Among the seemingly endless cascade of “bad news” flooding us, it almost seems shallow, an indulgence, to pause and mourn the loss of Tom Petty. In this world so often fraught with compassion politics, it can be hard to take the time to gaze on “celebrity”, even if it’s to say goodbye to a prolific artist and performer who entertained us for decades.
Tom Petty passed away at the worst possible time, and in a poignant, unfair way, the best possible time. Tom Petty’s death is a metaphor. The kind of obvious metaphor that makes you groan and snap the book shut; the kind of metaphor that seems so obvious you feel insulted. The fact that he kind of died twice, thanks to an overzealous media and the need to break bad news first, just seals the deal.
With some artists, you find it hard to say what their appeal was. It’s all mystique and performance, smoke and mirrors. Tom Petty was not that; rather the opposite. He was everyman, a genuine blonde-haired, blue-eyed slice of Americana delivered up on a plate – a plate decorated with mustard-yellow or olive-green flowers, because he was just that seventies. He was ordinary in looks, ordinary in stature, and he wrote the kind of easy bars and chord progressions that make you tap your feet and sing along without even realizing you’ve memorized the lyrics. I grew up on him, as many my age did; my stories are your stories. But I did love him, and god, who didn’t?
As I said on my Twitter this morning, Tom Petty taught me that a well-fitted jacket, a quirky hat and a simple, bittersweet lyric is all it takes to be the coolest person in the universe. His videos were surreal, but wholesome – he was doing Mad Hatter cosplay before cosplay was cool. Weird, a little androgynous, rebellious – but always palatable. Real. Effortless, easygoing, free. Everyman. Americana, sweet and tart like apple pie.
Americana. A term that describes something that doesn’t exist, if it ever did. Tom Petty wasn’t the first artist to sing about the “American Girl” and the time gone by, but he embodied its spirit more wholly than any other. He wrote about a lifestyle that was never really ours, what it might feel like to grasp it in your hand, the firecracker before the explosion. Cool and full of promise. That an artist like him should leave us, now, during this time, is grotesquely sad and terribly fitting. As the Spirit of America flakes off piece by piece, so goes the one artist who embodied it the most, and one of the few who always gave comfort.
It’s almost too sad to bear, if not for one thing.
Tom Petty was one of the good guys, y’all. Recently, in an interview he had many things to say about politics, the Confederate Flag, and the treatment of people of color in America. He got it. He understood. He was with us.
If we want to do anything to honor Tom Petty, and to honor the spirit of what America really could have been, before she passes like a ship in the night, we’ve got to stand up and do what’s right. We’ve got to keep standing, even when we’re too tired. Even when it seems hopeless.
Our song of 2017 should be one of Tom’s best (and most overplayed) songs: “I Won’t Back Down”. Let it be our rallying cry, our comfort, our reinforcement.
Well I won’t back down,
No, I won’t back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.
Well, I’ll stand my ground,
Won’t be turned around.
Well, I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down,
And I won’t back down.
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out.
Hey, I stand my ground, and I won’t back down.
Well, I know what’s right
I’ve got just one life.
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around,
Well, I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down.
Rest easy, Tom.