Tom Petty was like the cool big brother I never had.
He was sixteen years older than I, and always in the background of things.
He popped up randomly in the soundtrack of my young adulthood, snarling and smoking his way throughout the years. His voice continued to follow me all the way into middle age.
Petty was just always there, wasn’t he?
His long hair and shades were cultural constants for me.
Like any big brother, Tom Petty handled lots of life’s ugliness before I did.
His smirk told me adulthood is overrated and the world will always be crazy, but to stick around, because it’s a helluva good place to be, anyway.
Although he never really ruffled my hair, and told me to relax ‘cuz it would all work out, I often felt that way after listening to ‘Damn the Torpedoes’. or one of his other classics.
Tom Petty’s death gently tugs at my own sense of mortality.
Somehow my cool juvie brother, out raising hell in the world with his guitars, is gone.
His sudden loss softly re-calibrates my own sense of life’s timing.
It makes me pause for a moment, and acknowledge the years that have passed in my own life.
I think it’s done the same for many of my generation.
What a gift that is.
Because many of us live in a grind.
We punch the clock, follow the rules and squelch the real reason we were made.
Diligently, we accept the lie that everyone should define success in the same way, and equal metrics should apply across the board.
We listen to the outside of us, not the inside, and strive for things that don’t really matter in the end.
What a shame.
For many of us, our consequences have crowded out our hopes.
Some of us are light years away from what we thought this time of life would be like.
Pieces of our bad decisions crunch underfoot as we walk towards newer dreams.
But Tom Petty’s sly grin never changed.
His gentle speaking voice, self-effacing interview style, and laid-back public persona may or may not have been intentional, but they were constants in a world of chaos.
His music makes me think of a time when the whole world was open to me, and not defined by the invisible fences of my own making.
He beat the system, and lived the kind of life we all dream of.
His gift though–is that he shared it with us.
He crossed one ankle over his leg, lit a cigarette, strummed his guitar, and never went away.
While we settled into our lives, he still seemed like the cool older brother.
He got away with things we never had the nerve to try, and we loved him for that.
We accepted our mortgages and PTA meetings.
He flipped off mom in the kitchen and ran away to play play music.
Publicly he wasn’t an angel, but we never wanted him to be.
He was like the adored smart-ass pothead in the back of English, who always gave the teacher a hard time.
He was the guy who made us giggle as he headed to the principal’s office, so we could all get back to work.
Despite all of that perceived toughness though, Tom Petty showed us how to be kind and decent human beings.
He never got into any real trouble, never had a real scandal and never got ugly with anyone. As a matter of fact, he was known to be level headed and gracious, even when another artist seemed to lift some of his work.
Over his career, Petty quietly contributed to a myriad of non-profits and social causes.
He was only married twice, for nearly twenty years to each woman. He stayed in the same band forever, and–whether you knew it or not, was both a father and grandfather.
So his consistency and decency weren’t just visible his his public life–they seemed to be present in his private life, too.
Tom Petty’s badassery may actually have been a front; part of his onstage persona for us.
As he spun along the globe, he may have shared our same questions about life.
But he lovingly hid that angst from us.
Instead, he accepted his role as juvie big brother, and toured for us nearly to the day he died.
He willingly pulled out his guitars, played the songs we love and made us all feel okay again.
Despite the world splintering around us, he offered us his lopsided smile, and allowed us remember our dreams once more.
That’s why his music matters so much to our generation.
Even if we aren’t big fans of his music, he still connects us to an important time in our lives.
He makes us remember when we were figuring out who we were, and deciding whether we liked that person or not.
Today, we can put on one of his albums–any of them–and immediately be drawn to an era of our life that is behind us, but still important.
That’s part of Tom Petty’s magic.
But here’s the rest of it.
Through all of it, he never once judged us.
Wisely, he acknowledged he’d made a few mistakes of his own.
He never held himself up as an example, or lectured us.
Instead he grinned, played his guitar some more and reminded us what a cool big brother we had.
Thanks for letting us in on the fun, Tom.
You’re going to be missed.
**Chanler Jeffers has seen many extraordinary things over her lifetime. An adventurer, survivor, overachiever and advocate of kindness in all instances, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and is a member of their Circle of Champions. She has had the good fortune to live and travel all over the world, grew up as a military dependent and was a single parent for many years. She has survived cancer, and gently shaped countless people over her years on this little planet we call home. Follow along as she shares her knowledge, her experience and her love. Oh, by the way–one more thing. She’s married to a Bass playing rock star, lucky girl.
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