Missing Tom Petty

I have a process for dealing with the deaths of beloved entertainers, and, to be honest, the deaths of people like David Bowie or Philip Seymour Hoffman affected me a whole lot more than the death of my mother, who abandoned me. After the initial shock wears off, I begin pitching aggressively to Vanity Fair and, well, pretty much only Vanity Fair at this point. They’re kind of my go-to freelance outlet for non-columns. 


Once Vanity Fair either okays or rejects a pitch related to the person who has just died, I make a point of listening to their music, or watching their films, both as a way of celebrating who they were and as a way of mourning. My First and Last column over at TCM Backlot, which covers the first and last films of notable filmmakers as a way of exploring their lives and career, is also useful on the public-mourning front. It’s given me an opportunity to work through my feelings about filmmakers I love like Jonathan Demme and Wes Craven, and make a little money in the process. 

Yet when I read that Tom Petty was either dead or just barely holding onto life following a heart attack, I did not process it the usual way. Part of it was a matter of confusion and denial. First I heard that Petty had died, then I heard that he wasn’t dead, but rather clinging desperately to life. Then I heard that he was dead again, and then that news of his death was premature, unlike Mark Twain, who I’m absolutely certain is dead as fuck now. 

I didn’t know whetheror not to believe that Petty had died. That, in itself, was both frustrating and encouraging. I desperately wanted to believe that he’d pull through, and that some day we’d all laugh at the crazy Tom Petty Death Prank of 2017. Man, what a fucked up year! I did not want Tom Petty to be dead, so I tried my damnedest not to think about it even as I saw tributes to Petty all over my friends’ Facebook wall. 

I was in denial. My brain just didn’t want to accept that Tom Petty was dead. If news of Petty’s surprise death was the only major bad news that day, I think it would have been easier to take. But news of his death alongside news of a lunatic with guns killing 59 people and a Hurricane called Maria beingmishandled by a Moron called Trump was just overwhelming. 

It was too much to process. It was too much to handle. I wasn’t ready to accept Petty’s death on top of everything else so I’ve delayed the mourning process a little. I haven’t been listening to Tom Petty’s music since he died because I don’t want to accept that he’s dead on top of everything else. 

Petty was such a goddamn force for good in the universe. He single-handedly made the world a better, more soulful and kind and interesting place. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tom Petty was (and it fucking kills me to have to write about him in the past tense) one of the greatest songwriters and singers that ever lived. There is no better rock and roll song than “Free Fallin’.”

Tom Petty wasn’t just good. At his best, he wrote perfect songs. He wrote the first song you danced to at your wedding. He wrote songs with lyrics so perfect and profound yet simple that you want to tattoo them on your body or scribble them down in your diary. He wrote sing-along songs, shout-along songs, songs that are the soundtrack to all of our lives. Tom Petty wrote songs that could make you cry and songs that filled you with an appreciation for life. 

Unexpected mourners at Petty's funeral.

Unexpected mourners at Petty's funeral.

I never got to see Petty perform live, though I bought tickets to see him once but not end up going, something I regretted at the time and regret even more now. Because we will never see the likes of Tom Petty again. He was an American original. He made me proud to be an American. His death means that another beloved part of my past, of our past, of everyone’s past, is gone forever. And that goddamn sucks. It totally fucking sucks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m gonna go listen to some Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It just seems like the right thing, the only thing, to do.  

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The Big WhoopNathan Rabin