Understanding Tom Petty in the Spaces Between Being Young and Growing Old

Seeing Petty during his final tour bridged the gap between generations, transcending time and affirming the vitality of life.

Music Features Tom Petty
Understanding Tom Petty in the Spaces Between Being Young and Growing Old

It’s been nearly a week since Tom Petty died after a decidedly premature 66 years, but I still associate him with life. I always will. I went to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, N.Y., on my birthday this summer. And birthdays are, etymologically speaking, about life.

I hate birthdays. I hate the notion of importance when it comes to the passage of time. I fear the fleetingness of life, a futility in my writing and the fragility of relationships. I loathe imparting sentiment on a day that is just a day—the sun comes up, life happens, the sun goes down, and life continues to happen through the night, even if we can’t see it.

As my own life hurtles ever closer to one of those aforementioned birthdays of importance, I decided to buck tradition this year. No beers were consumed on the roofs of bougie Brooklyn bars. No friends gathered to congratulate me on another year of doing whatever it is we do in our limited time on Earth. Instead, I called my mom and invited (that is, pleaded with) her to meet me in the city and hang out with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on the first of their two-night run.

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My mom was 22 when Petty’s self-titled debut came out in 1976. She and my dad got married the next year. She had all the LPs on vinyl and at some point she let me borrow her CD version of 1993’s 12x platinum Greatest Hits, even if she didn’t let me keep it because she needed it back. Sometime in the ’90s (possibly this show; from Oct. 2, 1999, as we surmised on the LIRR train back from Forest Hills to Manhattan), she and my aunt went without me on to see him on the Echo tour. None of us can recall why I didn’t join them. As such, this past birthday was my first and only time seeing Petty perform.

Petty wasn’t “old” when he died on Monday after suffering a heart attack. Not by 2017 American standards, anyway. And though I am certainly not old, either, I am reaching that age at which you’re not exactly “young,” either. I’m learning that the time between those distinctions is, for the most part, when life happens.

Most of Petty’s biggest breaks came in those years. He was 29 (like I am now) when the band’s massive third album, Damn the Torpedoes, came out. He was just shy of 40 when the iconic, solo Full Moon Fever landed, and in his mid-40s when the gorgeous, evocative Wildflowers arrived. He had just passed 50 when he and The Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

The 15 Best Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Songs

For those of us who came to The Heartbreakers after Petty had already settled into this period in which life happens, the man seemed like a father or an uncle. He was cool enough to dig that rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but still fairly uncool. His hair was perpetually stringy and his shades too showy and Bono-esque. Yet his music was always there—on FM radio, in the car’s six-CD changer, on the cable channels that just play music, even on MTV and VH1 through the mid-aughts. Petty had songs you could cry to (“Alright for Now”), rally to (“I Won’t Back Down”), to help you direct your scorn (“You Got Lucky”) and songs for an existential crises (“Southern Accents”), just to name a few.

And yet, “settled” is the wrong term to describe that period, because Tom Petty never settled. You can hear it in his later, if inconsistent works, like 2002’s The Last DJ and 2010’s Mojo. (That being said, the band’s fourth song that night in Queens was a track called “Forgotten Man,” from 2014’s Hypotonic Eye, and it ripped.)

Because when Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers played New York City on my birthday this year, he was vivacious. Life emanated from him. Even though opener and longtime friend Peter Wolf said Petty’s hip had been bothering him, and even though Petty knew that this anniversary tour would be his last, he stepped onstage and transcended whatever pain or doubt he might have had. He and The Heartbreakers played the hits and choice cuts cosmically and telepathically, reflecting the range of emotions and experiences in this life.

That’s what I’ll remember about Tom Petty. Standing next to the one who literally gave me life, cheering and screaming and singing and unintentionally inhaling the dankest weed I’ve ever smelled, watching joy radiate as endless as the striated setting sun on a summer’s eve in New York—that’s how I’ll keep his memory and legacy. That’s the joy to be found between being young and growing old, when the living actually happens.

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