By Allen Callaci
The official record would have you believe Tom Petty was a native of Gainesville, FL. Like the blindest of flat-earthers or most entrenched of moon-landing deniers, I don’t buy into that. As a Southern California native I cannot—and have no desire to be convinced that Tom Petty was never not one of us. He found and captured the kind of things that only a sun-faded local could catch: the long days livin’ in Reseda, the Hollywood tattoos and the vampires walking west down Ventura Boulevard.
He was much a part of the California mosaic as the palm trees, flip-flops, and animal-style Double-Double burgers.
Nowhere did Petty’s allegiance to the Golden State shine brighter than the shimmering twelve-string rays of 1996’s “She’s the One.” With its Lindsay Buckingham’s Beach Boys-esque harmonies, a dry and melancholic cover of Southern California songster Beck’s “Asshole”, and the proud, good-natured proclamation that “California’s been good to me hope it don’t fall into the sea,” the album She’s the One cemented his Southern California credentials like a star on Hollywood Boulevard. On that album, listeners could put on the headphones and hear the sonic waves crashin’ on the beach and feel their bare toes dipping into the soft, tan sands of Malibu Beach.
A week before his sudden passing, I caught Petty and the Heartbreakers playing in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl (or as Petty said, he was playing his adopted hometown). That show celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers. It turned out to be the second-to-last show that Petty played. A week after his run at the Hollywood Bowl, he suffered a fatal cardiac arrest.
Petty’s set that night at the Bowl beneath—and in front of—the Hollywood stars, gave this longtime music cynic and Petty fan since Damn the Torpedoes everything he wanted. His set consisted of a spot-on blend of classic rock anthems, yearning ballads, and deep cuts. His low key, underdog aging-hippie charm, came through onstage as he engaged with the crowd like a rock ‘n’ roll big Lebowski as he jammed and swirled around against a psychedelic light show.
He displayed the same grounded and grinning quality that endeared him to so many over the decades, undermined the complexity of his craftsmanship, at times. While nobody in their right mind would think he could match the Pacific Coast pop symphonies of Brian Wilson at the peak of his powers, Petty did so. Maybe if I picked up a guitar, jotted down some lines I could come up with something like “I Need to Know” or “Listen to Her Heart.” It isn’t until one sits down with a guitar and notepad and attempts to write their own “Here Comes My Girl” that they realize they set out on a quest to scale Mount Everest. Lines like “all around your island there’s a barricade that keeps out the danger, holds in the pain” and the soaring, cracked leather riff that begin “Refugee” don’t just fall from the sky. And even if someone did, how could he/she attain the kind of unteachable wisdom it takes to capture them?
In hindsight, it seems fitting that Petty’s final rock ‘n’ roll testimony would take place here, beneath the luminous dry-iced glow of an iconic hillside white cross, surrounded by 10,000 clear plastic cups of slushing red wine, and a swarm of swaying cellphones at the Hollywood Bowl. He ended his set, as all 18,000 of us knew he would, by launching into “American Girl”. The audience sang along to every word as if it were a national anthem or a hymn. I remember being struck with the thought that “American Girl” is a song became so ingrained in our collective consciousness that the question can fairly be asked as to what came first, “summer BBQs or Petty’s ‘American Girl?’”
As the last chords of “American Girl” rang out, Tom put down his guitar, hugged his band, smiled and waved goodnight to the home crowd.
A week later, we lost him. The rest of the world paid their respects and mourned his passing. Here in California, his departure seemed to cut a little deeper. He didn’t come from here, but it never felt otherwise because he chose to stay here. A local record store put up a Facebook post after Tom Petty’s death that probably sums up what he meant to us in the Golden State: He was our Dodgers, moving from the East to LA and becoming part of the fabric of SoCal. We got lucky.