Running down a dream: The year we lost Tom Petty

Tom Petty, Mudcrutch

Tom Petty and Mudcrutch perform at the Fillmore in San Francisco on June 19, 2016. Photo: Roman Gokhman

The year 2016 was bad, for so many reasons, not the least of which was the loss of both David Bowie and Prince. The year 2017 may have been worse; we lost Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, Malcolm Young of AC/DC, Lil Peep and Fats Domino, among others.

But 2017 sucked because we lost Tom Petty.

Looking up at the cold majesty of the milky way, you can imagine Bowie or Prince descending from that cosmic firmament (truth be told, it’s just as easy to imagine them swimming up from the murky depths of the ocean). There was something otherworldly about these diminutive musicians, some cat-like combination of aloofness and extravagant egotism.

While these rocketmen fell out of orbit, Tom Petty, Florida’s organically grown, farm-to-stadium troubadour, sprang from the endless acreage of well-tilled soil that is American rock and roll, a seedling in the mud and muck of the ’60s, a sapling in the hash haze of the ’70s, resplendent with a harvest of hits in the ’80s, and he continued to grow, becoming a towering musical forest unto himself for nearly three more decades.

In a culture full of artifice, Petty retained an authenticity that made his appeal nearly universal. When he died, websites as diverse as The Huffington Post and Breitbart published articles celebrating Petty’s musical output and his beneficent humanity. called him an “unpretentious musical icon.”

Tom Petty, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers perform at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 28, 2017. Photo: Alessio Neri

Shortly after his death, Petty’s daughter wrote on Instagram: “This is real American Art made from the roots of real people who deeply love life.”

Tom Petty showed us that even our day-to-day drudgery is the stuff from which dreams are made and that the division between our waking world and the magical realm of our unconscious is a semi-permeable membrane that we can slip through any time we want, “a freeway running through the yard.”

Petty rode a tidal wave of stardom with zen-like detachment, an old soul’s knowledge that most things we worry about never happen anyway. And yet the music that exploded out of that skinny blonde attested to the oceanic pull of our emotions and to the wonders and horrors of our world.    

Petty used simple language and major chords to capture the complexity of what we’re up against, and in doing so, he helped tame some of the poetic excesses of rock and roll, strip it of its leather-bound pretension and return it to snug denim. Petty showed us we don’t need a thesaurus to describe the pain of existence. The most painful word in the English language is “because.”

Because your parents didn’t treat you right.

Because someone didn’t love you back.

Because good love is hard to find.

While some rockers with a lot less money go baroque forging an elaborate red carpet identity, Petty seemed content to be the guy putting gas in his Prius at the truck stop. There was something unassuming and humble about him; you can hear it in the music. And there was a touch of sadness, a melancholy to remind us that life is a dark ride and that we’ve all been kicked around some.

But another part of Petty’s authenticity is that any listener can tell he loves rock and roll and can hear his sincere belief that rock and roll can save us, that we don’t have to live like refugees. We simply have to slip through that membrane into that dream world with moonlit rides and good girls with broken hearts, we have to free fall out into nothing and leave this world for a while.

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