By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE – How am I feeling in the aftermath of the sudden death of Tom Petty?
I feel like I lost a family member.
That’s a pretty powerful statement, and I really yearn not to be easily given to hyperbole, but I don’t swing for the fences on the first pitch without have been under the influence of perhaps the best writer of first verses in the history of Rock and Roll.
That would be none other Petty, who will write no more songs – with historic opening salvos — but leaves behind unlimited masterpieces ranging from his best-known songs to deep album cuts.
To understand, you would have to understand the inner G2 and how music in general, with Petty’s music near the top of the charts, has shaped all I am – for better or worse and all points in between.
My wife and daughter certainly didn’t flinch when I was pretty much hysterical upon learning the news Monday – news that changed slightly, saying he was near death – to learning that he was gone.
It seemed an odd reaction on the same day as the indiscriminate mass killing in Las Vegas, which drew more anger from me, as a longtime gun control advocate, than sentimentality.
I mourn for those who lost their lives, and those who a scarred by the experience, and can’t really fathom the shock of their loved ones.
But I can understand the gut-punch of losing family. You live five decades and it gets to be hard to avoid.
And “family” is not just those who share your blood.
When the magic of Rock and Roll gets into your blood, your family tree takes a different form.
It can be a stranger whose art was such that he seemed like they knew you.
And it includes those who are there for you in moments of extreme darkness and light, moments when your range of emotions can be explained – or enhanced – by a well-written and performed song.
And not many combined those skills better than Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers.
They came along at the tail end of the Classic Rock era, which runs roughly from the arrival of The Beatles in America (1964) until the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever spawned Disco Fever and seemingly forced Bob Dylan to ask Jesus what the hell was going on.
And yet Petty’s clan, with roots firmly in 1960s sensibilities, was easily grandfathered in as a Classic Rock act, although the raw sound on those foretelling first two albums – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976) and You’re Gonna Get It (1978) – made for a nice bridge between AOR (album oriented rock) and the burgeoning punk rock scene.
That status would be further cemented when he later joined forces with the likes of Dylan, former Beatle George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne of ELO fame in the Traveling Wilburys for two albums (1988, 1990) and the deal sealed with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
As honors go, it was as well-earned as it was deserved.
When Damn The Torpedoes came out in 1979 – and shot right up to No. 2 – that album’s classics (Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, Don’t Don’t Me Like That, Even The Losers, etc.) joined airwaves already populated by songs from his first two releases (most notably Breakdown and American Girl from the first and I Need To Know and Listen To Her Heart from the second).
At the time, I was transitioning into high school and was trying to find my place in a world where I was, for all intents and purposes, just another kid.
The songs resonated. No matter where I was, or what I was doing, I stopped in my tracks. It was a natural instinct. They just reached out from the radio and grabbed you.
I couldn’t quite explain how or why, but they did.
By the time of his next album — and my personal favorite, 1981’s Hard Promises – I began the arduous, and still ongoing journey, of putting pen to paper to try and make sense of it all.
And writing lyrics, for me, was a natural fit.
I listened to a lot of music, and pondered the messages being sent, to direct me on this quest.
For all the Prog Rock concept albums that made it almost easier to dabble in free-form writing that barely made sense – even to myself – I began to marvel at the way Petty, among others, who could keep it real with concise prose that pretty much told it all in a simply-stated way.
It was a knack I longed to have, and I marveled at Hard Promises songs like The Waiting, Letting You Go, A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), Something Big, A Thing About You and most especially Insider (with Stevie Nicks singing background vocals).
I longed to be able to do it like that.
But the waiting was the hardest part.
To this day, in many ways, those are the types of lyrics I’m trying to write.
On our last SpringHouse Revival CD (check us out on Spotify and iTunes and shame on you if you have to “like” our Facebook page), co-writer Terri Camilari and I were going for the Tom Petty vibe, while keeping our own identity, in the offering Million Dollar Words, during which I was channeling my inner Petty telling someone who can’t get to the point to, well, just get to the effin’ point.
And with Terri’s vocals, I liked to imagine it was Stevie Nicks doing a Petty cover.
I had carried Petty with me a long time, and it was time for a homage.
Way back in my senior year of high school, a lot was going on. I had freedom with a car (1975 Chevy Malibu that dripped oil), a job as a dishwasher/bus boy to pay for gas and the Sixers won the title.
Petty was still at it, putting out another record to play in the backdrop – Long After Dark – and songs like Change of Heart, You Got Lucky and Straight Into Darkness continued to form the soundtrack of my insistence on having an existence to call my own.
I also had something else that year: An actual girlfriend (even the losers get lucky sometimes). But, lo and behold, she dumped me a few about six weeks before the senior prom.
I could have tapped into my long list of “just a friend” girls to take, but I was never really into going anyway.
I hatched a better plan with dateless running mates.
I returned my tux, and used the money (tickets were cheaper in those days, and there were no pre-sales 64 weeks in advance) for two concerts – Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
Seger was great, and Petty was even better.
Best proms I never went to.
And every time Seger or Petty came to town, I went back for more (plus their live albums put me in the house countless of other times).
Except the last time, last summer, when a pending vacation made me miss the Petty show.
It is now a regret that I will just have to live with, and one I mitigate with the bigger picture.
In college, I remember my friends and I performing a mock awards show in 1985 and naming Southern Accents – Rebels, Don’t Come Around Here No More, etc.— as the album of the year.
The concert, at the Mann Music Center on a gorgeous summer night, was surreal.
As for the album of the year thing, it still remains a silly tradition of mine, and a lot of Petty’s records – 1999’s Full Moon Fever (featuring Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down) through to 1994’s solo-acoustic Wildflowers to 1999’s Echo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye have pulled in the honor known as the “Gordie.”
During my college years, when I was earning my doctorate in Dylaniac studies (and writing some of my best-ever lyrics) – while barely maintaining a 2.0 in my real-world classes – I was able to see the Heartbreakers back up Dylan and Petty while trading off sets of songs (Zimmy took a few breaks).
Petty’s subsequent release, the underappreciated Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), best known for Jammin’ Me, wreaked of Dylan’s influence.
Petty was not too happy with the effort, but I still dig it.
As I allegedly matured, my musical tastes sort of solidified. My “Big Four” – Bruce Springsteen, U2, Dylan and Petty – has never changed.
I adore dozens upon dozens of other artists, but none – not even SpringHouse Revival – can break into that group.
Petty has earned that same stature with legions of other fans through a dedication to craft (you’ll note how quickly he rattled off those classic albums in lockstep with my formative years) that had to come at a cost for such a young guy.
Addiction cost him his first marriage and put his latter career in temporary peril, but he was still there – with new music just as brilliant as the classic songs that invaded my soul, dating back to when I was kid to being a parent.
Every year, when we get Sofia’s picture taken, we use a song title to give it a theme. When she was real little, it was not much of a fight. We used Springsteen’s “She’s the One” for Year 1, for example. But as music grows in importance to Sofia, she has had insisted on other songs more to her liking.
Knowing that Year 10 of her life would mark the end of the annual tradition, Laurie and I pressed her hard for American Girl.
Even though Sofia collects “American Girl” dolls, she was reluctant, pushing for something by her own family member, Taylor Swift.
But we made her listen to the song.
After a moment of silence, she said, “Yeah, that one is pretty good.”
Victory (although it helped the cause that Swift has her own nifty cover version of the song).
That picture just went up on the wall, and it takes on enhanced meaning.
I will think of our lost family member every time I look at it, knowing I can bring him back to life with the music that will last as long as skeptical kids also can’t deny what they are hearing.
During the shock of the news Monday, I couldn’t even get through Free Fallin’ without a breakdown.
Today, I heard Mary Jane’s Last Dance and I was good to go, playing his music all day, grateful for the years of lyrical inspiration and stone-cold grooves while driving down the road on a summer night with the windows down.
That’s the story of Tom Petty and me.
And it explains why I felt like I lost a family member, as overly dramatic as some may think it sounds.
On such a horrible day, with the tragedy in Vegas, I had to wonder why it had to happen then.
And I fell apart more than maybe I would have on another day.
I was, pretty much, inconsolable.
While Sofia hugged me up during my meltdown, she exuded some of her wisdom beyond her years and said that “it could be worse.”
One could take that many different ways, but you would have had to have heard her tone – and to understand how much on the same wavelength we are – to get it.
And I got it.
It could have been worse — way worse.
These ears ravaged by years of having a Rock and Roll heart could have not taken in the music of a dropout from Gainesville, Fla. who made his way to California to somehow buck the odds and strike gold.
What a loss that would have been, as that would have meant him not being a member of the family.
And that notion, of not finding him at all, would have been worse than losing him.