Tom Petty, My Dad, and Journeys Never Taken


So here’s my Tom Petty story.

The first CD I ever owned was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits. I got it, along with my first CD player, for Christmas in 1993. I was sixteen, so naturally I went to my room, closed the door, plugged in the stereo and started listening.

A few minutes later, a light knock. It was my dad, standing in a doorway from which he was accustomed to hearing songs like “Dirt” or “Territorial Pissings” or “Wish” spilling out. When you’re a teenager, the music you blast in your room forms a sonic wall against parental intrusion.

He said:

“Tom Petty.”

And I said:


. . . Our voices devoid of almost all inflection.

Now: I loved my dad. But I was sixteen and it was my sacred duty to argue with him about literally anything. Especially music. (Cue that old anti-smoking commercial wherein the kid yells at his dad: “I learned it from you!” That’s how my father and I were about music. I will forever remember the time I badgered him into driving me to Turtles so I could buy Stone Temple Pilots’ Core. Listening to it on the way home, Dad would not stop complaining about how the drummer hit the high hat on every beat. Of course I defended STP from my lame ignorant father’s lame ignorant musical judgment. And of course all I hear to this day on any song from that album is the fucking high hat.)

For parents, the experience of having a teenage son must be like adopting a feral animal, a creature grudgingly appreciative of the food and shelter you provide but always liable to snarl and bite at the slightest (or no) provocation. My dad would have known that, if his tone betrayed even the slightest hint of enthusiasm for Tom Petty, that album would never be played in our house again. I would only have listened to it in my car or at a friend’s place, anywhere I knew he couldn’t hear. And I would have retaliated against his approval by blasting ever louder, more abrasive teenage angst anthems from my room.

Silence. Both of us bobbing our heads along to “You Got Lucky” or “Don’t Do Me Like That” or “I Won’t Back Down.” Then Dad nodded and said:

“All right.”

. . . And left me in peace.

We never talked about Tom Petty again. Dad died eighteen months later, the summer after I graduated high school.

I know people who love Tom Petty far more than I do. (The fact that my personal Petty story is vectored through a greatest hits album was probably a dead giveaway, no?) I know people who played Tom Petty as the exit music at their weddings. I know people who have named bands after his lyrics. I know people who will probably have those lyrics engraved on their tombstones. I’m not going to claim any deeper connection to his music than I actually have.

Here’s the thing, though:

Whenever I hear a Tom Petty song, I think about that interaction with my dad. I imagine all the musical journeys we would have taken had he lived to see me into adulthood, when my reflexive teenage animosity faded and I started realizing the old man actually had pretty good musical taste. Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits, Christmas Day, 1993, gave me my first inkling that that might even be possible.

Oh, we still would have argued. I imagine us driving somewhere when I was in my early twenties, quarreling over some part of my life—my grades, my job prospects, that girl he didn’t like—and, after we simmered down to a tense détente, putting on an album we could both tolerate.

From my CD collection, that album would have been Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits. Or maybe Full Moon Fever by then. Or Wildflowers. And from there, on this imaginary road trip, we’d start talking about the music we loved. No longer arguing, but enjoying our common ground. I can envision Dad reminding me Petty was in the Traveling Wilburys (“Yeah, Dad, I know”), and if I liked that, I should really listen to Jeff Lynne, some early ELO. Or get into Roy Orbison. I’ve found my way to most of my dad’s music eventually, on my own, but I wish we could have done it together.

And from there, who knows? Maybe we would have gone to see Tom Petty live one day. Or Bob Dylan. Or Willie Nelson. I hope so; I am never more envious of my friends than when I hear one of them talk about going to a concert with his dad. I would give anything to be able to do that. To talk about music as adults, to share the songs and artists that inspired us. It would have been great.

. . . Until Dad made some disparaging comment about the drum machine on “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Then it would be on.