I have reached that peculiar age—that middle age—where the folks you grew up idolizing inevitably start to pass away in rapid succession. Sure, I could tie it directly to Prince and Bowie and the like, but it goes back further, and, if I’m being honest, there’s nothing particularly novel about it.
It’s just a function of growing older.
However, the geeky community, like a lot of other insular scenes, tends to put a strong value on what you’re into and how you got into it. And for me, that’s music. For me, that’s Tom Petty.
I became aware of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through that proud southern tradition of rock ‘n’ roll radio. We were poor and it was free, so it was a godsend to a bored, awkward, listless child.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family of musicians and music lovers, so I understood the power of a good song. But before Tom, I never knew what it was like to love a song. Sure, I loved Star Wars and the Transformers, but these were, at the time, fairly straightforward properties—there was very little room for (pre-adolescent) interpretation.
A song, though, could be what you wanted. It could be what you needed.
The Heartbreakers—and The Clash, my other go-to band for all these many decades—first came to the forefront of my consciousness at around age 9 or 10. This would’ve been, for those of you keeping score at home, roughly 1985-1986, via the airwaves of what was then WCKN-FM in Greenville, South Carolina.
For Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this would’ve been the Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) era. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were up-tempo favorites, while “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and Southern Accents‘ title track were sparse and contemplative—both important parts of a new music fan’s media diet.
It was 1989’s Full Moon Fever, though, Tom’s remarkable first solo outing, that truly set the course for a younger Z. I had purchased albums before, mind you—Morris Day’s Color of Success comes to mind—but none so excitedly. None so proudly.
What followed was nothing short of a lifelong fandom. I received Into the Great Wide Open, somewhat ironically, while in an adolescent psychiatric facility. I scrimped and saved for months to buy the Playback boxed set. Songs and Music from She’s the One was procured via a Faustian deal with Columbia House. My best friend gifted me a copy of The Last DJ. I was even lucky enough to see Tom and the boys perform in the late 1990s, and it remains one of my ultimate concert experiences.
When I discovered Tom Petty, he was a guy who looked like me and sounded like me at a time when neither of those things was even remotely en vogue. (I’d argue that they still aren’t, but I can be a tad self-critical—so, y’know, grain of salt.) Still, he was someone who I respected and admired and, in that way a fan does, loved. And I still do.
He came from a less-than-stable southern family background, just like me. He had his struggles with depression and the oft-related foreign substances, just like me. And he found his grand cosmic purpose in music, just like me.
Why should any of this matter to you?
Well, it probably shouldn’t. But it matters to me.
I love music because of Tom Petty, and without that… well, I wouldn’t be here. Now, I don’t mean “I wouldn’t be here” as in, like, the physical realm. Although, to be honest, music in general (and his specifically) helped me through more than one bad turn, so that might be true as well.
What I mean is, I wouldn’t be at GeekDad without Hipster, please!, my old blog and the original home of Radio Free Hipster. And there wouldn’t be a Hipster, please! or a Radio Free Hipster without my obsessive, all-consuming passion for music. And there wouldn’t be that without the little root that germinated all those years ago, nourished by the soulful drawl of one Thomas Earl Petty.
So if you’ve ever listened to my podcast, if you’ve ever hung out at a show or talked music with me late into the night in some dark, long-abandoned parking lot, hell, if you’re one of the handful of folks that’s ever been in a band with me, it is, part and parcel, because of Tom Petty.
He’s gone now, but his music’s still here. That much I know. And I, at least, am all the better for it.
“Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1979)