When I was a little kid, and anybody—an uncle, a teacher, a priest—asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had one immediate answer: “Tom Petty.”
My parents weren’t playing me Raffi; they never put on Sharon, Lois, or Bram. (Like an American girl, I was raised on promises.) They knew not to bother, for there was only one artist I wanted to listen to.
During her pregnancy with me, my mother went to a Tom Petty concert with my dad, and people all around were smoking joints. She’s open-minded regarding such substances, but, as a soon-to-be first-time parent very much pregnant, she was hyper-worried about any harm done to her unborn baby, so she took her concerns to her doctor. “It’s impossible—there is no way any of that could have had any effect,” he assured her…but I choose to believe otherwise. I was there. Something secondhand did filter into the womb, I like to think. And I owe it so much.
One summer vacation, my aunt and uncle took me to a cottage with some friends of theirs. There was another kid my age, and we each got to bring one movie with us to watch for the week. The other guy brought Aladdin 2: The Return of Jafar. I brought Playback, a VHS compilation of Tom’s music videos that my dad had impulsively bought one Saturday at the local Virgil Video. When it was my turn to pick the flick for “movie time,” I actually made this other five-year old watch it with me, poor kid. He very quickly fell asleep. No wonder we didn’t keep in touch.
This sums up my relationship with the music of Tom Petty. He was the rock n roll equivalent of a first kiss, but because for so long I did not know anyone else my age who listened to him, I spent all my time with Tom in solitude, watching the miniature wheels of the cassette tape spin on my Sony Walkman till the batteries ran out. I felt strange and different and separate from the people around me, but I also felt totally fine about this; it was as though I’d been let in on classified information, secret code words, an exclusive club. Sure, I was the boy in the corduroy pants—but so was Tom.
I’ve been thinking about all this since the news of his fatal cardiac arrest came out. How fitting, I suppose, that in the end, he fulfilled the prophecy on the marquee, his heart breaking just after he’d finished up a 40th anniversary tour. The tour included a stop in Toronto, a concert to which I had tickets…tickets I nonchalantly sold on Kijiji, hustling deals with potential buyers like a used-car salesman. I’ll just see him next time, I said.
How easily we forget the singers are not as immortal as the songs.
One night last winter, I was washing dishes with my iPod on shuffle. I’d been feeling very down: overwhelmed by school, I was uncertain what I was doing, how I was doing, and whether I ought to be doing it at all. Suddenly, from the depths of the iPod’s hard drive, an old Tom Petty song came on: “Learning To Fly.” In my childhood, it had been a favourite, but I had neither heard nor thought of it in many, many years.
That night, though, its final verse struck me: “Some say life may beat you down/Break your heart, steal your crown/But I’ve started out for God-knows-where/Guess I’ll know when I get there.” I had listened to these words many times before, of course, but they had never meant to me what they were meaning in that moment. It felt like I’d sat down on my grandfather’s lap for words of wisdom: Yer learning to fly, but you ain’t got yer wings yet, I could hear Tom, in his nasally Floridian drawl, telling me. You’ll know where yer going when you get there.
So many years later, Tom was telling me it would be okay, so I knew that it would be. I was—I am—still the boy in the corduroy pants.
I know he will still keep telling me what I need to hear whenever I need to hear it, even though he’s reached the end of the line, danced his last dance with Mary Jane, free fallin’ into the great wide open, like the cars rolling by out on 441. You’ve wrecked me, Tom, yet I can’t help thinking there’s a little more to life somewhere else—after all, it is a great big world. So I’ll still sail on your radio song, I’ll keep running down a dream, I’ll keep learning to fly. I still have your music—I’ll always have that. But God, it sure is painful when something that’s so close is still so far out of reach.