Three months before he died, I saw Tom Petty in concert for the second time. My sister-in-law had served as his back stage dresser when he played at Canandaigua, NY. I hate you, I said, when she related just hanging around talking with him before the show. She didn’t even call me to come help her. She should have known better, I would have run out of work and driven the five hours in a minute if I had the chance to talk to Tom Petty and hear him in concert again.
I promptly got tickets for the next concert on the tour in Boston. You crazy girl, my sister-in-law said. I hadn’t seen him live since 2006, my first outdoor rock concert at the age of 51, at the Tweeter Center in Camden, NJ, with Greg Allman and his band opening. My husband generously took me there, even knowing that given the chance, I’d have run away with Tom Petty. When he walked on stage and started talking, my heart pounded. It was him, it was actually him. And Oh, the music.
I have no excuse for missing all the opportunities before and between 2006 and 2017 to see him play live. The Boston show was amazing, that night was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I listened to reports from the tour on Tom Petty Radio and heard from fans who’d been to 20, 30 or 40 concerts. Fifty-three stops on this tour and I only went to one? I wanted to fly out to LA for the last Hollywood Bowl show, an epic opportunity, but didn’t pull it off. I felt like going over and over somehow would tarnish how special it felt to see him when I did.
I told my husband’s Rotarian buddy I thought we should invite Tom Petty to next year’s Blues & Barbecue event. His music is perfect for the venue and maybe he’ll feel like sort of anonymously playing for a small crowd after his big tour. A worthy goal, he nodded (crazy girl, I am sure he was thinking). You know, I went on, I like to think I live my life with no regrets, but I realized after that concert I terribly regret never becoming a backup singer for The Heartbreakers. I’m not a great singer, but I have good pitch and love to harmonize.
Aside from Tom’s obvious adorable bad-boyness and musical talent, what I admired most about him was his humility. At the 2006 concert he repeatedly thanked the crowd and seemed genuinely touched by the obvious love everyone had for him and his music. He seemed so pleased that we knew all the words and wanted to sing along. He probably knew this long before 2006, which makes his humility even more special. Just a really good guy is how he came across.
People are saying Tom Petty plays the soundtrack of their lives, but I don’t feel exactly like that. I can say I enjoy all his music, and he’s been a favorite all my life. I played Refugee over and over again living single in NYC in the early 80s. I scrubbed the kitchen floor of my coffee bar on my hands and knees belting out Breakdown. Since the concert my new favorite is You Wreck Me, and I can’t stop watching him sing Fooled Again, on the New Year’s Eve 1978 video on YouTube. I’m in such pain knowing I will never hear him live again. One friend says let’s watch concert footage and drink too much. I’m in for that.
I caught an interview video from the 90s where Tom is talking about how he writes songs. It’s like fishing he says. He goes into a room and just sits there hoping to catch something. Sometimes he catches a big one and sometimes nothing. I’m so grateful for this strategy to help me with my writing. I tend to do the opposite: Go into a room and push myself to write something. I’m going to try it his way. Obviously, it works like magic.