Some days just stick out in the memory banks like sore thumbs. One year ago today, October 2, 2017, is just that sort of a day. It is the day that one of music's great purveyors, Tom Petty, met his end. In a career spanning over four decades, Petty released some of the defining songs of the Rock music era. For me, one of the very finest musicians that ever cracked the charts. With the September 28 release of the career-spanning box-set "An American Treasure," we the listener get another reminder of how vital his music was and is to the 'Classic Rock' and 'Pop' genres of music. Looking into the treasure trove of previously unreleased, unheard material gives a unique window into the song-writing process that drove him throughout his life. Though Petty is gone, we can rest easy in knowing that his songs will likely as not survive in radio airplay until the end of the age.
For some back-story, there was some angst on my part leading up to his passing, as well as a resurgence in his music's prominence in my life. Specifically, after reading the Warren Zanes-penned "Petty: The Biography" in February, 2017, I got this sinking feeling that he might not be much longer for the world, and that even he wasn't ready for it. As it turned out, this was right around the time he incurred his hip fracture which began the downward spiral. The feeling just never went away throughout the year, and was raised to a new level when he cancelled shows in August because of laringitis. There just seemed to be this sense of completion when I looked through his back-catalogue of music. I never would have voiced this at the time, but there was just something eerie and haunting looking over that landscape. Indescribable. I've never felt anything like that before or since looking over the career of a rocker who would later pass away.
In the month leading up to his death, his music was on the unmistakable ascendance in my life. For me, it was largely about the lesser songs, though I still liked the hits that brought me to where I was. The song "It's Good to Be King" was one I had discovered very recently at that time, and it conveyed to me such power and essential truth to go along with it. The moment it clicked for me was when I had just triumphantly finished a political article in July, 2017, that had been in doubt after Blogger.com failed to save the file. Having re-counted the whole thing from memory, sans many of the weird and wiry tangents, I celebrated, and this was the first song that came into my head. Of course, "Room at the Top," then as now, loomed large as well. That one was the song I used for one of my very favourite videos and summed up one of my very low periods up to that point. "Too Good to Be True" also resonated with the already world weary part of me who was by then(And certainly so now) starting to realize that I had a problem in terms of using crushes on girls and ladies as a drug through which I could get high, a la snorting cocaine.
"It's good to get high and never come down. It's good to be king of your own little town."
Those days before his passing are weird to remember since, unlike any other musician who passed in the last few years, his music was at the fore-front of my musical mind right at the time of his passing. Most of the others hadn't been touched in a while, and got a 'revival' of sorts when somebody would pass away. The day after his final concert, I burned a compilation CD of sorts, featuring tracks from many artists. I have done many of those through the years. On this disc, I placed "It's Good to Be King" right in the middle and listened to the CD as I did a road trip to Toccoa, GA, and visited their stellar Antique Mall and the wonderful book store on the city square. All those songs and Petty's song communicated many different things to me as I was making that trip. Still, this question kept nagging at me as I listened to his music: "What more can this guy do? He seems to have done everything musically." Like in 2011, when it was revealed to me a week prior to the reality that I was going to lose a very dear friend of mine for dead, I easily put this clear out of my mind.
I remember for one reason or another spending the night at my Grandmother's house on October 1, in the lead up to the next day's trip into Athens, GA. Just before I left, I heard her temporary care-taker mention a sermon she had heard the day before about loving one another, juxtaposed with the news from later that night about the Las Vegas, NV, shooting, even in the earliest stages considered one of the deadliest in US history. I made it a point to shut out all news coverage that day, so that I could take in the joy of finally being able to do one of my trips on the rare off-day from work. Stopping off at home briefly before the trip, I burned an updated version of my REM 'best of' compilation so that I could have some appropriate driving music for the day. Deleted a couple of the more ill-advised original selections and replaced them with two later finds. The band served its purpose on the trip down Highway 129 in the crisp fall morning air of the new day. If you listen real close and take in the scenery as you get closer to Athens, you can actually hear the area ambience in the songs. But, you would have to have either a perfectly tuned ear and mind or a remarkable ability to pick up a morsel and fake the rest(I'm probably the latter).
In a town like Athens, the day is not complete without three things: Combing through LP stacks, gazing at beautiful women, and eating at The Grill restaurant. The homeless people on the street corners, when I see them, can always use our help, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. In that way, Athens is good for a few Christian good deeds where they are needed. Combing through the LP stacks in one of the stores, Wuxtry Records if memory serves, I discovered a Tom Petty FM Radio broadcast LP for around $30. Recorded around 1987, this album featured a cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," as well as a performance of then-new songs like "Jamming Me." This was very intriguing. I strongly considered buying this album, and slightly regret that I did not. Other things, I cannot remember what now, merited higher priority in my own estimation. After making my purchases there, I went over to my usual lunch destination.
As I was sitting at The Grill, I took time to ponder my next move on a few things, as well as to survey where I'd been and what I could do better. With the news of the day, I had wanted to write an article tackling gun issues, one in a similar vein to the one I wrote after the Orlando, FL, massacre sans some of the rhetorical high-horsing I employed in the earlier piece. Also had wanted to do something on Steely Dan, as well as videos for the YouTube channel that were on my mind of late. I took a moment to look over the vast landscape of where I have been in both my online and real lives and, in a Facebook post, noted the odd similarity between myself and Tom Petty: That we both kept going on and doing things bigger and better that might not have otherwise seemed probable at the time. This was an ultimately futile exercise in goal-setting. It would also later and sadly become irony. I hit Jittery Joe's for a Chocolate Chip cookie and, given the Diet Coke intake at lunch, a nice long piss. Traded in a bunch of album's at one of the better record joints in town and bought side-project LP's of various members of the non-Jim Morrison members of the Doors before leaving the Downtown area for the day.
About a quarter of 4 in the afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of the Barnes & Noble store in Athens for the final music shopping run of the trip. REM's "Night Swimming" and it's booming, haunting piano chords played over the speakers as I put the car into 'park.' Once inside, I gazed at the magazine sections, pulling out an issue of "Shindig!" magazine which featured an article on Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and the making of that band's 1967 album "Younger than Yesterday." After combing through the magazine looking for new factual discoveries, I put it back and bee-lined for the music department. One must-do I had that day was to find and buy the George Harrison "Concert for Bangladesh" CD box set, as a friend of mine(Born the same year as Petty) had a birthday coming up about a month from then. I lustfully gazed through the sections leading up to the Harrison set, pulling out a few of interest, including Gregg Allman's "Laid Back" album that I ultimately bought. I got to the 'F-G-H' section and pulled out the Harrison set, scoped out the price, and went to look it up online. It was just a few minutes after 4 in the afternoon. As I was looking at comparison prices on Amazon, I got a text from my mother which simply gave out Tom Petty's name and age. I was initially confused, and briefly thought he had made an appearance on the CBS show "60 Minutes" until I realized to my utmost shock and horror what she was actually saying.
As I was already online, I quickly forgot about the Harrison set(Bought it a month later on a return trip, same can't be said for the Petty FM Broadcast LP) and searched Petty's name on Google, Facebook, and Twitter to get a sense of what was happening. There were conflicting reports, but the consensus based on major sources was that he was dead from apparent cardiac arrest. It was flooring. The first thing I did after getting that news was to pick up the Allman CD, make my way towards the 'P' section of the music department, and pull out a copy of Petty and the Heartbreakers' debut album, which I hadn't thought much about up to that point. After getting those two selected for purchase, I walked through the Barnes & Noble store in a total daze, only stopping once I got to the music biography selection. The two books that caught my eye were "Petty: the Biography" and the book on Steely Dan, whose founding member and principal song-writer Walter Becker had died almost a month earlier. Truly unbelievable was it that good music was seemingly dying out at a rapid pace.
After I got my stuff paid for, I went out to my car, shut the REM disc off,and tuned into Atlanta's rock music station 97.1 the River. The song "Mary Jane's Last Dance" was playing. While I never much liked the song before that moment in time, I turned up the volume and really got into it. When the song ended, I heard something I never heard before: Afternoon drive host and area radio legend Kaedy Kiley wept on air as she informed those of us who were just tuning in of the reports of Tom Petty's death. English Nick, another on-air personality who had adjourned a couple of hours earlier, also joined in with the special coverage. Throughout the next 2-3 hours, the hits and many lesser known songs and live versions were played on the air, in addition to remembrances from fans who called into the station. At some point, the hosts had to break the news that the Los Angeles Police Department had to walk back the reports that Petty had died, but added that he, having been pulled off life support, was not expected to survive the day. If I were really following the news that day, it would likely have been even more disorienting than it already was.
The trip through Winder, Gainesville, and then back home that afternoon was the most utterly unreal car trip I have ever taken, and I've nearly gotten lost in rural SC and nearly stranded at a RaceWay station off Interstate 20 since then. I don't recall exactly what moment it was, though probably around the time I crossed from rural Oconee County into rural Barrow County, that the idea came to me that I should try joining the hordes of fans calling into the River to pay respects. Behind the wheel of my car, at various stop lights, I took a Sharpie pen and wrote on my hand an outline of what all I had wanted to say, including commentaries on life through music and various songs. On this count, the tribute piece from last year is the more comprehensive version of what I had wanted to say, sans the original plan of having commentary on the song "Jamming Me." After some consideration, I decided to pull into the parking lot of the Ingles in Winder, GA, and work up my courage to call into the radio station. I was as nervous as I had been in a long time, and it manifested itself in my rocking back and forth in my car and fidgeting a lot, working off that nervous energy. After some concerned citizens placed their calls and let their worries be known, I got paid a visit from one of the nice men at the Winder Police Department. I dutifully gave him my identification and insurance, and calmly explained the sort of unbelievable predicament I was experiencing, and also explaining that I do rock and fidget a lot. After verifying a few things, the officer gave me back my identification and allowed me to be on my merry way.
Ultimately, the phone lines were jammed. I tried calling in somewhere between one and two dozen times before giving up the ghost. The memory I have of that involves my pulling into the gravel parking lot of a little Episcopal church in rural Jackson County off Highway 53 and placing about half-a-dozen of those failed calls. I was paranoid of getting another visit from the coppers, but at the same time I didn't care that much. This all was particularly embarrassing as I had put out the word to Facebook friends and personal acquaintances that I would be calling into 97.1 the River. Retracting that call was a pathetic moment for me. Fortunately, I was later to get the best of what all I wanted to say out there in the finished article product. After playing through a deep well of Petty's songs, the River went back to regular programming at 7 PM. I switched my REM disc back on, and the songs "Crush With Eyeliner" and "Strange Currencies" both took on an utterly haunting vibe given the crude, miserable news of the day. When those two and re-plays of a few of the other songs ended, I switched out that album for Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" CD, which had served as my musical comfort during the last stage of the miserable 2016 Presidential election. This was the last of his music I heard while he was alive.
After I got home, I quickly got a sketch-outline of my first Petty tribute piece drawn up so that I could go about getting that thing out as soon as the word became official, IF it were to have to become official. He was still among the living, barely, so there was hope on paper. I was up until 11 that night, both making my plans and keeping watch over the "Tom Petty Nation" Facebook group looking for any possible updates. At 3 AM, as planned, I woke up from my nap. The first thing I did was to check the TPN page, and it was then that it became official for me. The first thing I saw was a commenter posting "My hero is dead," and that confirmed everything. Over the next several hours, I got to both draw up my preliminary thoughts and absorb the tributes. The most resonating ones came from Neil Young(The last man standing, with Bob Dylan, as it regards continued innovation in music) and a person who posted his thoughts with the "Learning to Fly" music video embedded as a 'GIF' file. As crushing as the loss of a favourite musician was for me, with the help of the Lord, I was able to quickly get over my feelings of sadness(After all, he had been preparing me for this for eight months) and channel it into a video-making blitz on the YouTube page. Usually, if I ended up doing any at all, I would just do one video tribute when somebody important died(The Eagles and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer were notable exceptions). This time, though, I already had a cavalcade of video ideas just waiting to be worked on and released, and release them I did. In the year since Petty's passage, my videos featuring songs of his have ballooned from 25 to 74(As of today), with more to come.
Nobody else in music has ever gotten that kind of treatment from my channel. He was truly something.