|Op-Ed: Tom Petty - By Bob Lefsetz
Posted: October 3, 2017
"Oh, baby don't it feel like heaven right now Don't it feel like something from a dream"
He's in heaven, and we're dreaming, but it's a nightmare.
I woke up to the Las Vegas tragedy. And what's so weird is I was with one of the touring honchos last night discussing this possibility and he said it was just a matter of when.
And I saw Tom Petty, live, in the flesh, JUST TEN DAYS AGO!
So I'm at lunch with my mother, at Brent's Deli in Northridge. She came out for Yom Kippur. I'm hoping she's written in the book of the living. With her marbles intact. And my phone, which I'd turned to vibrate, since I wanted my mom to know I was paying total attention, started to go berserk. And ultimately I told her to hold on a second, I slipped my plus-sized device from my pocket and was confronted with a text on the home screen, "Is Tom Petty now dead?"
Huh? There are people who are ill, people who are aged, but like I said, I just saw Tom last week, it did not compute!
I didn't believe it. The internet is laden with rumors. I told my mother to give me a minute. I searched for news.
And then I found the TMZ story.
And TMZ never gets it wrong. They'd be sued out of existence. Tom had cardiac arrest, he was brain dead, and...
I still did not believe it.
I don't know what your life is based upon. I don't know what it's about. The sixties were about sports, my transistor told the stories of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Tony Kubek. I dreamed of playing in the big leagues.
And then the Beatles hit.
There's been nothing like it since. I wasn't the only one. It happened to Petty too.
Just like the nineties, when everybody bought a computer to play on AOL, everybody bought a guitar, formed a band, we were infatuated with the music.
And our heroes were British.
But in the seventies...
The Americans penetrated.
Petty wasn't there first, but by time he broke through...
He had history, he had gravitas, he had insight, he was the antithesis of a prepubescent rocker, all poses and no substance. He'd lived, played bars, gone to shows, and when he finally put out a record...
It was the one he wanted to make.
Those are the ones that last. Not the ones made for a market, chasing a hit, but personal statements, of truth.
Have you ever heard "Luna"? It sounds like a steamy night on a rooftop, that's what music does best, not tell a story, but instigate your own, set your mind free to remember, to think, to envelop yourself in this thing we call life.
But now Tom Petty is dead. How can this be?
We don't know exactly why, but one thing's for sure, most rockers don't last into old age. John Lennon was killed. The Big C got George. And history is littered with O.D.'s and casualties of the lifestyle. They thought they were gonna live forever, but they really didn't live that long.
And by time Tom's second LP was released it was the heyday of AOR, with tracks codified to formula. Corporate rock killed the record business. But Petty was never corporate rock.
And then he stood up for low prices, he didn't want to be the poster boy for ripping off the customer, and after declaring bankruptcy, taking too much time off, he exploded on the radio with "Refugee" and everybody had to own "Damn The Torpedoes" and suddenly he was the biggest star in the land. He didn't come from nowhere, he just needed the timing to be right, to get his story across right, kinda like the Boss with "Born To Run," but that single was never as big as "Refugee," there was not another hit on Springsteen's album, whereas Petty dominated the radio and sold tonnage and got little respect for it, because when you dominate, when you score, it looks easy.
Yet it's anything but.
And how do you follow this up?
Frampton gave the public what it wanted and it killed his career.
Petty kept searching, kept mixing it up. And then came the solo album and the Wilburys.
Tom Petty? He wasn't old enough to be in that concoction. He was a junior member, the JV, but Jeff Lynne, et al, knew something we did not, that Tom Petty was a superstar, just because he started in the seventies as opposed to the sixties didn't mean he wasn't worthy.
He was the worthiest, the only one who continued to have hits. The only one who continued to dominate. The only one who continued to reach the masses.
Sure, Roy Orbison died. As did George. And I don't want to take anything away from Dylan, but if you think his work of the last twenty five years is equal to the twenty five years before it, you're lying to yourself.
And Tom Petty never lied to himself, he was all about honesty.
And his shows were not nostalgia. He did that stand at the Fonda where he played deep cuts. And I'll always remember him plucking a golden oldie from the country world and labeling today's country music "the rock of the seventies." And in most cases it is. I've been quoting him ever since.
But Tom won't be uttering any more gems. He won't be utilizing his drawl on Sirius XM. He's gone.
But that can't be! This is not Elvis, past his prime and decrepit. I don't even want to play the records, I don't want to remember what once was, I still believe it can be.
BUT IT CAN'T!
How do I explain an era that was cottage industry, when the music business was built. When all the action was outside the home and you went to gigs with terrible PA's to hear bands that oftentimes couldn't replicate the records. Does anybody even remember Frank Barsalona? He deserves a hell of a lot more credit for building the modern concert business than Bill Graham, and my goal is not to piss you off, and I don't believe art, never mind business, should be ranked, but Petty was the last person doing it the way they used to, sans attitude, with a smile on his face, with the band intact. He didn't whore himself out to corporations. He didn't take the easy, expedient money. You could believe in him! In an era where everybody's doing it for themselves and the audience is the odd man out. You want to feel included, you want to believe the artist is doing it for YOU!
Not that Tom didn't take risks, didn't stretch, don't you remember him dropping in on "It's Garry Shandling's Show," on Showtime, when the classiest thing on HBO was "Dream On"? Tom didn't play a song, he just lived in the neighborhood, it was so bizarre.
But now Shandling is gone and Bowie is gone and Frey is gone and Prince is gone but Petty?
HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HERE FOREVER!
You don't want to outlive your children. Going on without Tom Petty is too painful, it wasn't his time, he still had a lot of living to do. He wasn't calcified, he was still pushing the envelope.
And he'd already surprised us so much. Solo albums bigger than band albums? The aforementioned Wilburys? When done right, music is a journey, you're not a prisoner of your hits, Tom was on an endless hejira, all the way from Gainesville to the promised land, and if you don't think Hollywood is that, the L.A. basin, you're too scared to come out here and compete where who your parents are and where you went to school are irrelevant, where it's all about the hustle and the talent, and some make it, very few, but almost nobody sustains.
Tom Petty sustained.
So it feels like a family member died. I'm numb. In shock. And eventually it will pass, and I'll march on, it's the nature of humanity.
And that's what Tom Petty's music had, humanity.
My girlfriend slept with another guy and I played "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," over and over again.
And when I heard the drop in "Here Comes My Girl," I felt powerful, like I had game, like I could impress the opposite sex, that's what music does, ride shotgun, turn you into your best self, help you get through.
And I don't want this piece to end. I want to keep on writing. Because as long as I do, Tom is still alive, I'm distracted, I don't have to confront that giant hole inside me that can only be filled with music, too often not the music made today, pabulum, researched stuff for a market. Once upon a time music was art.
Tom Petty made art.
Today I was in Reseda.
Tonight I drove down Mulholland.
But one thing's for sure, I'm free fallin'. Out into nothin'.
But tonight Tom Petty didn't leave this world for a while, but for all time.
And I just don't want to accept that.
But I have to.
Now it's down to us. We must carry on his vision. March into the future. Knowing that the music counts and not everything is right but when you build a catalog of hits you're not only part of the firmament, you live forever.
In people's minds.
Where rock music resides.
Where Tom Petty forever shall be.