A Tribute: Who Wrote Better Road Music — Life Music — Than Tom Petty?

I rolled down the car windows on my way to work this morning and hit shuffle on "This Is: Tom Petty," a Spotify playlist.

"Runnin' Down a Dream" announced itself first (of course!), followed by "American Girl." That line in the second verse — "And for one desperate moment there / He crept back in her memory" — that one?


What would it feel like, to have your words mean so much, to so many people, for so many years? How was it to live with that knowledge?

Tom Petty died Monday at age 66. As an American boy, his voice was in my blood before I knew it, the sound of FM radio, cramped car rides and backyard Wiffle ball games.

Later, apocalyptic, slightly comical music videos for "You Got Lucky" and "Don't Come Around Here No More" added visuals that, in retrospect, seem totally in sync with two unmistakably grim pop songs. "Full Moon Fever," a pop-rock meteor, entered my atmosphere in high school. I mostly sought out blues-based British rock and psychedelia; this music was concise, profound, clean: Byrds-y, Beatles-esque synth-pop, with giant hooks and life lessons.

(In college, "Full Moon Fever" was code for engaging in questionable behavior, the kind that interfered with midterm exams and attendance at morning classes.)

Tom Petty reminded me of my father: respected, wise, scrappy, a fighter. In 2008, my dad was admitted into a hospital in Gainesville, Fla., (Petty's hometown) for a liver transplant. He never made it out. He was 66.

Several times a week, I drove from Bradenton to Gainesville to be with him. Sometimes I listened to "Highway Companion," Petty's 2006 album. There's a song on there called "Turn This Car Around," a moody, plodding dirge, slightly out of step with the rest of the record. The second verse — who wrote better second verses than Tom Petty? — goes like this:

Green and gray and auburn sliding down the sky / The devil winks an eye

A figure in the doorway shouldering the blame / This ain't without a name

So often, I wanted to turn around and go home — anything to avoid facing what I'd see in that ICU: the doctors and nurses, figures in the doorway, the devil himself. Leaving Gainesville was equally painful: Turn this car around / I'm going back.

Who wrote better road music — life music — than Tom Petty?

A couple of years ago, my wife and I saw the Heartbreakers at the XL Center in Hartford. For whatever reason, we didn't enjoy it. The band looked bored, tired. Maybe it was us. I'm sure it was us.

From what I've heard, the last-ever Tom Petty tour, a 40th anniversary blowout that wrapped last month at the Hollywood Bowl, sounded anything but tired. I didn't go to the Hartford show. God knows why. I didn't expect it to be my final opportunity to hear him.

I was packing up my laptop yesterday when a colleague told me about Petty's heart attack. On Twitter, Petty died, then lived again. All evening, I pictured him in the ICU, surrounded by family and friends, fighting for his life. (I haven't spent much time in hospitals since 2008, thank God.)

Part of me wondered: Did I have the mental capacity to grieve both Petty and the victims of the Las Vegas tragedy? Why is it so commonplace — in America, in 2017 — to entertain those kinds of thoughts?

Tom Petty was a great American. At a stoplight this morning, I yelled along to the second verse of "Swingin'." (Who wrote better songs with apostrophes in their titles than Tom Petty?)

The light changed to green. A driver in a convertible Mini Cooper turned left in front of me. It didn't impede my forward progress, but it made me angry for a second.

A new thought, voiced by Petty, took over: That was an American move.

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