When I think about Tom Petty, I think about driving down the dusty back roads of my small Texas town at 17 with “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” pouring over the stereo, wondering what would happen if I just pointed the wheel in any direction and kept driving until I ran out of gas. I think about days I spent terrified of the unknown, my headphones stubbornly in place on my head, volume unreasonably loud, blasting “Won’t Back Down” and “Learning to Fly” on repeat until my heart rate calmed and the world stopped spinning around me. I think about nights I spent sitting in the middle of my bed with an old acoustic guitar, playing and singing “Even the Losers” until my fingers blistered and my voice got raspy. When I think about Tom Petty, I think about a voice that was ever-present while I was growing up. His music was just there — like nursery rhymes sung to us in infancy, we can’t remember the first time we heard them, just that they’re a fundamental part of us. That’s why this hurts like hell.
Tom Petty was one of those cracks in society’s ever-growing broken facade where the light and the truth got in. I’ve spent many hours folding myself comfortably into his lyrics, building little safe havens between his words. I’m not sure if he understood all the things I didn’t, or if he just had all the same questions — either way he was this monumental force in music and a huge influence in my life. When you lose someone like that, you feel it. You feel it with everything in you. You grieve for the person, and you grieve for the piece of you they took with them. The part of you that was young and lost and questioning until their music made you make sense to yourself.
Thirty years from now, I’ll be able to remember what it was like to hear a crowd of 60,000 people sing “Free Fallin’” in London’s Hyde Park. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that my best friends and I sat on front row all day surrounded by die-hard Tom Petty fans from Holland and Italy and Australia, who had come all that way to see him perform. I’ll tell them that all of those people, us included, came all that way because we saw ourselves in one small-town kid from Florida who was determined to make it. One small-town kid who refused to back down.