To the best that I can remember, the last time I cried was when David Bowie died. I was driving to work the morning he passed away and listening to ‘Changes’ and it got to the line “Time may change me, But you can’t trace time” and I lost it. I had to pull over. Bowie was far from perfect, to the point of being a monster at times, but it felt like something important was gone from the world.
I’m pretty much your typical emotionally walled off, even keel, probably-definitely-should-be-seeing-a-therapist, American male. Not much hit me in a way that causes an emotional reaction, other than anger at the state of the world. It’s not a healthy way to be, and probably the root cause for half the world’s problems, but I’m not qualified to read into that. The point is that Bowie dying cut though all that bullshit and hit me square in the face. I spent the rest of the week listening to almost nothing but Bowie, and I doubt I was alone.
A few months later I read Rob Sheffield’s book ‘On Bowie’ which was written largely as an immediate reaction to Bowie’s death. It’s absolutely worth reading if you are a Bowie fan, or just interested in the connection between artist and fan.
The funny part – well not funny ‘haha’ – is that I wouldn’t even classify myself as a Bowie die-hard. I own six or seven albums, and am definitely a fan, but not someone who obsessed over Bowie. My Bowie playlist doesn’t stretch far beyond his greatest hits type stuff. I love those songs deeply and passionately, but I’m not an expert. I only picked up ‘Low’ and ‘Station to Station’ after reading Sheffield’s book. There’s no prerequisite for the level of fandom to be sad when an artist passes, but it made me wonder about the strength of my reaction.
The reason I’m writing about Bowie is because today, 10/2/2017, is the one-year anniversary of Tom Petty’s death and it’s the first time I’ve listened to my Tom Petty Mix since sometime before 10/1/2017.
October 1st, 2017 was an all-time bad day. It was the day of the Las Vegas shooting. One of my best friends had landed in Vegas and was messaging us online that the airport was on lock-down, and then news began to break about what had happened. We were all up late into the night, worried about him, and reeling in horror over the shooting. I’m not going to write more about that because it’s a whole other thing, but suffice to say we were all in a pretty dark place by Monday morning.
Monday morning is when the news about Tom Petty being hospitalized and in critical condition broke. The next day he passed away and I shut down. I couldn’t deal with it at all. I couldn’t listen to any of his music at all.
Now, to be clear, I’m not comparing the two events. I only mention the shooting because it was in the wake of that that Petty died and I was already a mess. I’m going to stick to talking about Petty for the rest of this because if I write about the shooting it’s going to be 10,000 words of incoherent rage.
Everyone has artists that they fall in love with forever. Tom Petty was one of those guys for me. I have loved his music just about my whole life, and in my list of ‘begats’ – artists that inspired me to listen to other music – he’s sitting at the head of the table. Without Petty, I probably would have never listened to Son Volt, Trapper Schoepp, Justin Townes Earle, and a lot more. Perhaps more important is that Tom Petty was a universally-beloved artist, the kind of guy who made it okay for a punk rock/alt rock/ska kid to love other music. I’ve never been overly concerned about listening to ‘cool’ music, but as a kid I wanted my friends to think I had good taste.
There was never a lull with Petty. With some artists you get into them for a while, and then drift away, and maybe someday drift back. From the moment I first saw the video for ‘You Got Lucky’ on MTV until today, there was never a point where I drifted away from him and his music.
Last Summer I saw him in concert for the first time, but I very nearly missed him. I had tickets for his first show in Philly and just days before ended up in the hospital with a pretty serious medical issue. Eventually I got out of the hospital but was tied to a machine delivering antibiotics that, frankly, looked like a bomb. I was also exhausted and not in the best shape. Even so, right up until the night before I was on the phone with the Wells Fargo Center asking if I could bring the device in. Eventually I gave up but saw they had added a second Philadelphia show later in the month. I sold my tickets on Stubhub and bought tickets for that show, hoping I would be ok enough to go.
The week and a half leading up to the second show was absurd. The weekend before I was away at a weekend long house party, came back to Delaware, drove to Connecticut on Wednesday to see the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, back to Delaware again on Thursday, up to Philly to see the Bosstones on Friday, and then finally up to Philly to see Tom Petty on Saturday. This was all three weeks after being in the hospital and two weeks after having the device removed. Needless to say, I was already exhausted when Petty hit the stage.
The concert opened with the song ‘Rockin’ Around (With You)’, which is the first song on their first album. It’s cliche for sure, but the second they started playing, my exhaustion evaporated and I was transported to some other place. This was their 40th anniversary tour and they were transcendent. After ‘Rockin’ Around’, they launched into ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ and ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ which are 1a and 1b my favorite songs.
If I could only pick one song from Petty’s entire catalogue to listen to for the rest of my life it would be ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’. There are a lot of songs that speak to me, but if there’s any one song that gets to the essence of how I feel about myself and the world, it’s this one. It’s not just the lyrics, it’s the whole thing. The vibe of the song, the sound, the pace, the guitar. It’s a magical song and it somehow says to the world in four minutes and 49 seconds what I will spend the rest of my life trying to say with thousands and thousands of words.
That’s really the magic of Tom Petty. Without guile, cynicism, or cliche, Petty spoke to that small place inside all of us where we keep all our shit and said, ‘Hey, I understand, and if I can, I’m gonna try and make it okay for a couple of minutes.’ He didn’t offer solutions, or anger, or even promise a better tomorrow. He told us we weren’t alone in this big terrible world and that was really enough.
I was moved to tears twice during that concert. The first time was during ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ and the second was during ‘Learning to Fly’. He stopped playing and let everyone sing for a while. I’ve heard other live recordings of the song where they did the same thing and it gets me every time. To be there singing along with 20,000 people was a special kind of feeling.
The concert ended with ‘American Girl’, because what else could it have ended with? I’m sure people will disagree, but to my mind, ‘American Girl’ is one of the top five greatest rock songs ever recorded. Anything else as the final song of the evening would have just felt wrong.
Three months and ten shows later his light went out, and if I’m being honest, I’m never really going to get over it.
I won’t pretend to really understand why the death of artists hits us so hard, but I know for me with Bowie, and later with Petty, it’s because they made music that helped me understand me, and made me feel okay. Feeling okay doesn’t solve the world’s problems, but sometimes for just three or four minutes at a time, it’s enough.