Tom Petty, RIP

Tue Oct 03 2017

A giant middle finger to the LAPD and the national press for their disgraceful handling of Tom Petty’s death. The emotional limbo they plunged me into yesterday has turned into a deep denial that I don’t know how to deal with right now. So, I expect I will cringe if I ever read this again, but here goes.  When I was a kid I hated Tom Petty. That nasally southern drawl bugged the crap out of me. Talking about southern pride was not really cool in my book. Some of my best friends were huge fans and I could not figure it out. I only really dug the Harrison and Dylan Traveling Wilburys tunes to be honest. Then Jeff Lynne infused Into The Great Wide Open with every ounce of soft-rock cheese he could muster. You would think my friends would give up on trying to convince me at that point.

I have no idea what it was about Wildflowers that changed everything. Maybe it was simple peer pressure. It was my freshman year at Marquette, I was living in McCormick Hall, and this seemed to be the one album that nobody on the ninth floor could object to. So I gave in.

Or, maybe it was the song “Girl On LSD”. I had not tried LSD at that point and had no idea what “China white” even was, but let me tell you this “You Don’t Know How It Feels” b-side is a hilarious song anyway. I don’t think I’d gotten a humorous vibe from Petty prior to hearing that tune. And slowly, I came around to thinking that even though I hated almost all of his other music, Wildflowers was pretty damn good. Hey, a Milwaukee reference?? Coooool, maaaan.

Then in March of ‘95, Petty played the Mecca with his Heartbreakers, and I wasn’t exactly gung-ho on going, but if I remember the circumstances correctly, a cute girl I was starting to get to know had an extra ticket and talked me into going. And wouldn’t you know it, the bastards played “Girl On LSD”! I was blown away, and not just by this setlist novelty. As it turned out, Petty was a heck of a rock and roll frontman and his band was hot. And when they got to that last bridge of “Honey Bee”…you can probably imagine.

Wildflowers became a massive bonding experience for damn near everyone I knew. I started to not mind some of Petty’s other songs. He returned to Wisconsin that summer and we flocked to Alpine Valley. It was in the middle of Mike Campbell’s guitar medley portion of the show, and there was a light rain falling on us out on the lawn. Campbell laced in a few bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. And I just burst into tears. Seriously, over a year later, I still hadn’t processed Kurt’s death? I had never before cried at a concert, and I didn’t know what to make of it, but I can say now that something changed inside me at that moment. It might not have been so much Kurt as it was some kind of phony hardass shell that desperately needed a chip taken out of it. I have cried at many, many concerts since that one.

That show was even better than the Mecca show. At the time, I believe it was my favorite non-Nirvana show I’d ever seen. Definitely my favorite Petty + Heartbreakers show, and there have been many more since. Based on their recorded catalog and the shows I’ve seen, it could certainly be argued that they were the greatest rock band this country has ever produced.

I don’t want to go on and on talking about all the times I’ve seen Petty live, though. Hell, I don’t want to be writing this at all. It’s not helping. I want to skip past the denial and the hurt and get to a place where I can listen to Petty’s music without breaking down. So many songs, each with its own personal weight, each tied to so many memories. He did what all songwriters try to do—give voice to feelings that we all share. He did it over and over.

The songs will be his undying legacy, but as I sit here unable to spin them, I’m dwelling more on Petty the man. I’m thinking now that it was probably his character that really won me over. He was a guy who fought the music industry and got them to do his bidding. He was a star who revelled in his massive stage presence while still seeming down to earth. I don’t need to give you his bio but he fought through a lot of bullshit in his life and always came out on top.

Most importantly to me, he was always the voice for the underdog, not just in song but especially in song. He had a way of writing about love that made it sound like what I wanted to find, even when I didn’t believe it was possible. When he sang “Even the losers get lucky sometimes” I thought ‘God damn it I hope you’re right, Tom.’ I don’t know what Petty was like as a kid or a young man, really, but his attitude and his words always made me feel like he was a lot like me. Or maybe a lot like the guy I was always trying to be.

It’s emotionally dangerous to start feeling like you know someone you actually don’t. My brain is rejecting the consequences of that type of connection right now. I was looking forward to this Wildflowers anniversary tour that Petty had been talking about. I wanted to come full circle with my favorite album of his. Now I can’t even think about listening to it. In this life, you keep looking for closure and usually there’s no such thing. Maybe a year or so from now some band will tease “Runnin’ Down A Dream” or something and I’ll finally let this grief out.

Petty played Summerfest almost like clockwork about every other year. I went to see him almost every time since ‘99. This past summer I went half grudgingly, half because I couldn’t help it. It’s Petty; why would I not go? But I had it in my head that if it wasn’t any good, maybe it would be the last time. I thought I would be the one making that decision. Fuck.

I wish I had more eloquent words for this occasion, but I’m writing this out of need and I’m about out of willpower. I haven’t come close to conveying the deep impact Petty had on my life. I’ve got all these fragments of reasons why swimming in my head but they’ll have to stay there. We have to do our best to dwell in gratitude for all that he gave us. So thanks for everything, Tom. Sorry for cheesy the cheesy sendoff but you’ll always be the king of Milwaukee in my book.

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Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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