I was a lost seventh-grade soul at my junior high in Maryland, dealing with the after-effects of having been mentally abused and sexually assaulted by one of my former teachers. I couldn’t tell anyone. Back then, in the late seventies, kids didn’t talk about this stuff. With anyone. But I had an escape from the torment and memories of the abuse—Tom Petty’s first three albums.
He said in his lyrics what I wanted to tell that teacher: “God damn you . . . You’ve blown away my dreams.” Just as quickly, Petty gave me hope. “Even the losers,” he sang, “get lucky sometimes.”
When the teacher showed up at school, following me, Petty’s spirit was with me when I told him to fuck off, in Petty terms. “You’re gonna get it.” And he did, finally going to jail.
Like it was for thousands of teenagers, listening to Petty was liberating. For me, though, it was more than that. It was cathartic. It was medicine.
For the next four decades, Petty would be my spiritual adviser. I’m not religious, so the words in Petty’s songs filled that void. Songs like “The Insider,” “Letting You Go,” “Deliver Me,” “Crawling Back to You,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Forgotten Man,” “Learning to Fly,” “I Should Have Known It”—I could relate to the protagonist in each song. My favorite? “Keepin’ Me Alive.” That’s what his songs did and still do.
Now he’s gone. Too soon. Too sudden. On Monday afternoon, while the nation was stunned by the massacre of dozens at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Atlanta magazine’s executive editor Steve Fennessy sent me a text: “What are you hearing about Petty? What an awful day.” Several news outlets reported his death, then retracted the stories, noting that he was still on life support at a Los Angeles hospital. That evening, his manager confirmed he had died from a massive heart attack at age 66.
The news prompted tributes from music royalty and fans around the world. Tom Petty’s youngest daughter AnnaKim shared scores of pictures of her and her dad. Several columnists said Petty provided the soundtrack of Gen Xers’ lives. But songs of the Gainesville, Florida, native were more than background music for the Movie of Me. Petty, 14 years my senior and a Baby Boomer, offered a sanctuary, a place to either confront or hide from my problems—and celebrate my triumphs. Year after year, decade after decade, he put out songs that helped me, as if he knew the struggles I faced and successes I enjoyed.
His death crushed me. Selfishly, I need him. Unsure of how to react to my vicarious loss on the same day when 58 families were mourning loved ones lost in an unimaginable way, I took to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. People I haven’t seen since high school or my days at the beaches of Delaware in the nineties all said the same thing: “You were the first person I thought of when I heard the news.”
Those notes made me wonder, was Petty the most important person in my life? Outside my family, I have to say he was.
I guess that’s part of the reason I dubbed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary Tour as the #SummerofPetty (and because everything now needs a hashtag). In a span of four months, I saw Petty in Nashville, in Atlanta with my 12-year-old daughter, in Pasadena, and in my home state of Maryland.
The tour was scheduled to wrap up with a three-night stint at the Hollywood Bowl in Petty’s adopted hometown. I had no plans to trek back to California in September, until I got a weird feeling that compelled me to try to make it to the last date of the tour—my 88th show.
On September 25, not even two weeks ago, I stood outside the Hollywood Bowl, taking the obligatory selfies of me in front of the Tom Petty marquee. The mood was celebratory. Petty looked happy, and when he gleefully played percussion with his backup singers, it was clear he was having fun. He ended the encore with “American Girl.” The band took a bow, and exited stage left. Then, uncharacteristically, Petty looped back around, solo, and waved to fans once again. Did some part of him know?
I listened to Petty on the long flight back, seeking his lyrical advice on the future and relating to “Crawling Back to You.”
“I’m so tired of being tired, sure as night will follow day. Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” Petty’s stage presence and prose continued to comfort me, 38 years after confronting my former school teacher.
But now that’s over. There will be no show number 89.
In a 2014 interview with USA Today, Petty said, “I do feel as I get older that there’s a finite amount of time left,” he said. “It’s made me more interested in making records. They last longer than me, and they don’t go away.”
The records always will be there for me, and for that I am thankful. But gone are the days of feeling like I have an ally who I knew was out there writing new songs that would help me through the next decade. I feel like I lost a friend—the best that I ever had—whom I never met.
Tony Wilbert, a newspaper reporter-turned-PR pro, moved to Georgia in 1993 and now lives in Buckhead.