How Tom Petty Taught Me to Fly


Everyone has a Tom Petty story. It’s hard not to with a man who, for more than forty years, provided the soundtrack of our lives. I write that in the past tense because on Monday night, Tom Petty died. According to preliminary reports by TMZ, Petty was found unconscious at his Malibu home on Sunday, October 1. Though EMTs were able to get a pulse, he had no brain activity by the time he got to the hospital, and life support was pulled on October 2.

Liking Tom Petty isn’t interesting. Liking Tom Petty is like liking a day where it’s 70 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze. He was an easy man to like. As an artist, he made songs that were fundamentally impossible to avoid singing along to. As a businessman, he fought for all artists. As a celebrity, he was scandal-free.

But I don’t like Tom Petty. I need him. It’s hard for me to write about how important Tom Petty’s music has been to my life because it feels like writing an appreciation of air.

I saw Tom Petty for the first time in the summer of 2008, at the inaugural Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He was 57 years old, more than forty years my senior, and exactly what I needed. The man standing in front of me at that concert was more than six feet tall, and immediately offered me a small footstool he had brought with him. Standing on it, I could see over his shoulder, over all the heads and the cloud of smoke in front of me, to the stage where Tom Petty was being handed guitar after guitar after guitar. Somewhere in the middle of the set, Petty played “Saving Grace,” off his 2006 solo album, Highway Companion. There he was, swaying in a black-and-white polka dot shirt, holding a Les Paul, singing:

It’s hard to say
Who you are these days
But you run on anyway
Don’t you baby?
You keep running for another place
To find that saving grace.

A full head above the crowd, on my small step stool, I made what I’m almost certain was eye contact with Petty, and then tilted my head forward as I danced so that I could imperceptibly catch my tears with my sleeve.

Now I recognize the things I was feeling that summer — the detachment, the sensitivity, the small voice in the back of my head that asked questions I didn’t want to know the answer to. I wasn’t diagnosed with clinical depression until five years later, but that summer, I had my first episode. I was still growing up, and when you’re not sure exactly who you are, it’s easy to mistake depression for cynicism or hormones or adulthood.

That wasn’t the first time I had heard Tom Petty, of course. Like a lot of kids, I grew up listening to him before I even knew his name, his songs woven into the tapestry of my childhood. I had good parents, after all, parents who drove us in the hot Texas sunshine with Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises and Into the Great Wide Open blaring through the sound system, our thighs pressed stickily to the seats. Petty is the wallpaper of rock radio. According to data accumulated by FiveThirtyEight, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are the fifth biggest classic-rock group in the country, responsible for one out of every forty songs you hear on the radio. 

Still, Petty could have easily become just another piece of nostalgia, someone to remind me of my parents, like Lyle Lovett or Pearl Jam. But instead he became my life vest, a sound I could always reach for if the current got too fast or the undertow too strong. That summer, I put Highway Companion on repeat on my iPod and memorized every chord of it. By accident. I copied a collection of his greatest hits onto a cassette tape so I could listen to it in my old car. I clung to those major chords, those steady drumbeats, those riffs that sound like captured sunshine, the car window down and the world blowing past, and they carried me. They were stable in a time when I was not, for there is nothing as stable as a Tom Petty album.

Clinical depression is something you have forever, but not in every moment. It comes and goes in waves. It can be managed — with exercise and therapy and antidepressants — but it can’t be eradicated. Sometimes you can see the valley coming, feel the slip of the downhill slope, but you can’t stop it. Some storms can’t be outrun, they can only be weathered. In 2010, I weathered with “The Waiting.” In the spring of 2011 it was Wildflowers; that summer, only “You Wreck Me.” As I got better at managing, as I learned to live with my brain and correct it, the periods of down got shorter.  I spent weeks with “American Girl,” and “Louisiana Rain,” and “The Best of Everything,” and dozens more. Last winter it was “Listen to Her Heart” that I reached for over and over again. This summer, in June, it was “Learning to Fly,” the reminder that “Some say life/will beat you down/and break your heart/and steal your crown” blaring through my headphones when I needed it.

We all have music that reminds us of the best days of our lives: Songs we played at a wedding, or when we had a great day, or that we use to pump us up for something great. Tom Petty, for me, isn’t any of those things. Tom Petty is survival music. The songs feel immediate, necessary, forceful, but Petty sings them in a laid-back way. The world is here, it is scary, it is big, but you can calm down. Tom Petty may be gone, but his music will survive. You will survive, and so will I.