On Monday, an already devastating day for America, I dismissed my seventh period class and checked my phone to find a text from my brother: “Tom Petty is dead. The devil has been busy today.”
If I had heard it from anyone else, I would have texted my brother first. Then, I would have reached out to my parents, who have Sirius radio with hundreds of stations but rarely change the station from “Tom Petty Radio,” which is station 31. I know that it’s station 31 and I don’t even have a car.
There was a time before XM radio, when Tom Petty’s 2002 album The Last DJ was the only CD the whole family could agree on to play in the car. On the annual sixteen-hour road trip to Georgia, after the Harry Potter audiobooks got too long for us to conceivably listen to in entirety, we began the inevitable CD rotation. I would pick the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack and my brother, Andrew, would groan. Andrew would choose Back in Black and I would roll my eyes. It was a fair system, but there were few crowd-pleasers. Tom Petty was one.
So, we memorized Tom’s scathing lyrics detailing the commercialized modern music industry. Andrew and I enjoyed singing along when Petty belted, “MY NAME’S JOE I’M THE C-E-OOOOO.” My mother and I fell in love with the track “Blue Sunday,” a more tender track, where Tom sings about a memorable encounter with a girl who bought him cigarettes at a 7-11. Look up the lyrics; they are lovely. The refrain goes, “It’s a Blue Sunday, down the interstate / A Blue Sunday, blue with shades of grey.”
I’ve played this track recently for my boyfriend, Steve, while feeling melancholy about returning home from vacation on a Sunday. Because you can’t count on this track coming up on Tom Petty radio, I used Spotify to find it. As I scrolled through the other The Last DJ tracks, I momentary thought I didn’t know the song, “Have Love, Will Travel,” but upon playing it realized I knew all the words. I never knew the title because I never looked at the track titles. The music lived in my parents’ car.
As our love for Tom grew, Andrew grew out his blonde hair. It grew a bit wavier than Tom’s, but his pointed features helped the look, though he would never admit this was what he was going for. My Dad took to blasting “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” at least once a week, in the house or in the car, and referred to the practice as “getting his fix.” My mom rolled her eyes, but we all knew how much she loved “Room at the Top” from the album Echo, with a similar, albeit quieter, fervor.
In college, a student band once played Free Fallin’ on Commons Lawn during a picnic and credited it to John Mayer. JOHN MAYER. I screamed, “THAT’S A TOM PETTY SONG!” Present company was not impressed with my outburst. Really though, who doesn’t know that?
On a camping trip two summers ago, I sat around a fire drinking whiskey with a group of friends. We had a small stereo (it was car camping—everyone did) from which we played music to suit the rustic occasion. There was plenty of the Tom Petty. That’s the thing: his music suits so many occasions.
The next morning, Steve, whom I’d only been dating a year at that point, commented, “You were really into that Tom Petty last night.” I smiled, knowing I was, and also that the whiskey didn’t help. I was probably singing a lot louder that I’d realized at the time. For a moment, I wondered if I should be embarrassed. Then I remembered that loving Tom Petty is not embarrassing.
In August of 2007, my brother’s best friend Ryan died suddenly in a car accident. It felt a lot like losing a family member, and as such our family dynamic was changed. One could argue that it still is. Ryan loved the Giants, so when they won the 2008 Super Bowl, I cried because I felt they had won for him. I remember hugging a friend who also knew the significance of this win, and a classmate commenting, “I know how much you two liked football.”
Later, I picked up my brother and some friends from a Super Bowl party across town and dropped them off at their respective houses. We blasted Tom Petty, who had played the half-time show and thus was already in our heads, throughout the whole car ride. We played the classics this time: “American Girl” and “Refugee.” In my memory the windows are down, though it was January and freezing, so I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that we sang along at the top of our lungs, celebrating.
I recently learned that it was Gary, Ryan’s father, who first played The Last DJ for my father, and thus started the Higgins’ Petty obsession. This does not surprise me. It was also Gary who planned a small concert for what would have been Ryan’s sixteenth birthday, as a tribute to his life. We opened with “I Won’t Back Down.” Gary was on lead vocals and my sister sang backup. Andrew played the drums, and another close friend played bass. I played my blue guitar. The chords were easy, but I’ve forgotten them now.
When Gary heard of Tom Petty’s passing, he posted a Lester Bangs quote to my Dad’s Facebook page. Lester Bangs is of course a character from Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, which has a permanent position in my list of favorite movies of all time list, also thanks to Gary.
The quote goes like this:
Music, you know, true music, not just rock ‘n’ roll, it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones—you know, with the vast, scenic bridges and angelic choirs of your brain. It is a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.
Thanks for choosing us, Tom.
Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.