Last week did not get off to what I would call a great start.
First, 58 were murdered and nearly 500 more were wounded late Oct. 1 in Las Vegas in what is now the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
Then, just a few hours later, legendary guitarist, songwriter and singer Tom Petty was discovered at home unconscious and in full cardiac arrest. What’s worse, he was clinging to life at UCLA Medical Center when it was prematurely announced Petty had died. Every classic rock radio station I turned to began playing marathons of Petty hits, which abruptly stopped when the Los Angeles Police Department had to issue a retraction. This led to false hope Petty would pull through. Finally, it was announced by Tony Dimitriades, Petty’s longtime manager, that he had died at 8:40 p.m. Oct. 2.
The full weight didn’t really hit me until I watched a video Sunday of country star Jason Aldean and his band perform Petty’s 1989 single, “I Won’t Back Down,” to open the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live.” Aldean had been on stage when the shots rang out in Las Vegas. Understandably, Aldean’s voice wasn’t in top shape and the song choice was odd given the fact that the episode’s featured musical guest, Sam Smith, had been previously forced to give Petty and Jeff Lynne co-writing credits on his 2014 song “Stay With Me” for copying “I Won’t Back Down.” But in that moment I didn’t care about any of that. I’m not afraid to admit I teared up a bit for the first time since all that death.
But I also smiled, too. Who else but Petty could have written a song that transcended genre, age, class, space and time to unite a grief-stricken nation? The only other artist I can think of would be Johnny Cash. (Not coincidentally, Cash also covered “I Won’t Back Down” with Petty on his 2000 album, “American III: Solitary Man,” and was accompanied by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on his 1996 album, “Unchained.”)
If you’re like me, you can’t remember the first time you heard a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song. But I am willing to wager you can remember the first time one imprinted on your DNA. By the time I was born, Petty had been putting out albums for years, so his music was already everywhere. The song that did it for me, though, was his 1993 smash, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” (I’m playing it as I write this, and I’m suddenly right back there at 10 years old sitting on my family’s front porch.) Of course, the fact he was singing about Indiana caught my attention right away, but the sleazy swamp rock kept me hooked. My mom had already blocked MTV, but the video played constantly on VH1 along with Petty’s other, older delightful music videos. I quickly procured the “Greatest Hits” cassette from the BMG Music Service. The tape hardly left my Walkman for weeks and months as I fell in love with all the old singles I had overlooked. From there, I copped Petty’s 1994 solo album, “Wildflowers.” I eventually moved on, but my love for Petty never subsided.
Petty’s death last week did give me the excuse I needed to plunge into Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007, four-hour documentary, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” (Weirdly, I had been watching Martin Scorsese’s 2011 four-hour documentary, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” about Petty’s Traveling Wilburys bandmate when I heard about his death.) One thing that struck me while watching was Petty’s craft as a writer. His poetry was so specific, yet so universal. Take his 1979 song, “Even The Losers.” Here’s a few lines from the first verse: “Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof. Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon.” And, from the bridge: “Two cars parked on the overpass. Rocks hit the water like broken glass.” Do you hear how detailed those descriptions are? And do you think prepubescent me had any real-world experience to relate? Of course not. But somehow, it landed. I felt a connection. My imagination filled in the rest. It was like being nostalgic for something I hadn’t even experienced.
And that’s why Tom Petty’s music will never, ever die.
Rob Burgess, Tribune city editor, may be reached via email at email@example.com.
JASON ALDEAN PERFORMS "I WON'T BACK DOWN" ON "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE":
SAM SMITH - "STAY WITH ME" (2014)
JOHNNY CASH (FEAT. TOM PETTY) - "I WON'T BACK DOWN" (2000):
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS - "MARY JANE'S LAST DANCE" (1993):
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS - "EVEN THE LOSERS" (1979):