COLUMN: Tom Petty and the Heartbroken

A heartbroken American girl remembers all the good times with a musical legend.

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I used to poke fun at all the women who cried when Elvis died. Then my musical love passed away last week, and now I understand. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been in my life since I was 14 years old.

One of Tom Petty's final concerts was in Tampa in May.
One of Tom Petty's final concerts was in Tampa in May.

Immediately after news of Petty’s death broke, I started receiving sincere condolences through texts and phone calls and Facebook messages from friends, former co-workers, my mother, even an ex-brother-in-law. Everyone knows the enormity of my fandom.

Grief is a tricky beast and sometimes it doesn’t make any sense. I felt a heartbreaking loss, and I’ve never even met the guy.

But, boy, did his music speak to my heart. Tom Petty’s way of weaving lyrics together is magical and poetic.

I can remember family trips up to our North Carolina cabin, and to pass the time on the long drive, I wrote the lyrics to his songs in a spiral-ring notebook; the cover was rust-colored, the corners bent from traveling every year with me. Yes, I still have it.

It wasn't enough to hear his words; I wanted to see them, too.

Writing down lyrics in the early ’80s wasn't like it is now. Pre-Google, I had to listen to the cassette tape phrase by phrase, over and over — “What IS he SAYING?” — sometimes never quite figuring them out. I didn't have headphones either; I just knew my family wanted to hear every TP song 87 times in a row.

And hear me sing them all with great passion.

Seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one last time in Tampa in May.
Seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one last time in Tampa in May.

Before online sales were a thing, local fans had to go to Infinite Mushroom in the Colonial Plaza or to Robinson’s at Fashion Square Mall, both in Orlando. Sales typically started at 10 a.m. on Fridays, and one tour I was either in school or at work, I don't remember the year, so Mother offered to go early and stand in line so I would have good seats for the show. She stood there for two hours making small talk with other Petty fans. And she got my tickets.

I once went into the Levi's clothing store near Fashion Square Mall, in Orlando, looking for something inexpensive to buy. Why? With every purchase you got a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers poster promoting their 1985 Southern Accents tour. The sales clerk was kind and just gave me one. Yes, I still have that, too.

My children were introduced to Tom Petty at an early age. They have known his music their entire lives. It makes me smile to hear my son and daughter sing the lyrics to one of his songs. I raised them right!

It was a special moment for me when I got to share my Tom Petty experience with them while on a family vacation in Michigan. They were about the age I was when I first heard his music. We actually arranged a portion of our trip to be able to see the Heartbreakers in concert.

I've seen him with best friends, significant others, co-workers, a sister. I've gone to his concerts all over Florida. I've danced and sung and felt the camaraderie alongside tens of thousands of fans — 21 times. Nothing compares to the sound of an arena full of Petty fans singing in unison. It's truly a nirvana moment.

His concerts always included at least one song that he stopped singing and let the crowd take over.

What a rush; a real sense of community and fraternity.

And to experience a Petty concert in Gainesville, his hometown, is a rite of passage. I'm glad I did that when I had the chance.

I own more than a dozen T-shirts from tours through the years. I might have slept in one the night he died.

My Petty love goes beyond concerts. I have books, vinyls, cassette tapes, CD collections, VHS tapes and DVDs

If he was on “Saturday Night Live,” I recorded it. If he did an interview on MTV, I recorded it. When he performed at Live Aid, I recorded it. If he was the topic of a book, I bought it and read it.

A few years ago, I saw an ad selling a plastic figurine of Tom Petty from his guest appearance on “The Simpsons.” I (sort of) jokingly posted on my Facebook page that whoever bought it for me would be my best friend for life. A week later, it arrived at my house, a gift from my cousin, Pam.

At one time, my phone's ringtone was TPHB's “You Got Lucky.”

My key ring, Petty’s Gibson Flying V electric guitar, is a concert purchase. The band’s logo — that same guitar piercing a red heart, the band name emblazoned on an attached ribbon —is the background of my office computer, too, something my former boss, Andrew, set up for me years ago.

I'll never change it now.

It's hard to open Facebook now and not see a Petty tribute posted by one of his fans. People are still trying to process this heartbreaking loss a week and a half later.

Yellow Dog Eats in Gotha offered a special wrap last Wednesday in Petty's memory. In the third quarter of Saturday's Gator game, the packed stadium erupted into “I Won't Back Down,” and the sound was breathtaking to this Petty fan. A special “Saturday Night Live” episode from 1979 played last weekend, and a young Petty performed two of his hit songs with his Heartbreakers behind him.

I have played Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers music ever since his death. All it takes is a push of the play button, and it’s like he isn’t gone. He will live on in my mind and my heart.

Till I see you again … the waiting is the hardest part.


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