Even Walls Fall Down: The Part of Tom Petty I’ll Carry

We lost another one a few days ago. By “we,” I mean people who like good music, and by “another one,” I mean, of course, Tom Petty. All this week, every time I’ve had the chance, I’ve been listening to his music, whether on Pandora or my own digital collection. I’ve been reading tributes from his friends and fellow musicians, and I’ve been commiserating with my friends over our loss. For some reason, this one’s been tougher than most.

My earliest musical memory of Petty is “The Waiting,” the first song from what would eventually become my second-favorite Petty album, Hard Promises. My memory isn’t of the first time I heard the song, though I can’t remember ever not loving it. What I remember most is watching a behind-the-scenes MTV show where Petty was talking about writing the song. While playing around with a guitar, he picked out that famous arpeggio, and my world changed.

 

Oh, baby don’t it feel like heaven right now?

Don’t it feel like something from a dream?

 

Man, what a way to start an album.

A few years later, one of my navy buddies, a guy who always managed to have albums before they were available to the general public, snagged a copy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1985 release Southern Accents. It might not seem like it now, but at the time, this was a huge departure from what they’d done before. That night, as I sat in my friend’s apartment, sipping Japanese beer and listening to “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” even before I saw the Alice in Wonderland-themed music video on MTV, I was enthralled.

During my band days, no matter who I played with, I always insisted on doing a quartet of Petty songs: “Breakdown” and “Letting You Go,” with me on vocals, and “Free Fallin’” and American Girl,” with me nowhere near them. Even in my twenties, I couldn’t come close to hitting those notes.

In 1989, Petty got together with another of my favorite musical guys, Jeff Lynne, and put out Full Moon Fever, which would go on to be one of Petty’s most successful albums. For hours, I sat in a room with my Stratocaster, trying to get that raunchy little riff from the Del Shannon-inspired “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” I never got it right.

Two years later, Petty was back with the Heartbreakers, releasing Into the Great Wide Open, yielding “Learning to Fly,” which tied with “The Waiting” as their best performing radio single. Fast-forward a few years to 1996, and they got around to making my favorite album of theirs, the soundtrack for Ed Burns’ second film, She’s the One. It’s a fine album inspired by a gem of a movie, even apart from the two versions of the song “Walls,” also known as “The Tune Everyone Knows from the Soundtrack to She’s the One.” Plus, it features Lindsey Buckingham, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Steve Ferrone.

 

Some things are over

Some things go on

Part of me you carry

And part of me is gone

 

Lately, that one’s been tough to hear.

Here’s what I’ll carry: To me, Petty was always a dude. He was a dude who wrote great songs and had a killer band, but he somehow still just seemed like a guy who lived down the street and used to work at the grocery store until he got fired under mysterious circumstances, probably for buying beer for his underage friends. He’d sit on the back of his car in the school parking lot, smoking a non-filtered cigarette, giving you advice on how to play bar chords. You’d ask him for a smoke, and he’d call you a punk, but he’d give you one anyway. Then he’d lean back and let that voice go.

Don’t get me wrong. Over the past couple of years, we’ve lost some biggies in music—Glenn Frey, Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen—but to me they were always larger than life. You’d never catch one of them sitting on the back of his car smoking Pall Malls and pulling sounds out of your guitar you never knew it could make. Maybe that’s why Petty’s death hit me harder—because he just seemed like a guy.

Like his music, Tom Petty was rough around the edges yet somehow graceful, deceptively simple and brilliant.

Out of the Petty tributes I’ve read this week, perhaps my favorite came from Jeff Lynne, and it was simply this: “Tom Petty was the coolest guy I ever knew.” You have to love that, because you know Lynne hung out with some seriously cool people.

Peace and love, Tom. Thanks for everything.

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