I had last seen Tom Petty in 1981. I wasn’t about to miss what was billed as his 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers and what he, himself, said might be his last tour. And turns out, sadly, he was right about that “last” bit.
Well, it was nearly Summer as we sat on your roof
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me
It seemed an eternity between the time I bought the tickets – as soon as they went on sale – and the night we finally walked up the familiar path to the Hollywood Bowl. Side note: you haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced the magic of the Bowl in the waning days of summer. Or in Los Angeles, well into September, during what other parts of the country might call Indian summer. Magic lives at the Bowl, the way it lived in Tom Petty’s lyrics.
My husband and I went to the concert with my niece and her fiancé. Turns out Tom Petty appealed to generations much younger than ours – something I’d never really realized. Our own daughters were certainly exposed to his music because we played it, and while there are many artists for whom we share a passion, I never suspected Tom was one of them until my older daughter complained that we didn’t buy her tickets, too. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised that songs full of yearning, love and loss like Tom’s could cross that generational divide.
Oh, baby don’t it feel like heaven right now
Don’t it feel like something from a dream
Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this
Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again
After food and wine, we sat on the wooden benches of the Bowl, snuggled in close because, the couple next to me had revealed, we had “one extra” – someone who didn’t have a ticket in that row and section, but had squeezed in between us. He was a young guy, at the show by himself, and somehow, rather than calling security over to have him removed, we just decided to make it work. He was enjoying some very fragrant weed during most of the concert and asked me more than once if the smoke was bothering me. No, I told him. It was just fine.
So let’s get to the point
Let’s roll another joint
Let’s head on down the road
There’s somewhere I gotta go
Tom told the audience that they’d just “throw a bunch of records out” and play what they wanted to. And they did. With joy. There was the crowd-pleasing sing-a-long of “Free Fallin’”, the soaring “Learning to Fly”, and classic encore of “American Girl”, but there were also lesser known tunes like “Forgotten Man”, “Crawling Back to You” and “It’s Good to be King”. Truth be told, I had hoped for a bit more “Damn the Torpedoes” and never really imagined I wouldn’t have another shot at hearing those songs live.
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach
My niece nudged me towards the merchandise on the way out of the Bowl because the lines were short and I was not opposed to adding a shirt to my collection, wishing I’d bought one the first time around in 1981. Yeah, guys were selling them for just $10 all the way down Highland Avenue, right next to the street dogs and the scent of peppers and onions in the air, as we walked back to our cars, but paying for the official merchandise seemed like the right way to go at the time and doesn’t seem like a bad choice now either.
That night, my husband and I drove down the 101, past Reseda and all those vampires walking through the valley. I was playing some of Tom’s songs, of course. Mostly the ones I didn’t get to hear live that night. My favorite of Tom’s songs, “Straight Into Darkness”, came on.
I don’t believe the good times are over
I don’t believe the thrill is all gone
Real love is a man’s salvation
The weak ones fall, the strong carry on
As his songs played, I recalled the many times I’d heard them in the past, and the people and places that were forever linked to them. I was overcome with sadness. Tears streamed down my face and I felt at once, foolish and distraught. Why was I crying? What was so overwhelmingly sad?
It could have been that I drank a little too much wine. Or inhaled a few too many times as my bench neighbor at the Bowl exhaled. It could have been a nostalgia for times past, for times when Tom Petty’s voice played in the background of my youth – ever-present through first loves, first heartaches, first jobs, first moves.
After all, his voice had accompanied me through my first love in high school:
But then something I saw in your eyes
Told me right away
That you were gonna have to be mine
He had been my companion for a period through heartache in college:
Even the losers
Get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers
Have a little bit of pride
Yeah, they get lucky some times
When my husband and I found ourselves far away from our beloved California and tried (rather unsuccessfully) to convince ourselves that we could make a new home with our shiny new jobs in Dallas, Texas, it was Tom’s brilliant ode to Los Angeles that filled me with a homesickness I couldn’t shake (and spoiler alert – we didn’t stay in Texas):
I’m gonna glide down over Mulholland
I’m gonna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall
Out into nothing
I’m gonna leave this world for awhile
His voice was a constant companion and thankfully, it still can be. I had no way of knowing that night would be my last opportunity to see Tom play. I guess none of us did. But maybe it’s why, driving home that night, realizing how much time had passed since I’d first heard “Breakdown”, I sensed the beginning of an ending, as we all do when pieces of our lives come rushing back into our heads and we long for certain moments and cling to remnants of who we were the first time we heard those notes.
Yeah and it’s over before you know it
It all goes by so fast
Yeah the bad nights take forever
And the good nights don’t ever seem to last
The day after Tom – and so many innocent people in Las Vegas – died, I wore my concert t-shirt to run errands. People everywhere I went – the grocery store, the CVS, the Starbucks – stopped me to comment on my shirt, to ask me if I’d gone to the concert, to remark on the sadness of his passing and of that day, in general. One girl told me that she’d had a chance to go to one of the last Bowl shows, but didn’t, and was now regretting her decision.
In the wake of both his passing and the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, it seemed to me the time was ripe for some communal grief and Tom had given us a soundtrack to express it. What is a great song, after all, if not a vehicle for sharing joy, sorrow, yearning, frustration – all of the things that make up the complicated lives we humans lead?
Clearly, Tom Petty knew this.
You wreck me, baby
You break me in two
But you move me, honey
Yes, you do.