In Memoriam: Tom Petty (1950-2017)

Tom Petty has passed away at 66 years of age.

When Petty was 13 years old, he saw The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it had “a profound effect” on the singer’s life, putting him on the path to wanting nothing but to be a musician. It’s countless the amount of musicians you and I love that were influenced the same way by Petty, whose career spanned four-plus decades, spawning countless hits that are all part of the American fabric.

I was onto Petty’s music pretty quickly as a child of the ’90s. He was honestly probably the first “greatest hits” musician to cast a spell on me — his songs made so many of my first cassette tape mixes and later burned CDs. The music video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” legitimately gave me nightmares with its Alice in Wonderland cosplay (Johnny Depp ain’t got shit on Petty as the Mad Hatter), yet I still couldn’t change the channel whenever it came on MTV — which was on almost relentlessly in the bedroom I shared with my older brothers. Few people adapted the medium of music videos the way Tom Petty did, he never failed to grow with the times, or more often set the bar.

Few moments brought me as much joy as this past June at Arroyo Seco Weekend, the first time I ever saw Petty perform live. Passing a few joints around a group of strangers that spanned all walks of life, stoned out of my mind watching Petty run through a marathon high-energy sets, it was clear to me why Tom Petty is so important — he bridges a connection between so many different types of people. Regardless of your point-of-view, you can’t help but sing along when “Free Fallin'” comes on.

So many of his songs, I could tell you what they were within a millisecond of them playing. His guitar riffs were so utterly recognizable to him and him alone. He made me love the sound of a harmonica. The songwriting was always of the highest level, enough to move crowds into singing in unison song after song.

One performance sprung immediately to mind when thinking about Tom Petty today. At the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon in response to September 11, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers performed a more hushed but ultimately more poignant version of “Won’t Back Down” in an empty studio. The way Petty’s eyes connect with the camera when singing, “And I won’t back down” always gives me goosebumps.

In the wake of the horrific tragedy that took place in Las Vegas in which nearly 60 people lost their lives with hundreds more injured — at a music festival no less — I look to that video of Tom Petty to once again remind me “to keep this world from draggin’ me down.”

Here’s Tom Petty performing “You Wreck Me” at Arroyo Seco Weekend: