a guitarist's occasional blog
The world lost Tom Petty this week.
The first memory I have of listening to the radio—really listening as if it was the music was the only thing in the world—was as a child at my grandparents' house in Blue Island, Illinois. I was probably nine years old. I can't remember why, but I was down in their basement playing on the cool tile floor. Maybe it was a summer heat wave, and that would have been the most tolerable place to be in the house. Someone had left me a transistor radio tuned to a popular radio station, probably Chicago's FM rock giant WLS.
I remember four songs from that day. It's weird how we can remember some of these otherwise mundane childhood moments in such vivid detail. Those songs were "The Logical Song" by Supertramp, "Rich Girl" by Hall & Oates, "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheel, and "Don't Do Me Like That" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. All four of those songs have remained part of the soundtrack of my life.
I admit that I haven't given much thought to Tom Petty lately. He was on the radio from the moment I began listening, and he never left me. I rarely changed the station on his music, but I only own three of his albums. I never performed his songs, though I made an effort last year to learn all the guitar parts on the "Refugee" record. I never saw him in concert, though I had considered traveling up to Seattle's Safeco Field to see him play.
Sadly, I just took Tom Petty for granted. He was always there. And now he is gone. It's hard to imagine he won't be here making music and records anymore.
He was a genius at writing a simple pop hit that had hidden layers buried in it to discovered only after you had sung the damn song a thousand times. And we all sang a lot of his songs a thousand times.
I've always appreciated his sometimes surprising political activism, whether it was protesting nuclear weapons or standing up for transgender rights. His admission that he had been wrong to use the Confederate Flag as a marketing tool, and his continued willingness to discuss the need to pull the damn thing down? People don't often admit their mistakes in such a humble way.
Like his contemporary Jackson Brown, Tom Petty evolved from rock star to authentic, interesting Americana act—a rare trick for the stars of his generation. He never became a dull oldies act and remained relevant to the end. While his later songs lacked the defiance of his younger days, his work became more probing and his narratives stronger. Sadly, Tom Petty probably left this world with some of his best work still in him.
On Monday night I taught my guitar class at Multnomah Arts Center how to play "I Won't Back Down". We sang together. It felt good. The best way I can think to mourn, remember, and celebrate a songwriter is to play and sing their songs.
Tom Petty was above all a great songwriter. We will keep those songs alive.
"Far away from your trouble and worry, you belong somewhere you feel free." - Tom Petty from "Wildflowers"
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo