It’s hard to believe that one month has already passed since the world lost rock and roll musician, Tom Petty. I’ve been privately grieving this loss for the last few weeks and remembering the voice of a man – of a generation of musicians – that has been unknowingly guiding me along my way since I was a young child.
Tom Petty was one of the first voices I remember hearing and recognizing, telling my dad, “That’s Tom Petty” and him nodding that I got it right. Dad and I always played this sort of game where he would ask who was singing the song that was blaring on the radio. Sometimes, I’d get it right. Many more times, I’d get it wrong.
My relationship with my dad is based heavily on art and music, and it seems like the conversations we have always come back around to a song we heard, a piece we’ve seen and the things we’ve been able to connect to because of our creative, artist hearts. Dad taught me how to listen to music and appreciate it for more than words. He taught me about the importance of what music makes you feel when it touches your ears and how it feels in your heart. We often joked that I should have been born in the 50’s to really appreciate and experience the music that followed in the next two decades. He is right though. I would have loved to see Tom Petty rocking it out with the Heartbreakers on any ol’ stage. Hell, I would have loved to see any band playing a rock show back then.
Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to go see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers earlier this year in Houston. It was their 40th reunion tour and since I had missed their 30th, I knew I had to make it happen. As soon as tickets went on sale, I scooped up two. Originally, my boyfriend and I were planning to go, but a few days after I bought them, I called my dad and let him know that I was going, and could he believe that Joe Walsh was going to be the opening act? My dad was so excited for me to go, but in all honesty, the experience wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t come with me. Being over 1,000 miles away in Arizona, it didn’t seem likely that he would be able to join me, but after a couple months of talk, my mom bought him a ticket to come spend the weekend with me.
We drove the three hours to Houston. We had crappy lawn seats, but we didn’t care. We grabbed our lawn chairs and bought a couple beers to get us through the show. When Joe Walsh came out, he did a couple of our favorites, “Ordinary Average Guy” and “Life’s Been Good To Me So Far.” After a couple more songs, he was getting ready to close his set and he dedicated his final song, an Eagles original, Take It To The Limit, to his longtime friend and bandmate, Glenn Frey who has passed away in January 2016. It was a somber moment that resonated with the crowd, many who grew up listening to that song when it first debuted on the radio. I remember thinking that I would never hear the song the same again, and I haven’t since.
When Tom Petty came out for his set, I was thrilled. Seeing him perform was a major life box for me and I kept telling my dad that I would die happy if he’d just play my all-time favorite song, “Learning to Fly.” To be honest I don’t know when this song became my favorite, but it’s the kind of song I go back to over and over again in my life, regardless of my circumstances or surroundings.
The night of the concert was muggy and the rain had been threatening for over an hour. Being on the top of the hill, we could see the storm clouds rolling in and lightning striking all around us, but not close enough to be worried. I’ll never forget the moment, about mid-way through the set, when I heard that first note and knew that he was about to play my song, as if he had heard my personal request. The rain started to come down and I threw on the concert t-shirt my dad bought for me during the intermission. It was three sizes too big, but I didn’t care. I danced as the song played. As the rain came down, it hid the tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. I felt so alive in that moment and I never wanted that song to end.
That time spent with my dad was priceless. We enjoyed our weekend together, exploring several cities in Texas and enjoying all the things I had come to love in the two years since I moved away from Arizona.
Last month, when I learned that Tom Petty died, I was devastated. It’s hard to explain an ambiguous loss, like that of a celebrity. I didn’t know him personally and his music has survived him, so I really shouldn’t feel so sad, but I do. Part of me knows that I’ll never have an opportunity to see another show again. Part of me also knows that I probably wouldn’t go to another one even if there was another tour.
I feel sadness and regret, even though I was able to attend that Houston show. It’s a weird sort of survivor’s guilt that I feel for experiencing one of this icon’s final performances. I can’t wrap my mind around it or articulate why it hurts, but it does. There is a hole in my heart that is only temporarily filled when I turn on one of those old records and pretend I’m back in my teenage bedroom, jamming out to “American Girl” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
I know there are people out there who have experienced this sort of loss. Maybe, for others, it feels totally normal, but for me, this has been a foreign experience. I grieve deeply. I always have. Sometimes, even the smallest loss feels like I’m drowning in an ocean of sorrow and despair, but today I’m drowning in “The Waiting”, and waiting to “Breakdown.”