The first time I heard Tom Petty – and I mean REALLY heard Tom Petty – was at a ski condo where I spent many winter weekends during high school. If you consider a lot of his songs being in high school could not have been a more fitting time.
My family had a time-share with another family on an area condo. Every other weekend we would pack up the van and trek to Snoqualmie Pass. As I passed from Freshmen through my Senior years I had to spend less time skiing and snowboarding and more time studying, all while looking out the condo windows at the frozen hill I’d rather be sliding down.
One night during the winter of ‘89/90 some folks down the hall at the condo building had a party. They put on Full Moon Fever (1989) and blared it. The album was crisp and clear, you couldn’t miss it from anything else going on in the building. The distinct sound of Tom Petty’s voice, the memorable tracks from this solo album … The folks down the hall played this album all night. It was the only album they played … all night. Everyone else in the building, myself included, were trying to sleep, and apparently no one had the nerve to go down the hall to bang on the damn door and demand they shut it off! My suspicion remains that the folks started playing a CD* copy of the album on repeat, partied and then passed out.
(* Here’s where I show my age – people were just starting to get CD players then – and the copy of the album I heard couldn’t have been a tape cassette because there wasn’t a long enough pause anywhere for the tape to run out … which is kind of funny & coincidental when considering what the listener hears at the middle of the album.)
Yep, the first time I really heard Tom Petty I REALLY didn’t like his work – not because of anything having to do with his music but because of the lack of sleep I got that fateful night coupled with the inundation of the singular album.
Some years later (still in high school) I had gotten that sleepless condo night and that repeating album out of my system. On weekend evenings I caught a late at night music show on PBS – I have no idea what the show was. For weeks I tuned in because this show was cool and I didn’t have a social life then (either). I would watch whatever band was being featured and then the show would close out with playing a number from a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert.
Every week the concert would pick up where it left off, and over a number of weeks I caught most of the performance. Something about the music and the presence the musicians had caught me. To this day I don’t know what the specific concert was or much reference to make for the footage – and I would love to see it again. All I recall was that there was this HUGE tree prop behind the band on stage, and I think chandeliers hung from the branches. Their performance was engaging, electrifying, authentic, and the roots of rock’n’roll were palpable.
It was after that I started paying attention, learning about where Tom Petty came from, observing his accomplishments, hearing the arc of his music as he continued to mature …. and yet that authentic, palpable thing always remained.
I get the impression that some folks think that because I play bagpipes that I’m not a musician, that I don’t tie in with the rest of musicians the same. While I hold the opinion that there is a vibe every musician experiences that comes with their genre of instrument, there is a vibe that all musicians share. I didn’t start out as a bagpiper, I’m not now only a bagpiper, and with that I’ve always viewed myself as a musician first. When you appreciate the work of another musician both from an audience standpoint and from musician standpoint …. when someone who’s work was incredible and they move on … it hurts in two ways. You lose a star in the night who was a point of great creation, and you lose someone you understand because of the vibe you shared with them.
In some of the themes that Tom wrote and sang about – love, hate, and loss – my relationship with his work has been that. First I hated his work, then I came to love it. Lately we lost the man, and yet we can remain grateful for the gifts he gave through his art and dreams.