“On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
The loss of musicians hits in a particular way, not because we knew them personally, but because their work indelibly soundtracked portions of our own lives. I was little when hits like “Refugee” and “Learning to Fly’” came out, but those melodies were what churned from the speakers of our Chrysler sedan, the songs and myself equally shiny and new to the world.
Petty’s tunes followed like an unassuming chaperone over the years, shifting like quicksilver from family car trip fare to the background noise of every college party you’ve ever attended, with a guy named Steve sitting shoeless on a ratty couch, plucking out “Free Fallin.’” His music was still there long after the sparkle of graduation faded, soldiering along with us into ill-advised weeknight karaoke sessions when you wanted to pick a song you knew you’d never sing alone. After all, you didn’t have to be a Tom Petty mega-fan to know Tom Petty—you only had to be here. As Rob Harvilla wrote over at The Ringer, Petty “belonged to everybody everywhere, defining and uniting America as well as anybody, and more casually than anybody. He was classic rock in real time, the songs monuments to themselves at first contact.”
So on a day—and a year—when America is suffering greatly, it’s a privilege to sit quietly and remember the times we’ve all had with his music. Nostalgia is death, I know, I know, but having acknowledged that, I think we can safely say we deserve it right now, if only for a little while.