1985: My introduction to Tom Petty comes from, of all people, “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose first album includes a spoof of Petty’s duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” As my 13-year-old ears take in the accordion-heavy “Stop Draggin’ My Car Around,” I’m somewhat baffled as I haven’t heard the original and won’t hear it for over a decade. But the seeds are planted.
1986: The video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is one of the most bizarre things I’ll see at that point in my life. An Alice in Wonderland retelling with Petty as the Mad Hatter, it ends with Alice being served up as pieces of cake to the characters at the Mad Tea Party. The last scene features a tiny Alice’s head calling for help inside Petty’s mouth, which he then closes and grins. Three decades later, it still freaks me out.
1989: My first kiss. It happens outside a cabin at a girls’ Catholic youth camp in the Boisdale area, at the end of a sanctioned day-long visit from myself and the other awkward dudes at the boys’ camp down the road. I’m awake for the next three hours, excitedly chattering about the experience with one of my new friends (the future best man at my wedding) while Petty and his fellow Travelling Wilburys sing on a ghetto-blaster in the boys’ camp dining hall. (I especially remember “Last Night” colouring this particular memory.)
1990: My audition tape full of current-events satire for a proposed comedy segment on CIGO AM Radio includes a fake ad for a “Political Figures’ Greatest Hits” album that includes recently-released Nelson Mandela singing “Free Falling.” It goes without saying that no part of the audition tape ever makes it to the airwaves.
Also 1990: Having failed to grasp the subtleties of political satire, I attempt to rework “Running Down A Dream” as a commentary on tensions between the U.S. and Iraq. Mercifully, it doesn’t advance past the first two lines, so a great song is saved from a ham-fisted parody that would have been even worse than “Stop Draggin’ My Car Around.”
Still 1990: The Travelling Wilburys release their second album, appropriately titled Volume 3, with an ode to storing copious amounts of musical instruments and technical gear that emerges as my all-time favourite Tom Petty vocal performance, “Cool Dry Place.”
1991: My college classmates’ attempt to draft me into the fandoms of Nirvana or Ice-T are foiled by the release of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ Into The Great White Open. The title track and “Learning To Fly” remain sentimental favourites for the following quarter-century.
1994: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” whose video (featuring Petty waltzing around with a corpse played by Kim Basinger) is already creepy enough, proves completely intolerable when a high-school friend of mine dies in a motor vehicle accident. I still have trouble listening to the song today.
1996: I finally pick up a copy of the 1989 album Full Moon Fever and realize that its appeal extends far beyond the chart singles. Nighttime news assignments for CIGO-AM are easier to digest when I have the likes of “Yer So Bad” and “Zombie Zoo” spilling out of my car’s cassette player as I arrive in Port Hood, Whycocomagh or Monastery.
2002: The title track to Petty’s album The Last DJ, celebrating a frustrated Florida radio host who fled to a Mexican station when his corporate bosses demanded that he stick to a tightly-formatted playlist, resonates as commercial radio struggles to retain its fractured audience. It’s actually banned by several stations under the Clear Channel banner for being “anti-radio.” Also, it’s featured briefly at the tail end of The Simpsons’ episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation,” with Petty playing himself at a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp.
2009: Playing on the Sydney waterfront as part of the Alive On The Island Christian music festival, American band MercyMe performs Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down,” with no lyric changes or any trace of irony. It fits perfectly.
2017: The news of Petty’s death from a cardiac arrest reaches the world as it’s still reeling from the shooting rampage at a Las Vegas country music event and President Trump’s asinine response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. I immediately flash back to Petty’s opening-verse vocals from a 1990 Travelling Wilburys song:
“While you’re strolling down the fairway, showing no remorse/Glowing from the poisons they’ve sprayed on your golf course/While you’re busy sinking birdies and keeping your scorecard/The devil’s been busy in your backyard.”
He was only 66.
Thank you for everything, Tom.