It’s hard to pinpoint the moment I became a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers fan. I know it was when I was my daughter’s age and Petty’s timeless song, “The Waiting” came on the radio, with its instantly recognizable guitar opening and one of the best audience participation callbacks in rock history. It’s a song that stays with you long after the fade out. It can lift your spirits with just a couple notes or a couple of “yeah, yeah’s!” It will help you recall the good and bad of a long life; and then compel also you look forward to future memories, with that melody shared between you and your loved ones. Since I was 11, I’ve heard to “The Waiting” more than any other song in my lifetime. Time and again it’s yearning and bittersweet lyrics have stirred me to repeated listens. But it’s not just the melody and the words, it’s Petty’s nasally voice making him sound like just another guy- he could be you or me or someone we know; and it’s the optimism that comes out of your speakers when the Heartbreakers, as great a band as there ever has been, deliver the goods.
The rock ‘n roll band. I’ve always found myself drawn to the idea of the rock ‘n roll band, a group of people joined together with the goal of creating music. This idea represents the major themes in my life: camaraderie, loyalty, brotherhood (with the occasional argument), understanding and compromise. During my adolescence, no band better represented those themes than Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I realize that one man’s name is out front, but I can’t think of Petty without his lead guitarist Mike Campbell, or keyboardist (and quintessential sideman) Benmont Tench; and back in the 80’s there wouldn’t be a Heartbreakers without the bass and sweet harmony voice of Howie Epstein and the loose, sturdy drumming of Stan Lynch. My fandom for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers rose throughout the late 80’s and reached a full moon fever pitch in the summer of ‘87.
That summer saw my relationship with my best friend, Steve, turn a corner and become something more important than just best friends. As he prepared to leave for college, our bond tightened- a brotherhood was forming. It seemed like every excursion we went on involved a little Petty music to set the mood. In June, Steve and I saw Petty and the Heartbreakers play Blossom Music Center on their “Caravan of Rock” tour with the Georgia Satellites and the Del Fuegos (!). It’s still one of my greatest concert experiences. At the same time, my oldest friend, Matt, and I grew closer as we realized that our last year of high school meant one last chance for a great adventure, though no great adventure ever really happened. Finally, by summer’s end I fell in love for the first time, which led to me getting my heart broken, which led to me realizing that this love wasn’t meant to be- all in a matter of six months.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continued to play an important of my life’s journey. Petty was with me during my early years of college, including an all night trek across Ohio, accompanying my buddy, Bob, runnin’ down his dream of spending the night with an old sweetheart. Petty was with me during the life changing summer of 1991 and my California internship, when I assured myself that I could make travel into the great wide open of adulthood and make it on my own. Most importantly, Petty was with me when I met Julie, when I felt my heart overflow with love and inspiration, and the two of us embarked on the rest of our lives together as co-pilots and soul mates.
The waiting for true love to find me was the hardest part, but it was worth it.
Just the other day I was listening to the magnificent live version of “The Waiting” from Pack Up the Plantation, Live! and Jacob asked, “Why do I know this song, Daddy?” I replied, “Probably from the hundreds of times I’ve played it.” Meanwhile, Sophie aimlessly paced around the living and kitchen, singing, “the waiting it the hardest part.” Years from now, when my kids are starting their own families and they hear this song, I wonder what they’ll think about. I wonder what stories I’ll have shared with them that they’ll associate with the music.
Will the know about the Petty concert ’87, when I nearly lost my friends in seas of people and my friend, Phil, threw up in the red van? Will they know about the night later in the summer when I pulled the Whomobile into our driveway, so excited about finding out about that girl liking me that I forgot to put the car in park and nearly drove into the front of the house? Will they know about the college paint crews in which Petty and the Heartbreakers were in constant rotation on the black boom box while we breathed in paint fumes and baked in the Ohio heat? Will they have knowledge of my summer adventure in 1991, working and driving around Hollywood, constantly listening to Petty? Will they wonder about the early mix tape I made for their mom while we were dating, the one that contained all of my favorites songs of all time, the first song on side ‘A’ being “The Waiting?” Will they know about the years Julie and I struggled as newlyweds while living in a crappy North Hollywood apartment where the only way to stay cool in the summer was to drag out mattress into the living room and shove it under the small air conditioner in the front window?
However, when they are my age and hear “The Waiting,” in their cars, on their iPods, on the Tom Petty LP’s they’ll inherit, I hope that they’ll have their memories of their own to attach to the song; memories that include their loving parents and loyal friends.
Yes, “The Waiting” is timeless. That term gets tossed around a little too freely when it comes to modern music, but in this case it applies. 29 years after its release, one need only hear Tom Petty strum his Rickenbacker guitar, playing those opening chords, and the day becomes better, making you want to sing “yeah, yeah” once again.