Remembering Tom Petty

Last September, I said hello to a vinyl record called “Southern Accents,” something I had been searching for to add to my collection since freshman year of college. Last October, the entire world said goodbye to its writer.

I don’t know how many tributes to Tom Petty I saw in the weeks following his death. He was loved, so very loved. A while ago he did a podcast interview with NPR, which NPR reposted in memoriam. The podcast particularly stood out to me because of its tagline: “The Songs Mean A Lot To People, And It Means A Lot To Me.” Immediately that struck me, because nothing in that sentence needs explaining, not to me. I don’t remember a time in my life that I did not love music, and more specifically, his.

My parents raised me on ’70s rock & roll, their generation of tunes. They picked out records to spin on my dad’s Kenmore until I was old enough to choose myself, and they always played CDs on car rides of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, The Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd—everything they grew up with and never stopped loving.

The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits was my favorite of our road trip CDs. I’m pretty sure I had every lyric on that album memorized by the time I was 13. (I’m pretty sure I still do.) My parents spoke of these musicians like they were friends instead of celebrities, so in a sense, I knew the faces behind the lyrics as well as I knew the lyrics themselves.

I’ve always known that Paul McCartney and Tom Petty were going to the hardest deaths I’d have to face from the rock & roll generation. You can’t grow up having that kind of connection to these larger-than-life figures without recognizing that one day, you’ll lose them. I never thought I’d have to deal with one of those deaths so soon.

I never got to see Tom Petty live because the opportunity was never really convenient, and I foolishly thought I’d have all the time in the world. But I was lucky enough to grow up with memories of his songs, and I have no grief in remembering that. I remember driving with the windows down listening to “American Girl,” making up awful dance moves for “The Waiting,” laughing at the music video of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and getting over breakups with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” In my mind, I see each of these instances in vivid color. I always will.

I add these images to memories of flipping through scores of crates searching for records. I remember the day I found “Damn the Torpedoes,” the first Petty album I got without sneaking them from my dad’s collection, at a summer flea market in Brooklyn. I remember walking home, carrying it in a brown paper bag. It was so hot outside. I was so happy.

In a strange way, something that haunted me in the wake of his death is that I never played that “Southern Accents” record while Tom Petty was still walking the earth. The only player in my apartment is a cheap little Crossly because I won’t splurge for something stable until I’ve settled down. You can’t spin older records on players like that because it’ll warp them. My proudest records are thin, fragile LPs from the ‘70s and ‘80s, so I take them out only for Dad’s Kenmore.

After, I took “Southern Accents” to my parents’ house and played it in the wake of his death. We set it to spin and cranked the volume and Dad teared up but refused to cry. And I did the same.

That NPR podcast proves Tom Petty knew what these songs meant to people. How could he not? He told NPR about the first time he heard fans singing along to “I Won’t Back Down,” when they were so loud they almost drowned out the band on stage.  This story moved me, because I know the feeling of being one of those fans so well. I never got to see him specifically play, but I have been that fan drowning out the voice over the stereo system, over the car speakers, for as long as I can remember.

It’s been a year, but Tom Petty’s legacy isn’t going anywhere, not for me or anyone else who still carries around memories like these. So we can say goodbye—maybe we’ve said goodbye—but we don’t really have to say goodbye.