My mom and dad are both lifelong fans of Tom Petty, who suddenly and devastatingly passed away on Monday at the age of 66. To them — and many others, myself included — his passing has been nothing short of a tragedy, the loss of a true legend.
“I recall first listening to Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1977,” my dad wrote in an email. “I was going to college at California State University Northridge and listened to KMET 94.7 and KLOS 95.5 radio. The song that rocked my world was ‘Breakdown.’”
“It’s alright if you love me / It’s alright if you don’t / I’m not afraid of you running away / Honey, I get the feeling you won’t,” he continued, quoting the song. “That groove, that attitude, those lyrics.” My mom, similarly, adored — and continues to adore — Petty’s music.
Petty holds a particularly special place for dad.
He started interning at KLOS, a classic rock radio station in Los Angeles, in 1977. That’s right around the time Petty broke onto the scene. Dad ended up working there for nearly 21 years, ultimately becoming the Director of Advertising & Promotion. And during that time, he maintained a very close relationship with Petty’s music — both professionally and personally. He and his team would give away Petty tickets, then they’d go to the shows themselves.
In fact, attending Petty shows was such a frequent (and fortunate) occurrence, that dad is a little hazy on the details. “I can’t remember all the shows or the number of times we all rocked together,” he told me. And mom had a similar response. What stands out to both, though, was Petty’s stage presence and attitude as a performer. “Tom, as everybody knows, had a certain swagger,” he explained. “I loved how he orchestrated the band, how he stood on stage, how he jammed with his band. It felt like you were just hangin’ out with a bunch of cool friends, who by the way could ROCK.”
Mom, meanwhile, added that a Petty show was always a must-see. Plus, “he was so theatrical, a bit mystical, and the ultimate rocker.”
And that’s exactly who Petty was, right up until the very end.
My parents saw Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in concert at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, September 21st. The band concluded its tour at the Hollywood Bowl on Monday, September 25th. “The show was epic,” mom recalled. “Everyone was on their feet from the first song. Tom looked great. He was happy. He talked a lot about how he the band started. He seemed to be having a ball.”
He added that there’s a certain sense of family amongst Petty fans. “I always felt that Tom and I were on a first-name basis,” he wrote. “He doesn’t know me from the next guy however Tom and the band (Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Stan Lynch, Howie Epstein, Scott Thurston, Steve Ferrone) and I were buds. I always felt like Tom Petty fans were and are part of a very special community.”
In the days since Petty’s passing, that sense of community is as strong as ever.
The outpouring of love for the late singer-songwriter — musical tributes and messages of remembrance are just a couple examples — has been tremendous. It just goes to show the great extent to which Petty touched people with his open and honest music, and the legacy that he’s left behind.
For my parents’ part, they’ll remember Petty as one of the greats. “I always considered, I can’t believe I’m writing in past tense, that Tom and the boys were one of the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. Now, here we are. This is the biggest bummer. It is unbelievable. Just a week and a half ago he was onstage, looking great, having fun with the audience and the band, telling stories and singing and rockin’ his classic songs from 40 years.”
But they take solace in what Petty has left behind.
“I’m devastated Tom is gone,” mom wrote. “He was truly one of the greats. I’m so happy I got to see him at the Bowl. Who would have thought that was one of his last concerts? He looked and sounded great. But the music lives on. He had a 40-year career. He’s a classic.”
Their thoughts are with Petty’s family, friends, and fellow fans.