When an artist dies, it forces us to consider how their work influenced us. When it’s the unexpected death of an artist we like, it feels like a punch to the gut.

When Jerry Garcia died, I remember WNEW asking everyone to tribute him by driving with their lights on in the daytime. For a week afterward cars everywhere drove with their lights on during the day. Whenever I’d pass another car doing this, we’d nod and smile a sad smile.

With the advent of social media, news spreads faster. And rather than keeping everything inside of us, we share our feelings with others. When Robin Williams died it felt like the world had a broken heart for months.

Prince. David Bowie. Whitney Houston. Kurt Cobain. John Lennon. George Michael. When the work of an artist moves us, we feel it deeply when they pass.

Tom Petty’s death feels personal and I’m more than a little shocked. No, I’m not in denial about age and death and all that. Hell, we’re all racing toward the same Great Inevitable every day. I just never thought about what Tom Petty meant to me until this week.

I grew up in north Florida about 15 years behind TP, who is from Gainesville. By the time I reached middle school, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released, and the name Petty started to rise up in the neighborhood alongside names like Van Zant, Medlocke, and Rossington. American Girl was undeniably singable. Breakdown, too. Only, his music wasn’t classic “Southern Rock” like everything else that swirled around us. Tom Petty was different. And back then, different wasn’t necessarily a good thing. As he started getting airplay, I remember people saying, “What’s wrong with his voice?”

Over the next few years the hits just kept coming.

I Need to Know

Listen to Her Heart


Don’t Do Me Like That 

Here Comes My Girl

And it wasn’t just the catchy riffs that hooked you, but the lyrics. Highly memorable. Deeply meaningful.

Tom Petty wrote about romantic love during a time when I was trying to figure out what romantic love was.

When news broke of his death, I wasn’t expecting to have to think about him. Of how we both grew up in the shadow of the Confederate flag in north Florida. About how he fought the lure of greed. About his fallibilities as an addict. About how when he met the true love of his life, she was married. About his bad relationship with his father who didn’t understand why his son wanted to be an artist. So many parallels.

Then, like everyone else, I donned some earbuds and listened to his music for the thousandth time, but with new ears. And I cried.

Tom Petty influenced me in ways I simply didn’t realize. Song after song taking me back to points in my life that were joyous and terrible and heartbreaking and beautiful.

Song. After song. After song.

When Prince and David Bowie died, I felt like these were two of the most important artists of my lifetime. Prince’s death in particular made me wonder which other artists I might grieve so deeply. Paul McCartney came to mind. And Elton John’s music was HUGE growing up (no really, you have no idea how big EJ was back in the day.) And sure, one day they’ll both be mourned globally. But Tom Petty did not come to mind.

Free Fallin

Learning to Fly


You Don’t Know How It Feels

The Waiting

Runnin Down a Dream

You Wreck Me

Song. After song. After song. 

The more I listened to his music this week, the more I realized that he was ubiquitous throughout my life. It made me sad that I never saw him perform live, but then I realized I didn’t need to–TP was always here next to me.

Tom Petty was to me what David Bowie was to everyone else.

If it’s possible to separate the two, I’ll remember Tom Petty more as a writer than musician. Especially when it comes to articulating the idea of love. This man could write love songs. In fact, I believe that Here Comes My Girl is the greatest American love song ever written. Seriously, you’ve heard it a million times but have you ever really paid attention to the words?

This. This is what true love feels like. Even now, 41 years after its release.

Thank you, Tom Petty, for being the soundtrack of my life. You were a true Rebel, and you made us kids from the backwoods of north Florida proud. Rest in peace, brother.




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Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.

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