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Culture Shock

COMMENTARY

As a rocker, Petty was still one of us

  • Obit-Tom-Petty

    Tom Petty performs this summer in Philadelphia. He died this week at age 66.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    Baird

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Baird

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Tom Petty was the wild one. A loser. A rebel.

He was one of us.

As many have noted since his death Monday at the age of 66, Petty was the everyman rocker, a star in popularity and talent, but never in demeanor or eccentric demands. He was a hardworking and successful musician who eschewed fame and its trappings, cared deeply about his craft, and challenged those who repressed his artistry.

When his record label gave him grief decades ago, he fought back. (He balked when they wanted to raise the price of his albums by $1.)

When radio stations lost their personalities amidst the major corporate takeovers, Petty called them out.

And yet if there is a true archetype for a rock band frontman Petty would be its antonym.

He wasn't pretty. His voice wasn't thunderous. But his passion and enthusiasm made him magnetic onstage, and his personal struggles and honesty gave his songs meaning, depth, and even inspiration.

For those reasons and others, fans connected with Petty in ways we rarely do with other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

For most of us, watching Petty onstage was as close to seeing ourselves as a rockstar as we'll get.

For many reasons having not seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live was a glaring omission in my music history. So when I learned that the band was touring this summer for its 40th anniversary, I knew I couldn’t and wouldn't miss it.

But it wasn't easy.

Petty spent two years working to assemble the Heartbreakers for what he said was likely to be their last big tour — no one thought it would be their final tour — as everyone in the band was in their mid-60s. Plus, Petty said he didn't care much for spending all that time on the road and away from his family that these tours demand.

Even just his talk of there being no more big tours seemed to create a buzz that it's now or never to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tickets to Detroit and Cleveland sold out quickly, and seats through other means were priced rather high.

Thankfully, my wife kept looking. She found general admission lawn tickets to a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show May 13 just outside of Indianapolis. The amphitheater venue for the concert was only a few miles from one of her closest friends, which meant we also had a free place to stay.

Somebody was telling us we should go.

And on Monday, after I had time to process the terrible news about Petty’s death, I appreciated all the more that we listened.

The show was special to me then. Now it has an even more significant meaning.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage that evening to clear skies, a cool breeze, a setting sun, and huge applause that was meant to be as much of a welcome as it was an appreciation.

The band didn't waste much time, jumping into a 19-song mostly greatest hits show that covered the swath of a stellar career that everyone knows.

It was bookended by his first song “Rockin' Around (With You)” and his first hit “American Girl,” and in between included, among others, “Mary Jane's Last Dance,” “You Don't Know How It Feels,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won't Back Down,” “Free Fallin',” “Don't Come Around Here No More,” “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee,” and “Runnin' Down a Dream.”

I've been to a lot of concerts, but I've never seen one that was almost a nonstop singalong. It wasn’t Petty encouraging fans to belt out lyrics to him, rather thousands of strangers moved to sing them because we grew up with these songs and connected with them.

Throughout the concert Petty surveyed the sold-out amphitheater and soaked up the crowd's energy and enthusiasm — like experiencing that breathtaking view at a national park one last time.

I’m not sure Petty wanted the show to stop. I know I didn’t.

And on Monday nobody else did either.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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