Tom Petty holds a very special place in my musical life. I have been music obsessed ever since I can remember. However, I have almost never liked popular music at the time of it’s popularity. I love a lot of popular music, like the Beatles and the Stones, Motown and Aretha. But all of them peaked in popularity before I got around to being born. The one exception to this pattern for me was Tom Petty. From my last year of middle school right through the beginning of college, I was a big Tom Petty fan at the same time he was immensely popular.
This period covered four releases by Petty, Full Moon Fever, Into The Great Wide Open, Greatest Hits and Wildflowers. Songs from these albums were all over the radio. And videos from these albums were all over MTV (Not that I had access to MTV, so I’ve never seen the videos, but they were famously popular videos). I loved all of it, from the singles like Free Fallin’ and Mary Jane’s Last Dance to the album cuts like Two Gunslingers and Cabin Down Below.
I don’t know why it was Tom Petty instead of R.E.M. or U2 or Nirvana or Pearl Jam or any of the other hits from my high school and college years. The easy answer is that Petty is better. That can’t be all of it, though. It must come down to the fact that he spoke to me in a way that none of the others could. When I listen to Tom Petty, it feels the same as listening to the Stones or John Lee Hooker (both of whom I was super into at that time). It seemed like he had something important to say. The music felt deeper than anything else at the time. I don’t mean that to sound as pretentious as I’m sure it does. Petty’s music isn’t pretentious. It’s very accessible with a ton of humor. I just mean that I could listen to it over and over again without ever feeling like I had heard everything.
Until he died, I didn’t realize how important Tom Petty’s music was to me. I knew I liked it, naturally. But his death really affected me in a way that celebrity deaths normally do not. I think it’s so important to me both because I really enjoy it and because it was a real cultural phenomenon that I was part of. There’s a real nostalgia attached to his music, and not just for me. It’s something that I share with lots of other people my age. I haven’t had many of those generational connections, so I cherish the ones I do have. I’m grateful to Tom Petty for the great music and giving me that connection. I will miss him.