Coping With the Gut Punch of Tom Petty's Death at 66

Tom Petty
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Tom Petty photographed in 1976.

I don’t believe the good times are all over
I don’t believe the thrill is all gone
Real love is a man’s salvation

The weak grow strong
The strong carry on

Some news reports you just don’t want to believe, so you stay off the internet for a few minutes. Wasn’t this already the day from hell? Or the nine months from hell? We all have our go-to sources of solace, and inspiration, and our personal troves of top-quality, memory-stirring rock n' roll and balladeering. Tom Petty often served that need for me.

And then, with awful suddenness and scant days after a triumphant home stand in his adoptive Los Angeles for a 40th anniversary concert, he was gone.

You see a friend’s tweet first, and he closes with “Ugh.” Yes, that’s the noise you make when you get a gut punch. Tom Petty, at age 66, rushed from his Malibu compound to a hospital and it didn’t look good. And of course, it wasn’t good, no good at all, because not long after they confirmed he was lost.

You think of those nearest to him, because you have had your foot in that door and seen his co-workers and lovers and fellow artists inside there. And then you feel the gut punch and you break down a little bit. You could never have told him even across repeated contacts of the journalistic sort over the years just how much he meant to you spiritually -- yes, as deep in your spirit as any music has ever gone -- because that might have just led to a mildly embarrassed silence.

You remember dozens of moments, including an interview for Billboard when he was 64 and you were sitting with him in a glassed-in studio booth while distracting activity swirled all around, and he took a beat -- and he could take a beat as well as any showman who has walked the stage with a six-string slung around his neck -- and smiled one of his complicated and almost furtive smiles and said, “We’re professionals, right?”

That he most certainly was. As it was once put to me by Mike Campbell, the unerringly crackerjack guitarist who together with master keyboardist Benmont Tench and Tom formed the irreducible center of the Heartbreakers, “Tom calls the shots.” Petty ran the complex brotherhood that abbreviates as TPATH as a generally benign dictatorship. And yet when band mates fell by the wayside, as happened to the evocatively swampy but roguish drummer Stan Lynch and the late bassist/harmonizer Howie Epstein (who died by overdose in 2003), they were not remote figures in the rear view, but psychic landmarks, sometime friends whose loss Petty would discuss with empathy and obvious regrets.

Staying off the Internet didn’t do much good as dear and solicitous friends came in with queries during the purgatorial moments after the news struck, and one wrote, “Did he have a bad heart?” And the perhaps too glib thought was no, he had a great heart, a monster heart that could sit inside the barbwire words and music of a song like “Straight into Darkness,” quoted above, and still beat like crazy and make yours beat along with it.

There will be a time and place to talk about the music -- as I was doing with a longtime colleague from Rolling Stone days for a long stretch of a Sunday hike on what I could not have known was the last full day of Tom Petty’s life -- but each Petty fan has their personal stash. It started with the 1976 self-titled debut album. The one-two punch of “The Wild One, Forever” and “Anything That’s Rock and Roll” seemed to rise from a thoroughly singular new talent, blowing away rock music’s post-punk irresolution to point a towards a sound both classic and original. “The Wild One, Forever," a mostly acoustic lament celebrating and mourning an impossible but unforgettable young love (it would have a close cousin in “Magnolia” two years later) was followed by the pounding Chuck Berry stomp of “Anything That’s Rock and Roll.” The entire album was by turns an artistic declaration and a hollering yawp that in sum seemed to insist that only lovers would be left alive in some brave new rock world where the iconic “American Girl” ruled the turf.

Flip and entertaining as he could be, the essential Petty to me was the darker-hued poet of “Even the Losers,” “The Waiting,” “Deliver Me,” and “Southern Accents” as they spilled out over the next decade. When he ventured into solo work, he knocked out two paeans to his own north Florida working class indomitability, “Free Fallin’" and “I Won’t Back Down.” Both became iconic crowd pleasers.

I like to think that Petty’s demise, which will draw a perhaps never-to-be-reopened shade across part of my consciousness, will only serve to enhance his stature. I was lucky enough to know him a bit over the decades; it was a kind of (again) professional association with benefits. It came to be understood that there would probably be some herbal refreshments during our encounters, which, perhaps kidding myself here, seemed to augment rather than sidetrack his spoken insightfulness (if not my queries). I have a memory or running into him in the upper reaches of the House of Blues before a Willie Nelson show, and retreating into a shuttered, empty dining room to smoke one. (I also remember Rick Rubin, who was with him on what must have been a work break from recording Wildflowers, giving me a very fishy look when we emerged.)

I had been backstage in various rooms the road managers would open to journos and posers when the band played say, Fillmore East in the '70s or various rococo rock halls in other towns from Chicago to New Orleans. But the times I was designated to tag along on a couple later tours for magazine profiles, he was always welcoming, inclusive, ready with a quip that came from his slightly mysterious but usually winning vein of humor. Even when he’d turn to a video crew trying to film the band arduously getting a song rejiggered at sound check and say, “You guys are gonna have to fuck off,” with that half-dismissive grin of his, he was gracious enough to ignore the sight of me writing it down.

His perfectionism sometimes ran him and band both ragged, but he never let us see him sweat in public, even during the energetic if happily quirky stage shows, for which he (a great interpreter and helpmate to Bob Dylan and the Byrds) would be reliably garbed in the post-Rolling Thunder gear that would run to stovepipe hats and undertakers’ long coats. To the all-star Traveling Wilburys, he brought an insouciant slouch; in tandem with Stevie Nicks on “The Insider” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” he brought weaponized heartbreak. 

So now we must press on. He may have fallen, leaving us to try to grow strong without him. He plowed through a career that’s ineradicable, treasured, ever-present for those who love him. I do believe, and with the help of his music I will do all I can to live up to this, that Tom Petty really meant it when advised us to carry on.