Tom Petty’s death made more of an impact on me than most of the many musician deaths there’ve been over the last couple of years. Partly because it was so unexpected and out of the blue, but also because, in a way, it was like a living connection to my teenage years was suddenly gone.
That time in my life was very wrapped up in the music Petty made. I was 16 when Southern Accents was released and it was a type of music that caught me at just the right moment. They say that the chemical oxytocin is produced in our brains in the greatest quantity between the ages of 12 and 23. One of the things oxytocin does is create strong links and bonds in our minds with music, film, and books we experience during that age range. Even though it’s a bit of a disjointed collection of tracks and, according to Petty, not what he originally envisioned, the diverse flavors on the album – the psychedelia of “Don’t Come Around Here No More“, the soul horns on “Make It Better” and “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” the country blues of “Spike“, the cool, smooth jazzy glide of “Mary’s New Car“, the shining power pop of “Dogs on the Run” – they were all drugs to my developing consciousness. Entry level drugs, in a way, to Petty’s back catalog as well.
Previously to Southern Accents, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Petty. I had seen the Mad Max-style video for “You Got Lucky” on Casey Kasem’s Saturday morning video countdown show (we didn’t have cable in my house, so no MTV) and I knew him from “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “I Will Run To You” – the duets he did with Stevie Nicks on her first two solo albums. I had a huge crush on Nicks at the time, though, so Petty’s singing on those songs just meant less Stevie singing on those songs. A feature I could live with, but not one I would have chosen (at the time).
With all the Petty I was hearing on the radio in early 1985 and the resulting resurgence of his older material, it all clicked and I became a convert in a relatively short time. Then it was announced that he and the Heartbreakers would be playing at the nearby USF Sundome in Tampa in July. I had at that point never been to a rock concert, but I convinced a friend to get tickets with me. Then it was a couple of months of waiting (“the waiting is the hardest part”).
My mother drove us to the show in my family’s suburban middle class Ford Fairmont station wagon, complete with fake wood paneling on the side. Making us even less cool than we already were, she waited in the parking lot with a book through the whole show (I guess I should be thankful she didn’t come in with us.) We found our mediocre seats about half way up on the extreme right of the stage, and were immediately engulfed in a cloud of marijuana smoke. I think somebody even passed a joint to us (never let it be said that Tom Petty fans aren’t friendly.)
Lone Justice opened, then riding high on their single “Ways to Be Wicked,” a song given to them by Petty. That first half hour or so sticks in my mind as Maria McKee jumping around on stage in some kind of prairie dress and me really needing to pee badly but not wanting to miss anything. Finally they were done and I boogied to the bathroom and got back in time for the ringing opening chords of “American Girl.” The volume was like nothing I had ever heard before, and the energy was exhilarating, even if it left my ears ringing well into the next day when I joined millions of other TV viewers watching Petty do four songs at Live Aid (and I had just seen him in concert the day before! A fact that made me think I was pretty cool indeed.)
I can’t remember the exact timing, but it must have been not long after that first concert that I got my first car, too. It was the era of the cassette tape and I would drive around aimlessly just for the novelty and freedom of being able to drive – my own car(!) and to listen to my tapes of Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises, Long After Dark, and Southern Accents ad infinitum.
The fact that he was from Florida where I lived too just made the connection to the music more meaningful in my mind. I took pride in being from the same state.
When I left to go to college a couple of years later, I ended up at the University of Florida in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville. Every street or old house seemed possible landmarks. I would ride my bike to Turtle’s Records way up 13th Street in the older, north part of town, going by the P.K. Yonge school where he went as a kid. Sometimes I’d find myself driving by Dub’s, the bar on the outskirts where he and early band Mudcrutch played regularly till they were fired due to band member Tom Leadon getting into an altercation with Dub (I later took guitar lessons from Leadon, a story I’ve told too many times – so I won’t again here!)
I happened to be walking home from the university library one quiet Sunday afternoon and ended up watching the on-campus student bar hangout, The Rathskeller (or, “The Rat”) where Mudcrutch had played many times, burn down from a kitchen grease fire. Lake Alice, where Petty had a short-lived job paddling around in a rowboat removing water weeds was within walking distance of my dorm room. Another time I ended up with some friends at a late-night party in a spooky run down old hippie house which was rumored to be one of Petty’s old residences (whether it was or not is debatable).
In short, I was in Petty fan heaven living in Gainesville.
That first semester in college was a difficult one for me, as I was struggling in my classes, had no idea what to major in or what to do with my life, and wasn’t getting along with my roommate, who had been one of best friends in high school. With a fair helping of self-pity, Petty’s “Even the Losers” became my private theme song (“Even the losers get lucky sometimes / Even the losers keep a little bit of pride”). In my moping, I pictured the line “Two cars parked on the overpass” to refer to the overpass I rode my bike over on those trips to Turtles Records. Never mind that the next line was “Rocks hit the water like broken glass” and this overpass wasn’t even over water, but was over a road.
In 1985 MTV aired a half hour special to coincide with the release of Southern Accents. Of course, not having MTV at home due to my parent’s opposition to getting cable TV, meant that I was unaware of it till years later. You can find it on YouTube nowadays and it features Petty and band performing on the roof of the ornate and historic Don CeSar hotel on St. Petersburg Beach (including great footage of “the locals” down on the beach yelling “Come on down, Tom!”). There’s also an extended interview, partially conducted with Tom driving around Gainesville in an old car. (For the record, Petty later wished he wasn’t wearing that confederate flag hat, as per this Rolling Stone article.)
As time went on and I got older, I listened to him less. Not all his new stuff connected with me, though a lot of it still did, just not in the same visceral way it did when I was a teen – when that oxytocin was percolating through my brain.
It may sound a bit corny, but even though he’s no longer with us, his music still is and always will be. Not that I’d want to live those teenage years over again (well, knowing what I know now, it would be okay), but I can still feel that spark when listening to “Change of Heart,” “The Wild One, Forever,” “A One Story Town,” “Trailer,” “No Second Thoughts,” …
But then, where does one even begin when selecting standout Tom Petty tracks? There’s so many great ones. A true legacy of song, which is what he would have wanted to be remembered for.
Postscript: Today, 30 something years later, I put Southern Accents on while driving around. Though the technology has changed from cassette to mp3, it still brings a smile to my face during “It Ain’t Nothing to Me” when Petty sings “We got smiling politicians (It ain’t nothin’ to me) / We got songs from rich musicians (It ain’t nothin’ to me)/ Called Tokyo long distance and the queen came for tea / Might mean something to you, It ain’t nothing to me.”