“i won’t back down” – tom petty (1989)

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When I started this blog, the original vision was to summarize a week’s worth of my life into one song.  And I left room to be fluid while doing so.  The idea was to use the context of that song to document my life or to put some ideas into perspective.  Each post has served a specific purpose.  Some I write about a specific connection to a song I had that week.  Others are written because of some event that occurred and I use a song to put my thoughts and feelings into context.  In either case, the purpose is to reflect on how important music in my life and to keep myself open to the music everyday life has to offer.

The latter has been happening a lot lately.  I really enjoy writing about a song and exploring themes within it and how they relate to what I’m feeling at that time.  However, life does happen to you while you’re busy making other plans.  And during those moments, an event determines the focus of that week’s post.

When I woke up to news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I knew that would be my next topic.  However, I had enough foresight about how current events flowed to know not to write about it immediately.  I was going to wait a few days and read about the developments, analysis from lawmakers and experts, and official response and reaction from the president.  That takes some time to unfold.  However, yesterday became an even bigger news day covering the death of Tom Petty.  When that happened, I knew my next post would be about him.  Las Vegas, while the more important subject, is a much more complex topic and I need a few more days to process updates and reactions.

This is also the third week in a row where my post has served as an in memoriam.  I have written tributes to recently deceased artists before, but never with such frequency.  However, several artists close to me have been passing and I feel the need to write about them.  I’m looking forward to writing about more pleasant subjects.  Recent posts have been about musician deaths, devastating hurricanes, and next week’s post will be about gun violence.  I’m eager to get back to writing about more pleasant subjects.  But, despite the recent news, I can find a glimmer of happiness and appreciation in those dark moments.  And although we lost Petty, it has given me an opportunity to explore what he meant to all of us.

Tom Petty has been one of the few cultural icons that had been with me my whole life.  He’s had a storied career spanning four decades that has been consistent in terms of quality and longevity.  While some songs from his catalogue were bigger hits than others, no one can ever accuse Petty of putting out a bad record.

Growing up, you would always hear Petty’s music on the radio.  And whenever you did, it energized everyone around listening to it.  Petty had an appeal that anyone could appreciate.  He could deliver the rock goods, pen a poignant and brilliant song, and take risks that were innovative and unlike what anyone else was doing.  Petty was an American music icon because he was an American icon; someone who represented all the qualities that embodied America simultaneously.  From the young to the old, from the hip to the traditional, and from liberals to conservatives, Petty represented ideals and values that united Americans in a country that otherwise has seen itself becoming increasingly divided.

I love Tom Petty’s music, but I know I wasn’t the biggest fan per se.  I didn’t go to see him perform live in concert and I only owned one album which was the 1991 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits compilation.  To many, he meant much more.  These are the fans who own every album, post on fan message boards, and travel from show to show.  Still, I don’t think it means Tom Petty didn’t have an impact on me.  Petty had an impact on all Americans whether or not they knew every song on every album.  Both casual listeners and hardcore fans could still find common ground.

Petty’s death was the most peculiar celebrity passing I had witnessed.  Usually, one of two things happen.  Either I wake up and find that someone died late last night or I see a breaking news alert during the day.  In both cases, it is very sudden.  With Petty’s death, it was a slow burn filled with anxiety, confusions, and conflicting details.

Yesterday afternoon, TMZ broke the story that Petty was discovered the previous night unresponsive following a massive cardiac arrest.  It was then reported that he had no brain activity.  When he was pulled off life support, I knew that was it.  It was only a matter of time.

Even before it was confirmed he passed, tributes from celebrities and fans were hitting social media feeds.  There was no official word that he had passed, but the memorial articles and posts were coming.  I kept refreshing sites and feeds for about 90 minutes before I saw CBS News report that Petty, in fact, finally passed.

I spent the next few hours streaming Petty’s most well-known songs as I finished my work day.  When I got home, I heard word that Petty hadn’t actually passed and that reports of his passing were premature.  This was especially upsetting to his daughter who released a video and a social media statement chastising media outlets for prematurely reporting her father’s death.  While he was definitely without brain activity and no longer on life support, he was still breathing.  A distinction very important to a daughter who was bracing herself for the inevitable.

This was a confusing time.  Since previous reports were inaccurate, it was hard to believe any of the details that were available.  As a result, people were being hopeful that Petty would recover.  Although we all knew it was highly unlikely he was going pull through, it still didn’t stop people from clinging onto Petty’s music and the ideals they represented.  It was beautiful to see people reflecting on what Petty meant to them and how they changed their lives.  Very few cultural icons can achieve virtually universal adoration.

It was late last night that Petty’s manager finally confirmed he had passed from complications relating to his cardiac arrest.  After a long, confusing day, it was finally over.  I cannot imagine what Petty’s life was like during those final hours, but I wish he could have known how much the world was grieving.

This was a celebrity death experience I never had before.  Unlike the surprises that usually happen, we were riding this one out with Petty.  Between the initial false reports and the later confirmed reports, we were all in this confusing journey together fueled by speculation, hope, and faith.  It was almost as if we were there in the hospital room next to him waiting for any sign of life until the final moment came.  In during that waiting, we all shared our experiences with his music.  I was wondering what song I was listening when he finally let go.

There are so many Petty songs I could’ve chosen for this.  I adore so many of his songs that it almost seems impossible to choose.  However, the one song that stood out the most yesterday was “I Won’t Back Down.”  It was the first single from Petty’s first solo album Full Moon Fever released in 1989.  I’ve loved that song my entire life.  And while there are other songs I enjoy more or on different levels, this one stood out because of its use in social media posts commemorating Petty’s life and final struggle.

When reports came back that his reported death was premature and false, the hope people clung to gave inspiration to the idea he was coming back; that he wouldn’t back down even in the face of death.  While naïve, those kinds of comments about the song were clever and inspirational.  Even standing at the gates of hell, we knew Petty wouldn’t back down.  If there was only thing we could learn from Petty, it was that.  I won’t stand down and neither will you.  That’s how we live up to the vision of America Petty had.

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