When I was 5 or 6, I learned a new word watching the evening news with my parents. The talking heads spoke of people with desperate plights, of people forced to flee their home countries. I was too young to understand why these people found themselves in these situations and what would come next for them, but that word, “refugee,” stuck with me. I remember being amazed that not everyone in the world was safe and secure in their homes, the way we are here.
A few years later I heard a song on a radio playing in the background. I hadn’t had much experience with rock-and-roll – my parents only listened to country – but this song came out of the speakers and hit me like a cannon blast. Then I stopped and listened to it intently and heard within it a familiar word. You have undoubtedly already guessed: that song was “Refugee,” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
There was something beyond that word, though, that I recognized. I felt as though I had listened to it hundreds of times at the same time that I knew I had never heard it before. It was as though I had poked my head into an alternate reality, into a flowing stream of time that was right next door to my present, with a cacophony of voices both never before heard and oddly familiar. I didn’t understand it at the time but in the decades since, I have come to feel that most of that familiar music was made by Tom Petty.
Songs on the move
In 1989, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was at a friend’s house hanging out. I was reading something while he was watching MTV. I can remember suddenly losing focus on what I was reading as a guitar riff and bass line and percussion beat bored straight into my brain. On the TV screen, a man was strumming an acoustic guitar as he walked relentlessly toward the camera and sang. The music was simple, honest and clear, as were the lyrics of his song. His eyes looked through the camera lens, through the television screen and straight at me as he told me, “I won't back down.” His unspoken message was, “And neither should you.” That message stayed in the back of my mind and served as inspiration when the challenges of high school and a toxic relationship with my father daunted me.
In the summer of 1991 after I graduated, songs from another Tom Petty album, Into The Great Wide Open, dominated the radio waves. I spent that summer driving a combine, harvesting wheat and later Bermuda grass seed. We worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hour days. To be an energetic, 18-year-old young, stuck in a dusty, noisy, 20-square-foot cab, threshing crops at the breathtaking speed of half a mile an hour, never having a day off let alone seeing any friends was to be extremely depressed. I couldn't even get away from it when I slept. I would dream that I was still in that cab, my hands repetitively working the levers and adjusting the steering wheel. I would wake up exhausted, climb into my truck and by 6:00 a.m. be back in the field doing it again for real.
Sometimes, if I was close enough to civilization, the cheap, miserable swap-meet radio that was in my combine could pick up well enough and on a couple of occasions, Tom and his Heartbreakers would carry me off into the blistering summer sky while we were “Learnin’ to Fly.”
A couple of years later, I found it necessary to drive to Fresno, Cal., and attend the high school graduation of my good friend Carl who had moved away. I took with me my baby brother, Justin, who at the time was 12 – the same age that my youngest son, Seth, is now.
Miraculously, our mother allowed me at the tender age of 20 to take her last baby along on a thousand-plus mile journey that, thanks to my friend Carl's big mouth, included some perilous situations. However, we managed to emerge unscathed.
It was my first favorite road trip. Justin and I had the opportunity to talk about everything under the sun for the first time without the rest of our family around and really got a chance to understand each other. I had a case full of cassette tapes to listen to as we drove but the tape that got the most play by far was a Memorex on which I had recorded Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Greatest Hits. By the time my little Toyota pickup rolled back across the mighty Colorado into Arizona, that tape was completely worn out, and Justin and I were Tom Petty fans for life.
For the ages
Tom himself wasn’t a fan of greatest hits albums because they imply that an artist’s best work is behind him. But his own Greatest Hits included two brand new tracks, one of which, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” created a whole new generation of fans. The same thing happened again, when his 2008 Super Bowl halftime performance brought yet another generation into Heartbreaker fandom. That was the thing about them: the honesty and purity of their music appealed to all ages and demographics.
In the fall of 1999, Justin and I attended our first Heartbreakers concert in Phoenix at what was then America West Arena. Justin wanted to bring along his friend Fernie, whom he had turned into a fellow disciple by proselytizing at high volume. None of us had ever been to a concert before and we could only afford seats in the nosebleed levels, but we were ecstatic just to be in the same building with them. We were at almost a 90 degree angle to stage right, up amongst the rafters but you couldn’t have convinced us that we weren’t on stage with them, being showered in Tom’s sweat.
A few rows down in front of us were two young guys that, while The Heartbreakers played, were jumping around, dancing like two spider monkeys on crack. The three of us looked at them and then at each other, disgusted with these two fools. We decided that they must have some sort of mental disabilities and dismissed it. We callously cracked a few jokes about what a couple of morons they were acting like and why they didn’t show a little self respect. Five songs later, all three of us were dancing around and howling in similar fashion. We never discussed those two guys again.
A family of fans
In the spring of 2000, I was on sabbatical in Arizona’s White Mountains after breaking my hand, when I met a vibrant, five-foot, three-inch tall stack of sexy, topped with dark curly hair. The very first time my eyes locked with Teri’s, my heart skipped six or seven beats. Later, while we were talking and getting to know each other, I mentioned my adoration for Tom Petty, as is my custom. Instantly, her beautiful green eyes lit up while she said, "Oh my god, I love Tom Petty!" My heart was immediately pierced by a Gibson Flying V guitar and my future as Teri’s love slave was locked in.
A little later, attempting to ensure that she felt the same way, I sang “A face in the crowd,” from the Album Full Moon Fever, to her. She told me that it worked. Teri and I went to our first Heartbreakers concert together two years later as husband and wife. We even took my two step-children, Anthony and Samantha along, adding yet another generation of fans for the Gods of Rock & Roll.
Our son Ian was just a baby at the time of that concert, but as he and three years later his brother Seth began learning to talk, I did as every good father should do and taught them the fundamental truths of life. As toddlers, I would sporadically ask either or both of them, "Who’s the greatest rock & roll band ever to walk the face of the earth?" They would enthusiastically throw their arms into the air and yell, “TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS!”
Yeah, I’m a good dad.
Over the years that followed, Teri and I and Justin and his wife Jayme would go to every concert possible. We missed the tour for the album Mojo in 2010, unfortunately. When they toured for their chart-topping album Hypnotic Eye in 2014, money was short throughout that summer, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to afford it. But at the last minute I managed to sell my favorite .44 Magnum revolver to finance the trip to L.A. and see the very last show of the tour at The Forum. It was far and away the best trade for a gun that I have ever made.
Last dance for Tom
There is more, oh so much more, but you’ll just have to wait for the book, I guess. Suffice it to say that I will forever think of this as the autumn of regret. I had hoped to scrape together the money to take my family to Los Angeles and see the Gods perform one of their final shows of the current tour at the Hollywood Bowl but just couldn’t quite manage it.
On Monday October 2, I got word from my best friend Keith that my idol had passed away, 18 days before his 67th birthday. I immediately called my brother and my wife. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I sobbed like a baby for the loss of my hero, and I don't know if I will ever be finished crying whenever I think about it too long. What I regret most is that my sons won't get to see him in concert, and I blame myself for that. At my age, I know full well that life throws the worst things at you when you least expect it and it is wise to seize the moment, regardless of the challenges that stand in your way.
I also know that even death can’t diminish the work of Tom Petty, although we will be deprived of new music from him. I was really looking forward to hearing what he did as he grew old, in much the same way that I enjoyed the work of Johnny Cash as he aged. Johnny was another of Tom’s heroes as well his fan. When Tom and the Heartbreakers backed Johnny on his American Records albums shortly before Johnny’s death, it was pure magic.
I am comforted by the way that Cash's death hasn’t diminished his legend, because Petty and Cash are both that kind of artist – relentlessly staying true to their heart as well as their art, not being swayed from what they feel by outside forces, never selling out, always there for the people that love their music.
I learned that Tom toured this entire last summer with a broken hip that he kept a secret from everyone. That’s the kind of man he was. He knew that if it had come out, the tour would have been cancelled, and I honestly think that he couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing his fans.
In 1999, when he was touring for the album Echo, a Rolling Stone reporter asked Tom what he thought about the growing sentiment that rock-&-roll is dead. Tom just chuckled and said, “Nah, rock-&-roll can’t die. Its design is perfect…it’s flawless.”
He knew that this musical form is immortal, and the same is true of you, Tom Petty. Your art is flawless, and you are now and shall always be immortal.
So, I will close by raising my arms to the heavens in tribute to the greatest rock & roll band ever to walk the face of the earth and declare "TOM PETTY IS DEAD…LONG LIVE TOM PETTY!"
Photo courtesy of Scott Gamble: Seth Gamble, age 12, reads one of Dad's vintage Rolling Stone magazines.