Thomas Earl Petty is headed into the great wide open, but it’s the rest of us who’ve lost something we’ll never get back. After suffering from a massive heart attack Sunday afternoon at his home in Malibu, Petty held on for one last sunrise, succumbing to death Monday afternoon.
I was up late last night, curled up in my favorite chair with my house guitar, a Fender Telecaster, just like Petty’s. I wanted to practice the chords to “Learning to Fly” but I didn’t have the patience or the talent, so I just strummed it idly. It might not seem much of a tribute, the light of a small candle against Petty’s supernova, but at any age we do the best we can.
Twenty years ago when I got my first car, I turned the radio on for the first time to catch the opening bars of “Don’t back down” and the song has followed me every step of the way. Call it superstition, laugh if you must, but I’ve never set out on a road trip without listening to “Don’t back down” first.
I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I moved to California the first time. I didn’t know anyone, but I was sure hoping I’d meet a good girl, if she was as crazy about Elvis as I was, all the better. Those first 6 months in California were the loneliest days I’ve ever faced, but I wasn’t alone. I had my books, and I had my records with me. Sitting on the hardwood floors of that first apartment in Santa Monica, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were my constant companions.
Tom Petty might have been from Gainesville, Fla., but he was as California as they come. When I was living in Oxnard I’d pass by the gates of Petty’s house every day on my way to school in Santa Monica, and it just felt right. Backed up against the ocean, Tom Petty was right where he belonged.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but as long I’ve got Tom Petty on my side, I won’t back down. It’s a song that keeps me moving, and lets me know I’ve got more to give than I realize. After hearing it almost accidentally at first, it’s become an integral fabric of my life, something to cling to when it feels like there’s nothing else to hold on to. It’s been there for late nights, when there’s still hundreds of miles to go, and it’s been there every time I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for the life I’ve chosen. In new cities and old towns, it’s been the soundtrack of my life.
On days like today, it feels like we need something to cling to more than ever. After another mass shooting, the deadliest in modern America, it’s easy to wonder if we’re living in the world Petty sang about in “Learning to Fly,” where the good ‘ol days might not return.
America is set for another reckoning on gun control, and there will be those on both sides of the table who’ll cling to Petty’s anthems. From the white nationalist group Stormfront Radio, that was using Johnny Cash’s cover of “Don’t Back Down” to the first responders, and the gun control advocates, who’ll see it as an anthem of survival as they fight for more restrictive gun control legislation. Petty was America’s everyman, and the songs he sung about loss and survival have become part of the fabric of our American life.
And maybe that’s Petty’s appeal, there’s something for everyone, even 19 year old me, blasting across the western desert, singing the chorus to “Don’t back down” as loud as he can, drowning out his fears on the cusp of another big adventure.
Contact David Dolmage