened to “I Need To Know” a few more times when nobody was around. Just in case.
And then a year later came "Damn the Torpedoes", and it's hard to describe how HUGE "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl" sounded coming out of small transistor radios. Suddenly everybody knew who Tom Petty was, which probably made my brother smirk in the basement. The album was fighting for the top spot with Pink Floyd's "The Wall". Me and my brother would lie on our bunk beds, me in the top perch, with the radio playing. Invariably, Floyd or Petty. Petty or Floyd. Like a chart cage match.
"It's just the normal noises in here...." we'd say when Mom asked us to turn it down.
Eventually Petty became beloved in the same way Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were beloved. He had a ridiculous string of radio hits for the next 20+ years....and you could attend a show and sing along to every single word. The Heartbreakers might have been the best band in America. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench was lusted over for songs and sessions. Stuff Petty and Campbell gave away ("Stop Dragging My Heart Around" to Stevie Nicks, "The Boys of Summer" to Don Henley) became career defining.
Petty was so good for so long that everybody just started taking him for granted. “Free Fallin'“ sounded so effortless it was like it had always been there…and nobody HAD to write it. Just reach out and grab it.
Even a throwaway tossed in at the end of a greatest hits record to fulfill a contractual obligation became iconic ("Mary Jane's Last Dance").
And then we all woke up 5 years ago and heard that he was dead.
Overdosed on the opioid fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Petty's 66 year old body was wracked with pain from a busted hip. Just off a tour he felt he had to do, because so many were relying on him. His system was also filled with anti anxiety meds, sleep medications, and anti-depressants. The show must go on and all that. Tom Petty was one of those cars driving through the gale at 4am....
He was seemingly built for one thing, and if he wasn't creating or performing, he was lost. After his divorce he admitted that he didn't know how to go grocery shopping, as he never had to do it before. He isolated. He became a junkie. He was like a war veteran. The only people he could confide in were other musicians. George Harrison. Jeff Lynne. Even Dylan. He went into therapy. His therapist asked him who he was singing to in his song "Wildflowers". Petty stuttered, wasn't sure....and his therapist said "you're singing to yourself"....and Petty agonizingly agreed...
You belong among the wildflowers / You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worries / You belong somewhere you feel free
Maybe if rock and roll had a Mozart, it was Petty.
I’ll start that book next.
I’ll let you know.
In a bit..