I never bought an album by Tom Petty. He launched his career at the same moment that I stopped listening to pop music on the radio, and by the time it was in full swing, my artistic interests lay elsewhere. It was only long after the fact that I first heard him, and that was under unusual circumstances: he performed “I Won’t Back Down” on America: A Tribute to Heroes, a prime-time telethon-style benefit concert for the victims of and first responders to the attack on the World Trade Center that aired a couple of weeks after 9/11. The song hit me hard—I don’t see how it could possibly have had any other effect on a New Yorker—but I wasn’t exactly taking in new aesthetic data right then, and it never occurred to me to follow up on the music of the man who sang it that night.
Our Girl in Chicago had long since nudged me into starting to pay closer attention to contemporary pop, but Petty wasn’t on her radar—she’s younger than I am—and I came away with the impression that his music was a bit behind the times. (She’s more the David Bowie type.) So, I gather, it was, which is why it never occurred to me that Petty might in fact be precisely my kind of rocker, a latter-day John Fogerty whose unpretentious, straight-from-the-shoulder songs connected with the feelings of ordinary Americans in a manner similar to that of country music back in the days before it got slick.
The funny thing is that I heard a fair amount of Petty’s music throughout the next decade and a half, more often than not in cabs and rental cars. Once again, though, I didn’t know whose records I was hearing, and for some inexplicable reason, I never sought any of them out.
I thought at once of “I Won’t Back Down” when Petty died yesterday. Within a few hours I learned from the tributes posted on the social media that he’d meant a great deal to a great many people I know who’d never had occasion to mention his name to me. So I followed my nose and started downloading the songs that they singled out for special mention. Mere minutes later I realized that I’d been missing out on something, and someone, very special. Now I’m doing something about it.
One of the pieces about Petty that I’ve liked best, an essay by Mark Hemingway, ends with a passage that echoes what I’ve also been hearing from a number of other people:
America is grieving today for several reasons. And the shooting in Vegas is a tragedy that threatens to divide us along political lines. I’d like to think a huge swath of America, across beliefs, cultures, generations, and races, would want to claim Tom Petty’s music and feel some solidarity in his loss. We need unifying cultural figures and artists now more than ever. We simply can’t afford to lose our Tom Pettys.
That was pretty much how everybody I knew felt after 9/11. We drew together for a brief time, but we didn’t stay together, and I think it even less likely that we’ll do so now. Instead of joining in solidarity, Americans are choosing to hide behind the high walls of tribalism, talking to those who agree with them instead of listening to those who don’t. But if anything will knock a few bricks off the tops of those walls, it’s art.
I’ve had more than one occasion to quote in this space what C.S. Lewis said in the last paragraph of An Experiment in Criticism:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
I don’t know that it’s so very inappropriate to cite those words again in connection with Tom Petty. His songs speak to an extraordinarily wide range of people, not a few of whom seem to disagree on pretty much everything else. Yet they all love his music, and they miss him now that he’s gone. In that if nothing else, he brings them together and allows them to transcend themselves.
I haven’t any illusions about what lies in store for my beloved country. I expect it to fall apart, sooner rather than later. But I’m touched to the heart by our shared sorrow over a rock musician who wrote songs about emotions and experiences that we all feel and understand. I wish I’d discovered him sooner, but I don’t mind catching up with the rest of the world. You can’t stay on top of everything, and the perennial miracle of art is that it waits for you: if it’s good, it never grows stale. Somehow I doubt that Tom Petty will grow stale any time soon.
UPDATE: Our Girl in Chicago writes:
I’ve always liked Tom Petty! He was definitely part of the general soundtrack of my junior high and high school years, and someone who has been in my iTunes for some years. I don’t think liking him is incompatible with liking Bowie at all.
I happily stand corrected.
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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform “I Won’t Back Down” on America: A Tribute to Heroes, telecast by all four broadcast networks on September 21, 2001: