Beyond the classic hits, Tom Petty gave his home state, and the romantics in it, something more valuable: understanding.
My first memory of Tom Petty is not a pleasant one. I was 10 and a half, living with my mom and teenage sister in a tiny house in a slightly rundown suburban Tampa neighborhood. It was the end of 1970s in Florida. My mother smoked; my sister (secretly) smoked. And they’d corner and admonish me: “Don’t smoke!”
On this particular afternoon, “Refugee” blared from my sister’s bedroom.
“Turn it off!” I remember shouting. “He sounds stupid!”
I did not like nor understand the need for Petty’s high-pitched drawl. I suppose the way he presented himself didn’t impress me, either. He was like so many of the older people around me (including my sister and her friends) — a burnout in dirty jeans, moccasins, and floppy hair. He smelled like smoke, I knew. My sister was smitten with him, and I couldn’t understand the appeal. I swore I would never listen to his music, and certainly would never admire him on any level.
Six years later, on a summer evening in 1985, I was sitting in a dugout at the University of South Florida’s baseball field. I was a high school baseball player — a left-handed pitcher, and wannabe poet — and I was on American Legion’s Post 248 summer team. Across the street, at the Sun Dome, Petty was playing a sold-out show for his “Pack Up the Plantation” tour and his album Southern Accents.
My view of Petty had softened some — he had made headway on MTV, the marketing tool to my generation, after all — and his best songs were unavoidable. But I still didn’t listen to him. This tour was a comeback, I later learned. While deeply frustrated during the album’s creation, he had punched a wall and shattered his hand. Doctors, the story went, said he would never play guitar again. Of course, he did. Southern Accents, while offering stirring, unapologetic nods to his upbringing, included “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” a psychedelic push by Petty into pop-dom that was matched in addictive weirdness by its “Alice in Wonderland” video.
From the baseball field, you could hear the entire concert unfold — the wild screams at his entrance that seemingly lifted the roof off the Dome, each hit song that followed. Then, he began playing “The Waiting.” I can think of witnessing few other audience reactions that compare. It briefly interrupted the game. The jet roar at the recognition of the song’s first notes segued into a giant, happy singalong. It was all crowd; you could barely hear Petty. Goosebumps broke out across my arms.
“Do you hear that?” I said to a teammate. He did. But more than that, I heard it — heard Petty in a way that I never had before. I heard the effect he had on his fans, and I understood through rock’s version of photosynthesis that these weren’t like other Petty fans. They were Florida Petty fans. Tom was from Gainesville. He was one of us, and we were part of him.
Writers find the poets to guide them along their way. Thanks to my sister, and some persistent listening, Petty was my first, a romantic from the sticks, holding a pack of cigarettes, standing near a bonfire by a middle-of-the-state horse barn. He was raised in a tough, sometimes racist and abusive culture, and he took years processing that through Confederate imagery, South-as-religion song and rhetoric, and hardtack love songs, eventually becoming who he was all along — a Los Angeles peacenik rocker who hung out with George Harrison and Bob Dylan.
His life, as much as his songs, is a wonderful message and example to anyone: Become who you already are.
The best relationships between musicians and each fan is a deeply personal one. It’s a friendship over humanity’s shared experiences, communicated in an intimate way: through singing. Petty’s simple, honest music and small revelations created that magic connection with me, the listener, so that I felt understood.
This is not insubstantial. It is in fact heroic to dive into our most turbulent emotional waters and come back to the surface with tiny pearls of understanding. Misunderstood people are not a happy, productive lot. To be understood — isn’t that one thing, philosophers debate, that we all crave? Petty gave that to me at a crucial time. My teenage home life was sometimes turbulent, often happy, even lucky compared to others. But there are always things missing, like a father’s everyday influence, and in those blank spaces I found ways to fill it.
Petty did the same for millions of others (I admit this isn’t an original story), but the magic of this generosity comes in the individually gift-wrapped moments that we all experienced — each of us, one at a time — when a Petty lyric wound and twisted into our brain in such a way that made us go, “Ah.”
After my sitting-in-the-dugout epiphany about Petty, he released Pack Up the Plantation live album and concert video later that year, the month I turned 16. I bought both. And I demanded that my best friends — a group of smart, funny goofs who drank away Friday nights — become fans, too. I still remember the moment when I first played for them Petty’s live version of “The Waiting," followed by another singalong to "Breakdown."
“You guys,” I said with all the gravity my 16-year-old self could muster, handing over a cassette tape. We were in my friend’s Mustang. “Listen to this.” It wasn’t that I thought I was unleashing a new form of music on them. I wanted them only to hear the crowd — it was proof to me that something else was at work, a higher calling that can only come from sharing in the joy of music. We spent the rest of the night driving around and doing exactly that — singing along with Petty.
Oh baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now,
Don’t it feel like something from a dream.
Honey, I’ve never known nothing quite like this,
Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again.
Or put it this way: I had trouble in school. I barely passed, my “baseball career” during my senior year of high school spiraled to near self-destruction, and I couldn’t spend five minutes in a class without falling into heavy daydreams. But I studied Petty endlessly, at all hours, with the focus of a grad student finishing a thesis. Every lyric was memorized, unpacked, turned over, inspected. It made sense to me when most other things around me didn’t.
I even came to appreciate Petty’s voice for pretty much the same reason I had loathed it — that nasally twang reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s early work was meant to capture a common experience, except that Petty’s could lift off into the melodic stratosphere. What I appreciated most, however, was his penchant in those early years to slur lyrics into a drunk, nearly indecipherable language of his own. (My friend Kevin and I used to think the line, “But never as good as I feel right now,” from “The Waiting,” was actually the more nonsensical phrase, “The leather is good as I feel right now.”) When you finally figured out what he was saying, it was all the more rewarding.
Now, with his passing, many of the tributes to Petty do an admirable job of explaining Petty as a “rock legend” who played the Super Bowl. They list his biggest albums and greatest hits almost as though they are checking off groceries. But for early fans, and semi-early fans like myself, especially those from Florida, I think it’s important to acknowledge that a “graduation” happened with his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, in 1989. I bought the CD on the day it was released, and I listened to the first track, “Free Fallin’,” at least a half dozen times before giving the rest of the album attention. I knew he had done it: Always on the outskirts as a “southern” rocker, he had created something more accessible to the masses, and in the package of a lovely sing-along. But his sound had changed from what I originally fell for — his singing was crystal clear, well-enunciated; many of his songs veered toward acoustic Byrds.
Which is to say, there will always be a separate Petty who existed first. And we experienced it/him in the land where he was born and raised, among his environmental, social, and economic influences. If his later work seems born of California sunshine, the early stuff possesses the sting of Florida sunburn, of jagged heat and mucky swamps and salty ocean and everything else we knew.
As much as any writer from our time, I would argue that he was a state laureate — maybe song lyrics are not poetry to some, but with music they are valid and essential in describing place, time, and love. The Petty hits have this ecology, sure. But look a little deeper. It’s all there, on the first seven albums, on the B-sides and singles that didn’t make any side: “Letting You Go,” “A Wasted Life,” “Straight Into Darkness,” “We Stand a Chance,” “Deliver Me,” “Magnolia,” “Hurt,” “Fooled Again,” “Dogs on the Run,” and on. It’s Florida, from the day Petty was born in 1950, and into the new millennium, in which young and drunk people scream lyrics to “American Girl” in Gulf-side bars.
We all have our favorites. If you would like to sit down at a jukebox sometime and discuss, I’m game. But as my thesis summary, I now see how they push toward all sides of the emotional spectrum that a young man might experience while growing up in Florida, from down-and-out to delirious with possibility. Nearly always, they are the musings of a romantic, falling in love, or falling out of love.
In “The Wild One, Forever,” from his first album, 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, he opens in a warbled, almost warped pitch:
Well, the moon sank as the wind blew,
And the streetlights slowly died.
Yeah, they call you the wild one, said stay away from her,
Said she could love no one if she tried.
The scene is set. I remember hearing it, as a young man in Tampa, the humid and coral Florida dusk arriving outside, and getting that feeling: “Ah.”
Something more — love, understanding — was waiting for me up ahead.