After a week punctuated by the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States, it may be difficult to step back from the tragedy to acknowledge smaller, quieter events that have impacted the music industry. One such sadness occurred on October 2nd when legendary musician, part-time radio host, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and purveyor of all things suede and fringed, Tom Petty, passed away at UCLA Medical Center after suffering cardiac arrest. Petty was only 66 years old at the time of his passing.
Petty’s death was confirmed by Tony Dimitriades, manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, via social media on Tuesday, October 3rd:
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40pm PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends” (via Instagram, @tompettyofficial).
Although best known as the frontman of the eponymous Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Petty was a working musician for years prior to the Heartbreakers’ rise to prominence as the lead singer of Gainesville, Florida-based band Mudcrutch and later as a member of the Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. His hits are numerous and span multiple decades, from “Last Dance with Mary Jane” to “Free Fallin’,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “American Girl,” and more. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were still going strong and actively touring as of 2017–in fact the group gave their last performance at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25th.
Fans and fellow musicians have taken to Twitter to mourn the passing of a musical icon.
— Classic Alternative (@altclassic) October 3, 2017
— Electric Mayhem (@ElectricMayhem) October 3, 2017
Well I won't back down
No I won't back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
Gonna stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won't back down#TomPetty
— Brian J. Manzullo (@BrianManzullo) October 2, 2017
Tom Petty was, strangely enough, an indelible part of my childhood. Both of my parents are Gainesville transplants, and a pantheon of Tom Petty albums comprised the bulk of their CD collection that accompanied us on the ride to school, in the drive-thru at McDonald’s, or on family trips to state parks. At 10 years old, I was as familiar with Tom Petty’s discography as I was with the usual suspects on Radio Disney. I was lucky enough to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers during the tour for their most recent album, Hypnotic Eye, in Tampa–never before have I experienced such a bizarre and wonderful mixture of nostalgias, plural. There was my own personal recollection of road trips set to the sounds of “Wildflowers,” “Time to Move On,” “It’s Good to Be King,” or, a personal favorite, “Free Girl Now.” But there was also the simultaneous but generations-removed nostalgia my parents, also in attendance, experienced. The same songs and albums that conjured up images of crinkled paper maps of Florida and hot Skittles for me brought to mind their college days; the early years of their relationship, the beautifully tragic experience of bar hopping in Gainesville.
Maybe that was what made Tom Petty’s music so popular, so widely loved and often referenced–it was simple, heartfelt, and spoke to universal emotions in a unique and poignant way. It meant different things to different people, but regardless of your interpretation, those songs stuck with you.
“I’m just trying to make good quality music, ’cause I do realize this music is going to be around much longer than me. I do know that now. If I’m gonna get it together to go make a record, I want it to be something that does feel timeless and honest.” – Tom Petty