I don’t normally get emotional when news of celebrity deaths hits the airwaves. On my radio show, I often find myself putting together tributes to musical greats, movie legends and iconic performers whose time on this earth has come to an end. I do so with the understanding that time passes on, people age, the circle of life turns, and everyone faces that time when they “cross over Jordan.”
So, when Mary Tyler Moore died, I didn’t get emotional, even though I had watched every episode of Dick Van Dyke and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. When Glen Frey passed away, I put together an Eagles tribute for KXYL, but I didn’t shed a tear.
This is life. This is our ultimate destiny. It’s one we should be prepared for, Spiritually, mentally and financially.
However, when news broke Monday that Tom Petty had been found in full cardiac arrest, I knew what was coming next. There was no doubt in my mind that his time on this earth had come to a close.
For some reason, this time, I was emotional. I was overcome with sadness. I felt as though something special had been lost. The worst part is, I couldn’t explain my own emotion.
Explaining emotions is impossible, because emotions by nature are illogical. Still, it took days to explore this emotion so I could understand why I was so upset about the passing of Tom Petty, but not other performers.
So, I went home and pulled up the video of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “Take the Highway Live” tour on YouTube.
As I sat watching Tom perform his classic hits that carried me through late childhood and adolescence, it dawned on me. Tom Petty was the icon of my generation.
He’s never been called this before. He has never been labeled as the voice of Generation X, the lost generation between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials that no one cares about. Seriously. For 40 years, marketers tried to figure out how to reach the Baby Boomers due to their numbers, before skipping over Gen-X,Y, Z,Whatever to reach the over-hyped Millennial generation, a generation defined by youth and whatever label commentators want to attach to the bearded kid in the coffee shop. I digress.
While Petty himself was a boomer, his songs played a key role in the upbringing of Gen-X. His own daughter posted online that she grew up to his songs, that everyone grew up to his songs. I did as well. From “Refugee” to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty’s music emanated from the speakers of my radio, and radios around me from childhood to young adult-hood.
His videos were creative and iconic, earning him the 1994 MTV Michael Jackson Music Video Vanguard award. He was one of the reasons my generation sat glued to MTV before it was overrun by episodes of “The Real World.”
Petty toured right up until his death. He continually worked on new projects and cranked out new music.
But we never considered him the voice of our generation, even though his music spoke directly into our life’s experiences.
“Refugee” taught us that life goes on even after we’ve been burned, that we don’t have to languish in the pain our past experiences have caused us.
“Won’t Back Down” tapped into our defiant attitudes. “King’s Highway” tapped into our desire to hit the open road and go “Running Down a Dream.”
“Learning to Fly” keyed into our struggle to overcome the daily rat race, and “Last Dance with Mary Jane” identified with our experiences of lost love.
Think of a moment in your life, and there’s probably a Tom Petty tune to match the occasion. And that’s why his passing hits us hard.
You see, we Gen-X’ers, the last generation to grow up before cell phones, smart phones, internet and social media, remember a simpler time. A time where concerts were safe venues to enjoy music and let your problems go for a while.
We remember a time when TV was funny, entertaining, and wasn’t trying to change our view of culture. We remember calling the local radio station to place our requests, Saturday nights at the skating rink, and the ability to leave home without having your day-off interrupted by cell phone calls from work.
We remember a time when we felt safe, long before 9/11 and mass shootings put us on edge. We remember when music was fresh, innovative and artistic. We remember music on MTV, and wasting hours staring at the screen as music videos from all genres aired.
Cruising. Road trips. Spring break at the beach before Girls Gone Wild turned it into a freak show. Bubble tape, Ecto-cooler, Crystal Pepsi, the Arch Deluxe, and the Isuzu Amigo.
We remember going to college to prepare for a fulfilling career.
Some of these experiences are still a staple of American life. Some aren’t. But no one can honestly say life today is as simple as it was, say, in 1993 when Tom Petty had his last major hit on commercial radio. And that’s why we’re sad.
The simple life of yesteryear no longer exists, and will never return. Tom Petty’s death reminds us that life changes, and the things we hold dear often fade into the backs of our collective memory.
Or, as Tom put it, “The good ole days may not return, and the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn.”
There is good news, however. The fact that the good ole days may not return does not mean that there aren’t better days ahead. Tom’s music was optimistic, so we too should be optimistic.
Photo credit: David W. Baker