“God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach”
I got a phone call, my best friend said he needed to go to lunch. His father had died two weeks before, and he was down.
I’m a good friend. You realize to never say no. I sat there listening to him at the restaurant at LACMA, he told the story, but I didn’t get it, I didn’t fully understand…
Until my father died.
He had multiple myeloma. Used to be a death sentence. People can live a long time with it now, ergo Tom Brokaw. When my dad was diagnosed they said 3 years. But he doctor-shopped, you must do this when you’ve got cancer and found a doctor in Arizona who kept him alive for four…
But then he passed.
I thought I was prepared. He’d had pneumonia. But I wasn’t.
I was in shock for a month. For a year thereafter I was reeling.
And I’m reeling now.
Now that friend whose dad passed ultimately committed suicide. Which meant I thought about him every damn day for the next ten years. I could see his casket being lowered into the ground. I refused to see him lying in it, figuring I could never get that image out of my head, but when everybody else went to his mother’s house, I went to the graveyard, I had to accompany him, like in that Bob Seger song. And I think of how much he’s missed, in the ensuing fifteen years. Because the truth is death is final, and you never know what the future will bring. My dad would have loved portable phones, he loved to talk on the phone, he was like Tony Roberts in “Play It Again, Sam,” leaving his number wherever he went, so he could be reached, he never wanted to be out of touch, and then he was gone forever.
Tom Petty is now gone forever. And I’ve never felt this way since my dad died. Empty. Off-kilter. Unable to sleep.
Now if you ask me, and you didn’t, I’m thinking it’s drug-related. And I know the inner circle will be pissed at me for speculating, and maybe I’m wrong, Richard Jewell didn’t do it when I thought he did, but cardiac arrest comes along with O.D.’s but the weird thing is, even if Tom’s another drug casualty it won’t undercut the loss by much. Yes, we’ll think he was stupid. And that’s so weird, a country that thinks drugs are cool until they bite you in the ass… But the truth is Tom impacted us, was always there, and now he’s not.
Whenever my parents went on a plane trip I worried something would happen.
My college roommate’s brother was killed in a car accident, I was there when the call came in. To have three children grow up and prosper is rare, but it happened in my family. But my dad was gone at 70, which seems so young these days, but Tom Petty was…
Because it was the first, because it was a KROQ staple, when listening to the Pasadena station was a badge of honor, when it was free-format, before it became the ROQ of the 80s. I’d lie in bed with my girlfriend listening to the live version, trying to get up and go to law school, but we’d wait for it to end first. “Baby, breakdown, go ahead and give it to me” The directness, the urgency of rock and roll, what more could you ask for?
THE WILD ONE, FOREVER
Probably my favorite Petty song. So majestic, it’d be a winner without the lyrics, about someone who’s so wrong but to you so right.
FOOLED AGAIN (I DON’T LIKE IT)
There should be an exclamation point at the end of the title, because when Tom sings this line he emotes and when I listen right now it brings tears to my eyes, because he sounds so vibrant and alive… But he’s not!
It’s the dark ones that reach us, that penetrate our souls, the ones that could never be on the radio, but are our personal favorites, the ones that make us feel so not alone in this world. It’s haunting, listening now it’s like Tom’s speaking from the grave.
“You’re Gonna Get It” was a success, artistically, but not financially, it was the kind of album fans bought and nobody else purchased, but if you laid down your cash, you LOVED IT! The vocal in this track evidences the Petty to come, the sneer, the attitude, laden with confidence, the one who knew with his axe and his voice and his band he was as powerful as anybody in the world.
YOU’RE GONNA GET IT
Once again, it’s the urgent, passionate vocal, with a chorus that was less emphatic than the verse, as if Tom had learned the canon of the British Invasion and knew you could mess with the formula and it could impact the listener.
Also a harbinger of what was to come, maybe it needed Jimmy I’s production, but the band has got that sound and Petty is dancing on top, and when the chorus plays you get the darkness of the bands from Birmingham, all those British burgs with rain, where you sat inside and lived for your records, the antithesis of your vision of Florida.
DON’T DO ME LIKE THAT
Was this a hit? Certainly not immediately, we bought the album as soon as it came out, and played it incessantly, this cut deep on the second side resonated, in an era when a man could still protest, complain about being on the losing end, before the woke males apologized for their existence and the out of it men continued to rape and pillage and truth went out the window and we ended up where we are now.
EVEN THE LOSERS
Get lucky sometimes. This is one of those cuts you know, and then years later, after you’ve got more time under your belt, shines with its truth. That’s most lives, we put in our time and we never reach the destination, our optimism wavers, but then we hear this song and we realize most of us are losers, but still… There’s a chance.
HERE COMES MY GIRL
Didn’t sound quite like anything else at the time. Like Mitch Ryder filtered through the British Invasion, a modern song with roots in the sixties. Still, there’s that moment when Tom sings “Watch her walk” when all you can do is swoon… REFUGEE It’s the sound, the lyrics could be about anything, it’s an anthem, something we always need but so rarely get, in this case with an intimate verse and then an explosive chorus, with Benmont Tench’s keyboard holding the whole thing together.
A WOMAN IN LOVE (IT’S NOT ME)
We broke up. We’d lived together for years. She continued to go to the movies, I continued to listen to my records. And after staying up all night listening on headphones I decided we should still be together, so I waited until a reasonable hour, 7, and I dialed her… And she was in bed with someone else. And I couldn’t fall asleep, all I did was play this cut over and over again.
That’s what I said to the guy who committed suicide, maybe we were just a couple of clowns working on something big. There’s no rulebook in Hollywood, no established path, you’ve got to find your own, and if you pay fealty to the company it’s just a matter of time before you get screwed, left out. “Hard Promises” was just too dark, it didn’t connect like “Damn The Torpedoes,” but listening now this is exquisite, the sound, the feel, it’s magic.
The funny thing is it was supposed to be the hit track, but it wasn’t. It was on the radio and then it wasn’t. So, as time passed the masses didn’t own it, I did, other listeners too. But to tell you the truth I didn’t LOVE IT, ADORE IT, until Linda Ronstadt covered it a decade and a half later on her LP “Feels Like Home.” It’s different, the instrumentation is acoustic and background and her vocal is up front and center, it’s the power, you sit there and listen and say RIGHT! I’ve included it.
STOP DRAGGIN’ MY HEART AROUND
I’ve got this boxed set, from when that was still a thing, that’s unavailable now, with a Petty version of this smash, but it’s not on Spotify. But it is available on YouTube, and you should click through and hear it, because all these years later it’s the definitive take, the one that will make you smile with Tom’s sneer, it’s the same song, but it’s more rock, it’s definitive: bit.ly/2hMqnvS
YOU GOT LUCKY WHEN YOU FOUND ME!
We hear this all the time from women, especially when it’s over, but to hear it from a man, a regular guy, is so heartening. Yup, we’re giving it our all, we’re not the bad boys you read about, we’re considerate, you got lucky when we found you.
STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS
It’s the dark intro, this is a sleeper, it’s another one of those cuts that grow on you, that you liked back when, but came to love NOW!
A WASTED LIFE
It’s forty years later. Did you become who you wanted to be? Did you miss your chance? Did you reach for the brass ring or punt? Have you lived a wasted life? The funny thing is Petty only became bigger, but too many others burned out, sacrificed their lives for an unachievable dream, lived for the music and then got passed by and now are nowhere.
DON’T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE
He was a faded rock star. He wasn’t able to follow up his genius, the moment passed him by, “Hard Promises” was a disappointment and then “Long After Dark” did worse and no one expected him to bounce back all the way with this, which was all over MTV with its surrealistic video, it sounded like nothing else, not even Petty, when that was still a badge of honor.
Another track that’s ingratiated itself, that I’ve warmed up to over time, it’s the screaming guitars.
So simple, yet so right, this was a highlight in concert, and the sentiment, speaking the truth, being burned out and overwhelmed on the popular culture jammed down our throat presaged our overwhelming culture today, when we’re jammed up and jelly tight 24/7.
END OF THE LINE
Who could forget Tom riding in the train and singing in the video? Here it is: bit.ly/1nqY9Nz
I WON’T BACK DOWN
So simple, yet so right. With the Beach Boys/ELO chorus…HEY BABY! This was before sports appropriated it, when it was still a rock and roll anthem. Hell, there ain’t no easy way out, there never is.
LOVE IS A LONG ROAD
At this late date, I’d rather hear this. It’s the darkness aligned with the energy, and the truth is love truly is a long, long road, and unless you’re dedicated, unless you’re willing to hang in there, you’ll never get the rewards. And you’ve got to adore anybody who can use the word “desperate” in a song, because that’s so often the human condition, yet no one admits it. That’s what we want artists to do, speak the unspeakable, so we don’t feel so alone.
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM
I used to love it for the Del Shannon reference, but as time has gone by I’ve come to love it for its energy, for not being an obvious hit, for being minor yet so right, and now I’ve got tears in my eyes once again.
Remember that girl on the ramp? Under the Southern California sky? Tom Petty was just like me, the rest of us transplants, we dreamed of a better life and we came to California to live it, and when you saw Tom and the Heartbreakers perform this in SoCal everybody would stand and point their heads to the sky like crooning canines and sing at the top of their lungs, YEAH I’M FREE, FREE FALLIN’! It just made you wanna feel good, you wanna feel good, right?
INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN
MTV was going grunge and pop, but Tom soldiered on, telling the SoCal story of the seventies when no one cared anymore, that’s the problem, the scene moved on, the music too, but we did not, and we loved Tom because he didn’t either, he stayed true to his roots, he didn’t sell out.
LEARNING TO FLY
The twinkly guitar, it’s the kind of song you get the first time through, that makes you feel joyous, happy.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
A one hit wonder, but that initial Thunderclap Newman album was a classic. Jimmy McCulloch went on to play with Paul McCartney and then he put his hand too deep into the medicine jar and left this mortal coil, and shortly thereafter so did Speedy Keen, even though I bought the solos. The song was only available at first on “The Strawberry Statement” soundtrack, as well as a single, I think, people knew it but no one ever talked about it and you’ve got to love Tom for resuscitating it.
MARY JANE’S LAST DANCE
His contemporaries were finished. It was a greatest hits album, a throwaway, solely about the bucks, but Tom and his band of merrymakers came up with this track that fires on all cylinders, the riff, the sound, THE LYRICS! “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is the kind of song you can never burn out on, and I never have, it’s always fresh, I never turn it off.
YOU WRECK ME
A rave-up in concert, so basic but when everybody’s giving their all it grabs you and levitates you.
By this point, 1994, Tom’s solo records were bigger than those with the Heartbreakers. But the funny thing about the title cut of “Wildflowers” is it was a quiet, acoustic number, akin to work from the sixties as opposed to the nineties, which is why it felt so right, we’re still yearning for this sound.
IT’S GOOD TO BE KING
I’ve got to believe Tom was inspired by that Mel Brooks movie, and probably I can verify this online, but this album came out before the internet revolution.
ROOM AT THE TOP
“She’s The One” was a disaster. Never tie your new album to a movie, it lives and dies on the box office, and even though I saw it, “She’s The One” tanked, and so did the LP. But this, the opening cut from 1999’s “Echo,” is so world-weary and experienced it resonates.
THE LAST DJ
And now it was the twenty first century and radio meant less and files were everything and this album was a bit out of time but that didn’t stop Tom, he always marched to the beat of his own drummer.
LOVER OF THE BAYOU
And now Tom’s covering Roger McGuinn, and making one of Roger’s latter-day tracks come alive, with an intense vocal and stinging guitar.
But this is the Mudcrutch piece-de-resistance, arguably the best thing Tom did in the twenty first century, an almost ten minute journey that will have you toking up and contemplating the trip your life has been. If you want to know what the late sixties were like, listen to this.
I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN IT
Could have been cut in the sixties. Dependent upon Mike Campbell’s guitar. Tom was always true to his roots, he never tried to be anything other than what he was, which is revelatory in this chameleon-like world.
From 2014’s forgotten album “Hypnotic Eye,” Tom played this at the Hollywood Bowl and no one got up and went to the bathroom, started talking, this fit in perfectly, it was great.
Now I left out some big tracks, and certainly some of your favorites, but these are the cuts that I’m thinking about, that speak to me today, they’ve been playing in my mind.
But I can’t listen to them, because then it would remind me that Tom’s dead, and I’m not ready for that, no way.
Death comes to us all, it’s guaranteed. But we never think it’s gonna be soon. We think everything will remain the same, our touchstones will be here, but when they start to go, then we know we’re next. As long as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are plying the boards, we know in our hearts we’re young, we’re alive and kicking, whether we go to the gig or not. But once it’s impossible, once it’s lost, and it has been forever, unreclaimable, then we’re empty, life is about loss, and it becomes overburdening, until you pass too.
Tom Petty was the last rock star. Who hadn’t sold out, who didn’t do what was expedient, who did what he wanted to, and only what he wanted to.
But now he’s gone too.
They say rock and roll is here to stay.
But it certainly doesn’t feel that way.