It was the fall of 1978…my first semester at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN (I realize I’m dating myself here, but work with me….). I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the old Met Center in Bloomington, MN. I’d already practically worn out “Damn the Torpedoes” on my turntable, and I was thrilled to be able to see the band in person. I was an 18-year-old small-town Minnesota kid experiencing the world for the first time…so seeing Tom Petty was a BIG deal.
Fast forward a decade or so. I’d moved to Portland, OR, and I saw Petty and Bob Dylan play a show together at old Civic Stadium (now Providence Park) in downtown Portland. I can still remember the chills which ran up and down my spine when the two bands got together and did a rendition of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” as the finale.
On August 19th, on a placid Seattle Saturday night, Erin and I went with a group of friends to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers At Safeco Field. A baseball stadium is never a great concert venue, and we found ourselves in what normally is the upper deck in left field. Nonetheless, we enjoyed what turned out to be a great show. OK, so the power to the stage went out for a few minutes during the show, and Safeco Field is hardly an intimate setting. Still, it was fun, especially for the memories it brought back.
Then came the news of Petty’s death last week…and I felt numb. It hadn’t even been two months since we saw him perform a show which seemed pretty energetic for a 66-year-old man. None of us there that night could have had any inkling that it would be our last dance with him.
Any death is sad…and though it’s part of the natural cycle of life, it’s hard when we lose someone who made such an impact on so many people. Like most of my generation, I grew up listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the radio. I saw him perform on Saturday Night Live in 1979, a young and talented musician who seemed to have the world at his feet. His music is indelibly intertwined with my youth, and his songs never fail to take me back to a time when we were all much younger.
There aren’t a lot of musicians with staying power…especially when you’re talking about 40 years on. A lot of bands from the late ’70s and ’80s went the way of the buffalo. Music can be like that- ethereal, fleeting, here today, and mostly forgotten tomorrow. Petty was one of the few musicians whose music managed to feel relevant as the decades passed. Seeing him in concert in August 2017 wasn’t much different from what I saw in September 1978- a gifted musician playing songs which felt timeless. He was a bit slower- who among us isn’t?- and probably had a fair bit more gray in his hair (it was hard to tell from so far away), but the music was still as magical as it was back when.
I’ve had a few days now to reflect on Petty’s passing. As saddened as I am, I’m grateful to have been able to bookend shows at the early stage of his career and at the end. He and his band played ten shows after that cool August evening in downtown Seattle. And then he was gone, another piece of my dissolute youth consigned to our collective memory.
When I first began taking guitar lessons a few years ago, one of the first songs (possibly the very first) I learned was “Face in the Crowd.” I’m always surprised at the ways music touches me and impacts my life. Perhaps I shouldn’t be at this point in my life, but I’m grateful for it. I can look back at the music Tom Petty created and shared, and many of his songs still take me back to different and distant points in my life. They may be good times…or not so good…but they’re memories which would be very different if not for his music.
It’s easy to say he’s too soon gone; there’s never really a good time to die, is there? If a measure of a person’s life can be held to be the impact they made and the memories they leave behind, then Petty had a very good run.