Tom Petty’s Last Dance

I remember being seven years old in the back seat of my dad’s 98’ Mazda Protege on our way to yet another science fair as Tom Petty’s American Girl echoed through the speakers, both of us singing along. Having been bullied for my love of science, the lyrics “She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life,” rang truer than ever in that moment. 

Flash forward to fifteen years later as Tom Petty’s death is announced on the radio.  The date is October 2nd, 2017.  And there’s me, now in the driver’s seat of my own Mazda (The Langenbergs have a thing for Mazdas). I grew up with “heartland rock,” as a center of my musical education. My dad made it a point to only play classics in order to provide me with a proper upbringing.


It struck me out of nowhere.

There is a certain level of surreality that people tend to experience when celebrities die. I never personally knew Tom Petty. The closest I ever came was rows back, this past summer when he and The Heartbreakers passed through Red Rocks. Yet somehow a hole formed in my heart upon hearing the news, as if he were an uncle of mine. In a way, it felt like he was. 

Tom Petty stands out as a legend.  In addition to his solo career, he was able to place his name on three different bands, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Traveling Wilburys, and Mudcrutch.  Petty produced several hit classics, such as American Girl, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Refugee, Free Fallin’, Breakdown, Wildflowers and countless others.

I dare you to find a person who doesn’t know the words to at least one Tom Petty song, even if they don’t realize it’s a Tom Petty song.

Over the course of his 47-year long career, Petty sold more than 80 million records worldwide, deeming him one of the highest selling artists of all time. In 2002 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He notably headlined the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show and maintained his own Sirius XM station called “Tom Petty Radio.”


Petty had become quite notorious for fighting for his own artistic freedom and artistic control. At the initial release of Petty’s album, Hard Promises, current record label MCA wanted to sell the album at $9.98, one dollar more than usual list price. After a lengthy battle and protests from fans, the label eventually released the album for the standard price of $8.98.

The singer’s bout with drugs was noted during the recording process of the song Rebels, during which, a very high Petty punched a hole in the wall of a recording studio after not being able to get the arrangement just right. This outburst caused significant damage to his left hand and caused Petty to call upon his friend, Jimmy Lovine, to help him finish the track as well as the rest of the album, Southern Accents.

Petty was famously friends with 70’s icon Stevie Nicks, and the two even collaborated on hits such as Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, Pins and Needles, and Insider. The duo performed together consistently since the 80’s, but their connection was not the only one Petty made during his career.

One of Petty’s first guitar teachers was none other than Don Felder of The Eagles. He had the following to say about his late protogé and friend:

Rocker Alice Cooper tweeted:

In a statement to Billboard Magazine, Recording Academy President and CEO, Neil Portnow said:

“Tom was a true rock and roll purist, both in his music and his defiant spirit. With the Heartbreakers, his infectious riffs, rebellious personality, and inventive songwriting brought a new urgency to rock traditions and fueled a now legendary career and some of the most memorable music of the last four decades.”


Following Tom Petty’s death, I am reminded of my own relationship with the legacy. From the days of being the towheaded little 7-year-old singing along to American Girl with my dad, to shouting the lyrics to Wildflowers out of the windows during those precious few first days in my car after getting my driver’s license. From crying along to Something Good Coming after experiencing my first heartbreak to dancing around my dorm room to Walls (No.3), to now crying at the wheel at the announcement of the loss of a legend.

We as a society often put celebrities up on a pedestal.  Tom Petty was such a consistent part of my life that I never considered the possibility of him dying; he was invincible to me. It is only now, as I sit blaring I Won’t Back Down through my empty apartment, far too loud for my neighbors, that I feel every struggle that Tom sang about so deeply, now feeling truer than ever.

But for now, Tom, You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free.