Remembering Tom Petty

It was 1985 and I was a sixteen-year-old Adonis, washboard abs, a face that made grown women swoon, and more swagger than Mick Jagger on his best day, except that I wasn’t. I was, instead, awkwardly trapped between parachute pants and Levi’s 501 Button Fly Jeans, both cooler than I was, worn with a sense of hopeful abandon that the world wouldn’t know I was an imposter in designer fashions acquired from the irregular outlet store in Elkhart, IN., where my mother bought my best clothes.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I had snakeskin cowboy boots—snakeskin in the way that Naugahyde, a sort of badly-faked leather, could be cut and painted to look like snakeskin, and boots in the way that Chinese plastic injection machines could spit out something that looked like a boot, but with a shiny plastic-luster that resembled the material of school cafeteria trays. And, of course, I had metal spurs, in much the same manner that girls have clip-on earrings—my spurs wedged around my bootheels, a glorious chrome expression of fashion, spurs that were not nearly as cool as Tom Petty had in the first moments of his music video, You Got Lucky, but equally inspiring.

In the 80’s, we were all trapped between fashions and music that changed so fast that only the truly dedicated could keep up. Tom Petty was on fire. It seemed like he was always on the radio. 1982 was a great year for music. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released You Got Lucky on the heels of Petty’s duet in 1981 with Stevie Nicks, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. Before that, in 1980, Petty released Refugee. That’s how we knew Petty, year after year, hit after hit—he was a legend, a star, the kind of icon that caused teenagers from small farming towns to go out and buy a set of spurs.

I wanted to be Tom Petty—in the way that we all want certain things that are beyond our reach, so far beyond that we don’t actually set out to achieve such a goal, but instead cherish the wanting as a sort of blissful ache, something we instinctively know others of good fiber also want. Except, there were these moments — the ones that heightened the ache — and those moments were odd and delightful in their own way. Have you ever really looked at Petty? In the 80’s, there were definitely times when Petty had a sort of Sean Cassidy meets Earl, The Carpet King of Cincinnati, kind of look. There were moments in his videos on MTV, back when MTV was about music, that were so cheesy nobody was buying it. And those moments of vulnerability allowed us to say, “I could do that. I’m at least that cool.” Except I couldn’t, and I’m not.

Petty went on to make hit after hit, staring in films and doing, probably, anything he wanted—because he’s Tom Petty and we aren’t. And although it seems odd, it’s comforting to know there are people like Tom Petty out there—people who are a little vulnerable but still doing great things year after year. It’s inspiring and uplifting—and it continues to be, despite Monday, Oct. 2nd, when we learned that he died. Tom Petty isn’t here anymore. He died. Tom Petty died. Saying it feels alien, and it’s something that I will do too. I will become like Tom Petty, and until then, I’ll rock out to his songs and cherish his memory—maybe even buy another set of spurs someday. Why not? Why not?