This isn’t a memorial piece. I don’t feel there’s anything I can really say to memorialize Tom Petty. His music will forever speak for him and they way it makes us feel will forever speak to what he meant to those who loved him. Nor is this a piece that explores his place in music history or his contribution to the world of music. I’m certainly not qualified to write a post like that. Rather, this is just a thought, that’s been going around and around in my head since I heard of his passing. Well, that and a few of my favorite songs of his too.
Before I say anything else…”Wildflowers.” This has always been my favorite Tom Petty song. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Wildflowers is my favorite Tom Petty album too. This song deeply moves me, with every single listen. It always has…
As I was thinking of Tom Petty today, I thought of the Travelling Wilburys. They Wilburys were this goofy supergroup (they all adopted fake Wilbury names/personas in the liner notes) that consisted of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. And they made brilliant music together. Mom had their album and we listened to it all the time when I was a kid. I have my own copy now and I play it regularly too. First they lost Roy Orbison. Then it was George Harrison. Now it’s Tom Petty.
Thinking of the Wilburys made me realize Tom Petty is part of a tradition, a way of making music, that doesn’t exist anymore. And I know, I know…I’ve never written anything on my blog that makes me sound this old before. But it’s true! When I listen to contemporary music I don’t hear (or rather, I don’t feel) anything like him anymore. When I was a kid, my first musical memories were of my Mom’s music. (Dad’s a good singer and enjoys music too but he never really put albums on. He still doesn’t. All the records we’d listen to were Mom’s.) I grew up on Rod Stewart, Carol King, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Cher, Van Morrison, and so many great artists. I listened to them because they were Mom’s favorites…but then I grew to love them myself. Their music went from being something I liked because Mom played it (and it was pretty much all I knew) to something that spoke to me in my own life. I willingly sought it out because it meant something to me too. It still does.
As a child of the 80’s and an adolescent of the 90’s, what would eventually make up my music was a mix the music I first met when it was Mom’s music as well as the music I found on my own – No Doubt, Shakira, U2, Pink, “Weird Al” Yankovic :), Matchbox Twenty, Green Day, Counting Crows, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and so on. I think that’s true for a lot of people. And the two different ways of meeting the music mean very little in the long run because they all merge together in heart and in mind. They’re all part of the soundtrack of my life. They’re all part of who I am.
Looking at where Tom Petty fits (beginning as Mom’s until he became mine too), it’s a place where, try as I might, I can’t imagine any contemporary artists filling. Hell, many of the artists that were mine first, can’t. His songs capture emotions and experiences that resonate across generations. But he also continued to make relevant music through my life too. I was able to excitedly pick up new Tom Petty albums as I grew up. I remember the power of listening to The Last DJ for the first time, and hearing his searing critique of the modern music industry. I could experience him as an artist making new and relevant music because he kept doing it. These old dogs came up writing, recording, and touring as a way of life. They seemingly never stopped.
Let’s look at No Doubt (who I love) as an example. They came out with No Doubt in 1992, followed it with The Beacon Street Collection in 1995, broke BIG with The Tragic Kingdom also in 1995 and then took five years off. Return Of Saturn came out in 2000, followed closely with Rocksteady in 2001 and then…nothing. A multidisc greatest hits collection in 2003 and they all went their separate ways. They tried to reconvene with a little touring and 2012’s Push and Shove but it never felt the same. I LOVE No Doubt but I’ve only ever been able to play Push and Shove all the way through once and I couldn’t name a single song on it if my life depended on it.
Compare that with Tom Petty’s The Last DJ or Highway Companion, albums I loved as much as his “classic” stuff, albums that I played again and again, albums that became a major part of my life. The same can be said of someone like Bruce Springsteen. I think Magic, Working On A Dream, Wrecking Ball, and High Hopes stand with the best work he’s ever done and they mean a great deal to me because they’re mine. I was able to go out and pick them up the day they dropped and fall into them as I fell in love with them.
Tom Petty’s passing didn’t just make me mourn the loss of an incredible musician. It made my mourn the eventual end of a creative era. Where are the performers today who I could imagine still making music and being relevant in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years? I can’t name one. Sure Ed Sheeran’s good. Adele is too. And I love, love, love Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson, and Griffin House. But I just don’t see a staying power – in part because the trends and times are too finicky to keep those who are incredibly popular now (Ed Sheeran and Adele) popular decades into the future or their exposure is too limited (Brandie Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson, Griffin House) to ever let them build a fan base that will let them keep making music.
And who among modern musicians produce like these old timers? Who is constantly turning out new, quality music, allowing their fans to grow with them? Who takes it on the road just as regularly so they can bring it to their fans and see how it works live? Look at Tom Petty’s discography: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976), You’re Gonna Get It (1978), Damn the Torpedoes (1980), Hard Promises (1981), Long After Dark (1982), Southern Accents (1985), Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987), Full Moon Fever (1989), Into The Great Wide Open (1991), Wildflowers (1994), Songs and Music From “She’s The One” (1996), Echo (1999), The Last DJ (2002), Highway Companion (2006), Mojo (2010), and Hypnotic Eye (2014). The longest gap the man ever had between albums was three years and that didn’t come until his final three albums. And this list doesn’t even count live albums and compilation albums!
This was the rule, not the exception for the solo artists and bands who made up the music I inherited from Mom. Call it a work ethic, call it a creative potential, I don’t know…whatever you call it, I don’t see it anymore. As a result, our modern musicians who garner so much radio play/streaming time/YouTube views/etc. aren’t creating the body of work that will allow them to continually be present and speak to new listeners, to let younger people become fans in their own right and grow with their new music as they fall in love with their old stuff. And is anyone really producing the type of music that will warrant listening to consistently for decades? NO. Okay, okay…after that last line I should hike my pants up to my chest as I scream, “Get off my lawn!” to the neighborhood kids. That’s, I sound 157 years old. But the rest of it I stand by.
As I’ve spent the day listening to Tom Petty and feeling all the moments of my life his music holds, I remembered something I’ve always known about his generation of musicians. It was about the music. They had something to say and because of what they said and how they said it, they became famous. They weren’t, to quote Tom Petty’s “Joe,” “Some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick. Hey! Now that’s what I call music!” It wasn’t about shaking your ass or flashing your abs. It was about songs with messages that mattered, messages that gave a focus, purpose, and/or explanation to the lives we were living. I’m sure there are still people out there who can and do make music like this…but the industry hasn’t sought them out for some time. This leaves them playing small gigs, showing a tiny audience what it’s like when the performer feels as opposed to poses. And it leaves a lot of shit not worth remembering on the radio. So as I mourn Tom Petty, a man who was so young when he died, I also mourn all of this. But thankfully, the music I need, the music that gives shape to my life, will always be there when I need. I might not find on the radio but I can always count on the CDs in my basement (yes, I still enjoy physical albums – I won’t let them go). And as I think of Tom Petty, I’m not filled with sadness so much as joy. Because I’m thinking of him as I listen to all the wonderful songs that have filled my life and captured so many incredible memories.
I’ll end with another song from the Wildflowers album, “Time To Move On.” Given how much I love this album, it was the first I put on this morning and I’ve listened to it a few times today. As I listened to this song it seemed to take on a different meaning in light of Tom Petty’s passing. For me it was a beautifully unexpected yet surprisingly perfect note to think of Tom Petty as he moved on into the beatific vision of the next life. I’ll let Tom Petty have the final word, “It’s time to move on, time to get going / What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing / But under my feet, baby, grass is growing / It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going.”