The news of Tom Petty’s passing hit me hard. Maybe its intensity was magnified in the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy — our collective human suffering still a raw wound. Maybe it was because it struck me as so unexpected — not that any death ever really is, he was 66 for crying out loud. Maybe his was just the most recent of a series of catastrophic losses in music and entertainment — maybe my heart just couldn’t take it anymore.
I think the likeliest reason, though, is that some of my earliest memories are of listening to Tom Petty in the car with the top down — singing the opening lines of Breakdown with a heavily exaggerated French accent and then collapsing into a fit of giggles. Tom Petty, with his sly smile and ridiculous hat and unadulterated grit, comprised a great deal of my musical upbringing.
In any case, it was a major blow — and I spent a week on the brink of tears. And amidst my sorrow I was compelled, as I often am, to write about it. But I struggled with how to put any of it into words.
Then it occurred to me… what if I used his, instead?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been quietly assembling a poem — I say “assembling,” and not “writing,” because this verse isn’t mine, per se. I listened to some of my favorite of his songs, revisited his lyrics, and started to craft something from them that felt like a tribute.
It turned out to be an extraordinary and wholly therapeutic exercise — I rediscovered songs I hadn’t heard in years, and even stumbled upon a few I’d never heard at all. It was actually a lot harder than I expected, but throughout it I felt like I was paying my dues somehow — laboring over a project that I hoped would express my gratitude to the man who provided a soundtrack to so much of my life.
I wasn’t sure if I would even share this, since its creation was sufficient to help me process / grieve / cope / move on, and that sadness is mostly behind me now.
But anyway, here it is.
He taught me that good love is hard to find,
And that it can be good to be king.
To grow up tall, and to grow up right —
And then how to fly without wings
I learned that waiting’s the hardest part,
Not to stay in trouble town.
To get going when grass grows under my feet —
Keep the world from dragging me down
He was out of a dream, out of the sky —
Had a mind with a heart of its own.
He was the boy in the corduroy pants,
And it was too cold to cry when I woke up alone
I’d do anything to have him here again —
Sail a storm, while strapped to the mast.
But you can’t sell your soul for peace of mind,
And it’s a drag to live in the past.
He belongs among the wildflowers,
Somewhere he feels free
There is no sense in pretending —
I can’t repay what he’s done for me
He’s gonna write his name in the sky
Where the bulldog barks, and the canary sings
Gonna leave this world for awhile
Still learnin’ to fly, but this time with wings.