A RISD classroom, Providence, Rhode Island, 2017:
I’m on break from a long painting pose and have just returned from the the pisser. I sit down. My coworker, phone in hand, makes eye contact and sighs. She pauses, sighs again, then says, “So, Tom Petty… is dead.”
“What? No! No! Tom Petty? What?”
We believe he is dead for about an hour. I write something via Twitter on a break. I then check the news again, specifically to read exactly how he died, heart attack? What happened? Pulled his plug? What?
The news says he isn’t dead.
My coworker returns from the pisser. Before she even sits down, I say, “So, now he’s not dead.”
“He’s not dead. He wasn’t dead yet.”
At about 4pm EST, October 2, 2017, Tom Petty’s mortality resembles the “Ex-Parrot” skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, only in reverse.
I get home from work. Like many, I refresh the news until about seven-thirty, hoping he might snap out of bed miraculously, be surprised and annoyed that he was prematurely declared dead and then no doubt become moved by the universal gut-wrenching remorse in those two or three hours in which he was dead. That, of course, didn’t happen. He passed away before the night’s end, just as they said he most likely would.
The next day, today, I spend the bus ride to work wondering why exactly this performer’s death is so surprising and, more importantly, meaningful. These thoughts are interspersed with theories about what happened in Las Vegas, photos of the massacre that can’t be unseen flashing randomly as Hope Street whizzes by… If anything I’m distracting myself by pondering something more personal, more simple, and less dizzying and apocalyptic.
I remember the first time I paid attention to Tom Petty. I saw the video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” at a friend’s house when I was about twelve or thirteen. This macabre sense of humor is derived from the womb, so, of course, I loved it. I will eventually watch it again, about eight hours later, while shoving food in my face before band practice, and I will love it equally, giggle just as much as an adult as I did as that twelve, thirteen year-old kid, pointing and laughing at the screen between chugs of “OK Cola.”
I think of the time my dad caught me watching one of his early ’80s videos on the living room TV, had to have been the late ’90s on “Pop Up Video” or something. It was the one where he’s the Mad Hatter, not his best musical period, but a fun video. My dad walked in and went apoplectic, was actively angry at the television. “He just rips off Bob Dylan,” was the gist, but man, did that rant explain why I’d never heard Tom Petty on the car radio. Boy howdy! In the present, I laugh. My dad’s the only person I’ve ever known who ever objected to Tom Petty. Otherwise, he’s a universal crowd-pleaser, no matter the audience. I laugh some more.
Next, I think of Wildflowers. We spun that record for a decade. You’d put it on at the end of a party, when only five people were left and everyone was irredeemably drunk. The kind of record you put on when you’re at an outdoor party, and the only stereo is someone’s parked-but-running car blasting out open doors.
I think of my ex having a psychic moment with her friend. Both of them must have had “American Girl” stuck in their head at the same time and busted out the same line at the same second. She told that story all the time. I laugh.
I think of all the multitude of times in which my ex blared Wildflowers from her open car doors while we basked in Utopia, also known as a nudist campground/colony in Woodstock, Connecticut, called “Solair.” It’s the oldest nudist campground in the United States, founded in the 1930s, I believe, and my ex and I were once regulars. Solair could also bill itself as a botanical garden. I never encountered poison oak or ivy there – the grounds are immaculately tended. Everyone walks around with a dazed grin. There’s sundaes on Sunday, two o’clock, adults and children lining up alike, all in the buff, all children in that moment. On Saturday, there’s usually a noontime event by the lakeside beach, in the covered Pavilion, could be an art sale or a wine-tasting. Throughout the day, there’s parties to be found in the houses, trailers, and shacks that retirees have planted. (One party resulted in an overturned boat, a lost sandal, and a delightful anecdote for another day and a different blog.) Around four or five, a few elders set up wine and cheese at the beach. At night, there’s probably karaoke or a dance, everyone in T-shirts and sarongs by then, given that it’s probably a bit chilly. If you hang out until the end and bring whiskey, some baby boomer will offer you a ride to their place in their golf cart, and you’ll party some more, and someone will eventually put on Wildflowers.
Without pretension or expectation on the artist’s part or the faintest notice on my part, Tom Petty ended up being the ambient soundtrack to my teens and twenties. I even welcomed him into my thirties, after I’d ditched the aforementioned ex. I never associated Petty’s music with the bad memories from that period. His music was never played during times of trauma. It was party music, even his saddest songs, without thought or Bob forgive, the slightest reflection. That’s partly why I’m sad.
I took him for granted. Hours later, on the bus ride home, I listen to Wildflowers, and appreciate the quality of his lyricism, his solid songwriting, and wish to Hell I’d screamed that and his relevance to my life from the rooftops while he could still hear me.
Next week: A dissertation on why The Damned, due to the success of “Don’t You Wish We Were Dead?” should release a new album immediately. This will be closely followed by an apology and retraction once I’ve done the proper research the next morning and realize, to my personal horror and super-fan delight, that they already have.