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Life Lessons from a Hardcore Pettyhead

I’ve been neck-deep in the philosophy of Tom Petty, my spiritual gangster, for years now and here are the things he taught me.

The first thing I thought to myself was the same thing that Jerry Garcia is rumored to have said when Pig Pen died: “That fucker. Now he knows.” At first, nobody was sure Tom Petty had really died. There was another time the celebrity gossip press declared him deceased and it wasn’t true. This round, my newspaper students actually scooped me on it, for which I paused long enough to be proud of them before kind of mourning. It was confirmed at the time that he was taken off life support, but not that he actually died.

I fell asleep on Atlanta time that night while Petty played Schrodinger’s cat in Los Angeles. Of even the most basic facts, with Petty, you could never quite be certain. He really liked that about himself, I’ll bet.

I wouldn’t exactly know because we never met and now it seems like we probably won’t, but Petty is possessed of some of that type of fan who has advanced beyond mere biographical litanies to a space of psychoanalysis and ultimately commiseration that borders on a lifetime parasocial partnership. I mean like prophets have. He seldom capitalized on that, even though he could’ve been an out and out preacher alongside Bruce Springsteen if he’d wanted. He just kept his head down, always working, to a point where despite the uncertainties generated by his ornery personality, the steadfastness of his labor was mythic. A happy Sisyphus.

Petty would probably appreciate his properly due headlines being overshadowed by news of the worst mass shooting in American history. Is he going too gently into that good night if we’re focused on another massive tragedy? The BBC had good, immediate coverage, which is fitting because he was famous in England first. Other than not parking his demise on the front page, Petty basically picked a great time to go. Just one week after the wrap on his 40th anniversary tour, a victory lap if ever there was one. His ideas for the rereleasing Wildflowers already thoroughly on record, enough has been done for that launch to go on as he wished. His revival of Mudcrutch included a surprise hit single. He was honored just a few months ago as MusiCare’s Person of the Year for his decades of charitable work. He was loved well by his wife Dana for so long. And so he left us at the mystical, round, rock ‘n’ roll age of 66.

Before his death was confirmed, it was reported that a hospital chaplain had been called to the room earlier that morning, as Petty was not expected to live through the day. I found the provision of this one detail extraordinary. Petty was stone cold guarded on issues as private as his religion, though he was vaguely known to favor meditation. Even the simple acknowledgment of a chaplain’s presence feels thick with implication. Somebody else can do the chronological summary. Somebody else can do the rundown of his legacy in the music industry. I’ve been neck-deep in the philosophy of Tom Petty for years now and here are the things he taught me.

First of all, don’t believe the good times are over. Petty worked like a madman, enduring the cycle of making albums and then hitting the road to perform them for 40 years. Whether it was an odd-numbered year or an even one, you could pretty much set a clock by his launch and tour schedule. He had a firm faith that the next record would be different from and better than the previous one, no matter how many people bought that previous album or whether it charted or where it got radio play or if it got love from the critics.

He hunted down the good times and gave the finger to whatsoever might get in the way, including the challenge of finishing high school in a timely manner or the necessity of holding a regular job in the early days before Gainesville anointed him, or his wife’s unexpected pregnancy came to the fore just as he was preparing to head out to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract. Even catapulted into serious drug abuse by the end of his first marriage, he rolled into the studio just the same. He was sought after as a fountain of youth for the good times rock ‘n’ roll work could afford, a magnet for his elders — Del Shannon, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, Bob Dylan. He worked his ass off as the front of Dylan’s backing band. Dylan, who couldn’t be bothered to comment for days when the Nobel Committee offered him its Prize, responded immediately to the news of Petty’s last day, saying, “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light.” The light.

Second, don’t believe the thrill is all gone. Petty fought like an underdog, speaking up in ways that frequently proved unpopular even and perhaps especially when he was right. He fought for his publishing rights and won freedom from a garbage contract. He hid the master studio tapes even from himself so that no court could force him to fork over an album the record company didn’t deserve. He fought to keep the industry from inflating his album pricing and won in a way that chilled pricing inflation for quite a while across the board. He made fun of Century City and all the lawyers in their glass castles ruining rock ‘n’ roll through questionable business practices.

He devoted an entire album to bitterly characterizing the failures of contemporary rock radio and its corporate machinations and continued to be proud of the messaging in The Last DJ, even though the album tanked. He sought absolute creative control from the moment he got in the van and drove to Los Angeles in search of a contract. Work was his good time and he wouldn’t let anyone steal his thrills. Petty hated to be told what do, and if he once maybe stabbed a boardroom table with a switchblade, that was just his way of making it plain by his actions once it seemed that his words hadn’t been heard. He took no shit and could smell it coming a mile away.

Third, real love is our salvation. Petty was a fiercely loyal man. He bailed out of a serious corporate contract offer to go with Shelter, a comparatively small potatoes operation, because he hit it off with Denny Cordell on the phone. He stuck with it long after Cordell began neglecting his eager protege and spending more time in the office than in the studio. He may be the only rock star to have never become fed up with the antics of his pal Stevie Nicks. Petty said very little about the reasons for the end of his first marriage and never spoke ill of Jane when it was over, even though everyone hints around that those 22 years of marriage dragged on for much longer than they should’ve.

The marriage to his band lasted four decades, with hardly a replacement among them. He kept two drummers for 20 years apiece; same with his bassists. During Howie Epstein’s ultimately fatal heroin addiction, Petty was so determined to keep the band together that Epstein’s tenure still ran across two decades. When some idiot set his house on fire, Petty rescued the Gibson Dove on which nearly all of his songs have been written. He spent 30 years on stage with a perfectly worn out set of Rickenbacker Rose Morris guitars.

Fourth, the strong will carry on. Petty laughed at that which would otherwise have made him rage. He channeled anger into ambition. His father served as a role model of what not to do in this life, letting the bottomless fear and hostility of his working-class feelings turn him into something weak and ineffectual, a joke. When the corporate machine demanded Petty promote his work with crass commercialism, he instead turned in some of the most innovative videography the music industry had ever seen. Hilariously, he ended up making MTV great in its early days.

No telling what all he and George Harrison might goof around about; they both had an instinct for rooting out ironies. When they formed a band together, Petty knew himself to be the littlest big shot in the Traveling Wilburys, so when they all picked silly names he tacked Junior on the end of his just to look the fact in the eye. He gave voice to Lucky’s redneck punchlines on King of the Hill and knocked his own toe off on an episode of The Simpsons. And let’s not forget about all the black humor in his lyrics, many of which were improvised — “God’s Gift to Man”, “Yer So Bad”, “Gator on the Lawn”, “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own”, “Spike”, and “Heartbreaker’s Beach Party”, just for starters.

So that’s it. Those are the four things Tom Petty taught me that saved my life. There’s so much more, of course, but I lived it and I can write about it until the second coming of Tom Petty and you still won’t understand what the fuck I’m talking about until you pony up for the experience of it all for yourself. I chose to live by his example because rock ‘n’ roll is a church and Tom Petty was one of my priests. He was a spiritual gangster and then he died. He went straight into darkness and I was still here, very much alive.