Tom Petty is the sound of summertime. “American Girl.” “Learning to Fly.” “Wildflowers.” “Free Fallin’.” Losing him is like losing summer, forever.
That was one of the first thoughts I tweeted out yesterday afternoon, following the deluge of bad news about Petty. It was already a hard day. Between waking up to news of the Las Vegas tragedy and spending the entire day thinking about my grandfather, who passed away on October 2, 2014, it was a lot to handle. Losing Petty out of nowhere, less than two weeks after he wrapped another summer-conquering tour, felt like the devil playing a trick. When news broke that Petty was not in fact dead and was “clinging to life,” I dared to hope that he might pull through—even as the sounds of Southern Accents and Into the Great Wide Open filled my living room.
Alas, those hopes were for naught. Last night, at 8:40 PST, Tom Petty passed on, surrounded by his family, friends, and bandmates.
You’d think that after 2016, we’d be used to losing legendary rock stars. After a year that took Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and a slew of others, we’d be a little more prepared to say goodbye to our heroes. That’s not the case. Losing Petty hurts especially for me, not just because I adored his art, but also because without him, so much of the music I love wouldn’t exist.
Tom Petty’s songs are larger than life. I almost can’t imagine someone sitting in a room with an acoustic guitar and writing them, because they feel like they’ve always been here. The moments and emotions they bring to light are too big, too mythic, too romanticized. “American Girl” sounds like a youthful summer night, like taking the girl you have a crush on out to the carnival for the very first time. When I hear that song, I can almost see the Ferris wheels and neon lights. “Learning to Fly” sounds like a sunburnt summer highway, and the first few minutes of a thousand-mile drive when you’ve got nothing but road and radio to keep you company. “Wildflowers” sounds best pouring out of the speakers on a boat on the Fourth of July, cruising across the water with a beer in your hand. I know all these things from personal experience.
Like so many others, I fell in love with Petty’s music through the greatest hits and the artists he influenced. Between classic rock radio, cover songs, and Cameron Crowe movies, I probably heard two-dozen Tom Petty songs before I ever even heard a full-length record. As great as Petty’s greatest hits are, though, his records remain worthwhile. My favorite is Into the Great Wide Open, which might be the prototypical road trip album. The saddest is Echo, which Petty wrote after his divorce. The most iconic is either Damn the Torpedoes or Full Moon Fever, both classics stacked with singles and Petty staples. The sleeper favorite is Wildflowers, one of his few albums without the Heartbreakers. The reappraised masterpiece is Southern Accents, a record born out of such inner-band tension and strife that Petty ended up punching a wall and breaking his hand. And the most underrated is probably a three-way tie between early ‘80s gems Hard Promises and Long After Dark and 2014’s hooky, workmanlike Hypnotic Eye. The latter, at this time, has the distinction of being Petty’s last album—unless you count last year’s Mudcrutch LP.
It took me a long time to delve fully into Petty’s discography. I’ve had records of his on my iPod for as long as I’ve had an iPod, but it wasn’t until three summers ago that I did a deep dive. Frankly, it’s shocking that I took that long, given how many of my favorite artists wear their Tom Petty influences on their sleeves. Butch Walker long talked about finding a backing band worthy of being his Heartbreakers. Andrew McMahon went full Petty on 2011’s Jack’s Mannequin swansong People & Things. And of course, Petty was one of the many rock ‘n’ roll legends that Brian Fallon referenced on The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound. As for country music, Tom Petty was an honorary patron saint. In modern country, the two most namedropped artists are Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, in that order. I’d argue that Tom Petty takes the number three slot. He wasn’t a country artist, but his songs—with their dusty heartland rock aesthetic and their stories about rebels, roads, refugees, renegades, and the radio—provided the template for what a lot of country songs are today. Tom was also just the epitome of cool in rock ‘n’ roll, a fact probably not lost on a lot of the young leather-jacket-wearing troubadours who reference his songs and his sound.
My favorite memory with a Tom Petty song happened three years ago. After I graduated college in 2013, I moved from Michigan to Illinois to live with my girlfriend. She’d gotten a job in Naperville after graduating the year before, and it was time for us not to be a long-distance couple anymore. But Naperville never felt like home, to either of us. As I scrambled around for a career and she became slowly disenchanted with her job, all we could think about was moving back to Michigan, closer to the town where we’d grown up, met, and fallen in love. In the summer of 2014, we got married. Then, a few weeks later, she got a job in Grand Rapids. The day we left always felt to me like the real start of our married life together. Oddly, it felt way more like a definitive “coming of age” moment than the day I drove away from college. The first song I listened to on the drive back to Michigan was “Learning to Fly”; just me, my Honda Civic, and Tom.
That car is gone now, and so is Tom. But his songs will always be there, teaching the rest of us how to fly.