Tom Petty helped me run down my dream. He still will.
A couple of online blogposts ago, I asked readers to give suggestions regarding what they’d like me to write about some time. One response I got was to write about someone who influenced me and helped to shape my life.
Today that’s easy because one of my big influences died recently.
What did I admire about Tom Petty? How did he influence my life and my work? After all, he was a rock star and I’m just me. And yet…
In the 2007 Peter Bogdanovich documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tom Petty says:
I always liked the idea of the guitar because cowboys played guitars. It was very clear: Here’s a way out of this situation I’m in.
Home movie footage features a young Tom in a big cowboy hat running across a lawn in suburban Florida. Upon hearing the story of his childhood in that Bogdanovich film, I ached for that kid. I also really related to him. As a kid, I looked for a way out, too.
Most all my life I’ve wanted to escape from one circumstance or another. Tom Petty and I had that in common. We both wanted to leave this world for a while.
Oh, he was by far braver and so much more talented than I’ll ever be, but we shared a driving desperation. That’s why his songs spoke to me.
Not a romantic
Tom Petty didn’t write about romance. Good for him. There’s enough romance in music already. The quota’s been filled. Instead, Petty wrote about life as raw and as sweet as it really is, like he did in his song Here Comes My Girl:
Every now and then I get down to the end of the day
And I have to stop and ask myself why I’ve done it.
It just seems so useless to have to work so hard
And nothin’ ever really seems to come from it.
– from Here Comes My Girl, Universal Music, 1979
I get this way of seeing the world. I’m not a romantic, either. Please just serve me up real life on a bendy paper plate and let’s deal with it.
Qualities I’d be proud to have
When trying to explain to a friend my deep grief over Petty’s passing, I listed the qualities that the musician embodied:
- People skills
- Business savvy
These are all attributes I strive to have. While Tom Petty lived out these exemplary personal qualities, I can only try to. But he gave me this example to aspire to. His life was an inspiration to me.
I don’t want to die
Here’s another reason for my sadness. To me, anymore, 66 seems a really young age to die. I understand that a lot of people die a lot younger. I realize this, but I didn’t want Tom Petty to die, and I sure as heck don’t want to die at 66 years old! I don’t want to die at all.
I often tell the story of being 10 years old in August of 1977. I was in the sprawling backseat of my parents’ Chrysler when the news came on the radio, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” Elvis Presley had died at 42. In the front seat, Mom cried like I cry for Tom Petty.
At the time, I remember thinking, “42? That’s pretty old. Elvis was four times my age!”
The memory of it makes me laugh now. I’m glad I got to live to be old enough for this to be funny.
In Tom Petty’s end, I see my own inevitable demise as more, well, inevitable. He seemed invincible. He seemed immortal. In short, it simply sucks when your heroes die.
Everyone dies. That’s the way it goes. Rock stardom or the safest, most serene life possible excludes no one from that shared fate.
The best I can do is to take the best of Tom Petty forward with me into the rest of my life. He made me understand the importance of running down my dream.
Now that I’m older, that dream is less about ambition and attaining a goal than it is about living authentically and in a way that matters to me.
Deep down, I know I’m no different than anyone else. Everybody’s had to fight to be free, and yet I feel that these words were written for me.
Life is a struggle, a beautiful woven tapestry of heartache and happiness. Throughout my life, because of the duration of Petty’s career, I’ve benefited from the experiences he set to music. Tom Petty put my pain and joy into words, and he dipped them in a melody.
For him, I am grateful.