I knew the words to “Free Fallin” before I could write my own name. On multiple Maine to California family road trips as a young child, Tom Petty comprised the soundtrack to the sites through which we passed. From the Badlands to Hoover Dam to the Redwoods, Petty’s music always meshed with the landscape. The story of “American Girl” could be seen on the main streets of any small town, whether it be located in Arkansas or Idaho. Petty’s music was more than a classic-rock sound; it was a characterizing element of the American lifestyle.
Flared pants, floral patterned button downs, oversized jackets, a toothy smirk, and a Stratocaster slung across the shoulder comprised Petty’s aesthetic. Born halfway through the 20th century, Petty grew up in Gainesville, Florida in an unstable household. After meeting Elvis Presley in 1961 and receiving a guitar a few years later, Petty’s love for music was set in stone. His passion was certainly boosted by the mentorship of his first guitar teacher, none other than Don Felder, the renowned and revered member of the Eagles, who also lived in Gainesville. Petty, a blond, shaggy-haired rocker, ran down his dream at the age of 17 after joining a band called Mudcrutch. It wasn’t until 1976 when Petty formed the lineup of what would eventually become known as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which included Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. The Heartbreakers’ success in America did not arrive quickly, yet the band gained attention in Britain. Eventually this fame arrived in the states, and the group came to compose household American staples such as “Refuge,” “Learning to Fly,” and “Into the Great Wide Open.”
I got to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform live at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine in August of 2014. The energy twanging from the amps was incomparable. There is no better way to describe the audio presence of the band than by their name itself.
Like many of his musical peers, juggling fame and passion with the tumultuous world of rock’n’roll lead Petty to live a complicated life. Often the circumstances were dire, as seen when heroin addiction crept into Petty’s life in the 90s, a habit unknown to the public until nearly 20 years later. He worked the rigorous routine of a dedicated musician, writing, composing, perfecting, and recording music, and then traveling across the globe to promote and share his creations. In fact, Petty had just completed his 40th anniversary tour prior to his death. Petty told Rolling Stone that his 2017 summer tour was likely to be the “last trip around the country” for him. He demonstrated the relentless work ethic Americans so famously preach and idolize.
Petty’s death was puzzling. Throughout the day on Oct. 2, celebrities, news sources, and fans quickly sprung to post commemorative and sad tweets, Instagram pictures, and Facebook updates dedicated to the musician they believed to be deceased. However, the rocker’s condition was unclear for several hours, as the LAPD stated they were unable to confirm Petty’s death. The only official information regarded Petty’s hospitalization for cardiac arrest after he was found unresponsive in his Malibu home.
Rumors online swirled for hours as quick-to-click celebrities and fans retracted their tribute posts and awaited answers. However, Petty’s manager, Tony Dimitriades, announced the rocker died at 8:40 p.m. on Oct. 2, laying to rest the rumors as the world prepared to let the icon rest eternally.
Throughout his incredible career, Petty paired with other rock legends, such as Stevie Nicks, to produce timeless tunes. In 1988, Petty joined a supergroup music formation, the Traveling Wilburys, which included rock’n’roll royalties Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. When asked, Bob Dylan described his late friend’s death as “shocking” and “crushing.”
The news of Petty’s passing accompanied the coverage of the devastatingly fatal mass shooting on the Las Vegas strip, the largest in the nation’s history. The concurrent death of innocent music lovers and a beloved idol left the eyes, hearts, and hope of the American people raw and painfully scathed. Jason Aldean, the country star who was on stage in Las Vegas when the shots began, performed the Saturday Night Live cold open on Oct. 7. He sang Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Petty is survived by his wife, Dana York, two daughters, Adria and Kimberly Viollette Petty, and an entire world of somber, singing fans.