I learned about it by text message in the afternoon of a sad day in American history. I got it from my Roadie compadre Steve, who I know was sorry to be the one to break it to me. In the same cycle as the Las Vegas massacre, the death of Tom Petty was not the news of the day.
He was 66, which is irrelevant, because he was active, still creating, still playing in front of people. He had conceded this latest tour might be his last with the Heartbreakers, but he didn’t sound weary of the road. He just wanted to spend as much time as he could with his granddaughter. I have one of those.
I had a girlfriend in the later 1980s and Petty was of course not the only tapes we played in my car or hers. But we laughed when I got “All Mixed Up” stuck in my head for a whole weekend. That relationship ended, and I think she got all the Petty cassettes in our little community property settlement. It’s okay — I replaced ’em in a newer format.
I bought my first compact disc player in a super-mega-electronics store in 1988 in Salem, New Hampshire, just across the border from Massachusetts, and I therefore needed something to play on it. You always remember your first, and mine was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. My speakers in my loaner room at 925 25th in Foggy Bottom might have been small and shitty but they were loud, and that’s how I played it.
The road trips with Steve began as mostly about music, with golf a secondary part of the plan. Petty, at the Gorge, Aug. 16, 2008. Cross one off my life list.
I thought he would get on, play the hits and get off, clean and professional and not much more. No. He was having fun, like he knew it didn’t get better than playing with Benmont Tench and Michael Campbell, and I think maybe it didn’t. He played “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” which was enough if he’d played nothing else. He closed with “American Girl.”
I like the punk kid smirking on the cover of that first album. I love what he grew up to be — the coolest grandpa it’s possible to imagine.