This time of year always takes some getting used to for me. I’m an early riser, and I really don’t much like getting up before the sun. But this week, it’s felt dark all day, every day, ever since I realized the sad news about Tom Petty was true.
The newsroom at the Tribune already was in a somber state Monday because of the horrible mass shooting Sunday in Las Vegas when the first reports started surfacing that Petty had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t doing well. Unlike some of the musicians I have mentioned at work, Petty didn’t draw blank looks from my mostly younger co-workers. Everyone knew who Tom Petty was, and the news was a shock to all.
Any other week, Tom Petty’s death would have been “sad news on the doorstep,” but until today, our print editions haven’t acknowledged his passing. That might seem strange — even incomprehensible to some — but it has been a weird week with lots of other big news. His death wasn’t confirmed in time for Tuesday morning’s paper, and by Tuesday afternoon it didn’t seem like the big news it had the day before.
I went to bed Monday night thinking maybe he could miraculously pull through, and it was a hopeful omen for me when I didn’t see anything in the next morning’s paper (which I still always read before going online — go ahead, call me a dinosaur).
Petty is the fourth musician this year whose passing compelled me to write a column. Chuck Berry and Glen Campbell joining the heavenly band weren’t huge surprises. Local guitarist George McCune’s death was as much a shock as Petty’s, but the weight of Petty’s passing has been so hard to shoulder. He was one of my biggest musical heroes.
Petty hooked me the first time I heard “Breakdown” on my car radio during my high school days. I loved the way Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers, eased into the song, built it to a crescendo and then brought it back down to a simmering fadeout. It had a different dynamic than anything I’d heard and there were so many things to love about it — the sliding bass run on the verses, the sinewy organ fills, the slinky guitar riff, the way Petty sang the verses with a hint of some kind of exotic accent.
And even with my rather basic guitar skills and untrained voice, my bandmates and I could perform a convincing version of the song. It was a simple song, really, but compelling. Maybe it wasn’t that danceable, but it seemed so COOL.
Even in his early songs, Petty was showing signs of brilliance as a songwriter, keeping things simple and skillfully mining the human experience for lyrics that years later people would know by heart, not hesitating to give them full-throated voice at his concerts. In the end, he was a master.
I’ve seen Petty roughly half a dozen times, more than I’ve seen any other recording artist, and I’ve bought every studio album he ever put out (even the Mudcrutch and Traveling Wilburys albums). Other than The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen and a few artists who only put out a couple records, I haven’t had the kind of obsessive devotion I had for Petty. It’s like the awesome songwriter Todd Snider wrote in “Vinyl Records” — “I’ve got piles and piles and piles of Tom Petty.”
I haven’t loved every album like I adore “Damn the Torpedos” — a “desert island” album for sure — but I’ve always been able to count on Petty to make it worth my money. It makes me sad there won’t be more Petty songs, and I hate that he was taken so suddenly. He had to know he was loved, though, especially after this year’s recently conclude 40th anniversary concert tour, which I was lucky enough to catch this summer in St. Paul.
Check out Sunday’s paper for a proper appreciation of Tom Petty. And meanwhile, listen to some Petty songs. It might make you feel like he’s not really gone.
Rock on ...