I’m not young, but every time one of our icons passes, it serves to take me back in time to when the influence those icons bore on me were yet new, and simultaneously, bring me crashing back to the present.
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first burst upon the scene, it was with “Breakdown”, a song that would indelibly etch his band’s style into the conciousness of the rock music world, and one he’d never surrender. As a freshman in high school, I was umbilically attached to our local AOR radio station, where Petty would follow up those inroads with “Refugee”, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with the magical Stevie Nicks. Like an indestructable tractor plodding through the corn fields of my youth, Petty’s music wore well-rutted paths in the dusty and impressionable roads of my youthful brain.
Later, in rock bands formed and dissolved and reformed like summer clouds, Petty’s influence would wield a mighty hand, as both covers and originals informed our halting but enthusiastic play.
In reflecting on Petty’s passing this week, while listening to his playlists on repeat, and musing over the decades since his music helped form the soundtrack to my youth, I was struck by the differences, both gross and subtle, between the worlds of long-ago me and the present. While it’s been a long strange trip, I’m grateful for the lines Petty gave me. They helped me make sense of adolescence, of love, of a new age approaching in which everything would be different, and at the same time, of a comforting sameness that would live always at its core.
His lyrics were in many ways a lifeline to kids my age, and the example he gave us of always remaining true to your roots and still managing a succesful career, were halcyon to struggling young musicians at a time when sell-outs and regurgitated pap dominated the airwaves.
Today, I carry a computer in my pocket that’s more powerful than all the computers of my youth, combined. Yet I can use it to listen to Petty’s comforting home-spun tunes that bring back the feelings of late-summer dates, kisses stolen under willow trees, warm skies filled with stars and endless potential.
Getting old, as they say, is better than the alternative. But I hope I never lose the “Full Moon Fever” Petty sang about. It connects me to my first halting steps down the road of adulthood, and a core of myself from which I still draw strength.
Though the end of the road may be approaching, “I Won’t Back Down” from it.