How Tom Petty cemented himself as a music legend

Amy McNeel

I remember when I heard Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” for the first time. It was the summer before my freshman year of high school, and when the song came on the radio, I was completely enthralled. 

It was the only song I listened to, on repeat, for months, until my parents introduced me to more of his music. I found such comfort in his words and felt the power and genius behind his lyrics. As I listened to his songs for the first time, I felt like they were meant for me, as though they had been patiently waiting for me to find my way to them. And, just like that, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became a part of my very existence. 

When I got the news that Petty passed away due to cardiac arrest Monday, Oct. 2, I was crushed. However, I was also grateful, for I got to witness one of the most influential rock stars of all time.  

Petty was an inspiration above all others due to his incredible power to write songs that were both relatable and timeless. Known for his American rock anthems, such as “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl” and “I won’t Back Down,” Petty’s music has proven to stand the test of time. His songs are enjoyable for generations both old and young, and they somehow can feel relatable for each person who listens. 

Self-conflict, hurt, joy, fear and adventure are all themes of his music. The rawness of his words creates a comfort and a sense of familiarity. Petty was human, after all, and felt the same emotions that you and I do. The difference between him and so many other artists is how he was able to capture these emotions so immaculately. 

It was easy to connect with him through his music, and for me it almost felt like I knew him. In a way, I did. He provided me with hope and joy in times of pain, love and excitement in times of happiness, and peace and tranquility in times of stress. Truly, there is a Petty song fit for every situation and person, whether they feel on top of the world or miles below it.  

Furthermore, Petty is an inspiration above all else due to his passion and love for music and life. This year marked the 40th anniversary of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and throughout those four decades, the band achieved incredible successes. However, before all the success, there were a lot of hardships and vulnerability. 

In a 1991 interview, two decades into their career, Petty reflected on those early days, saying, “Back then, it was almost like admitting that you were never going to make any money and realizing you probably were not going to have a professional life but saying, ‘This is what I love, so I’ll do this.'” Although the chances for success were low, Petty refused to quit. His passion shows in his music and through his story.

Petty is one of the most influential musicians to ever exist. He has comforted and inspired millions of people around the world. His decades-long career was revolutionary, the level of passion and quality of music was consistent, and he never gave in to the superficial drugs and sex themes of the ’80s. Instead, Petty encapsulated humanity. His songs are the soundtrack to many people’s lives, and I think that’s why losing Petty feels like losing a piece of oneself.

I’m crushed to know that Petty is no longer with us, but I’m grateful that I got to know him and his music in the way that I did, and I know that his songs and word will continue to be heard by generations to come. 

In his last interview with the Los Angeles Times, just five days before his death, he stated, “This year has been a wonderful year for us. This has been that big slap on the back we never got.” 

Petty is an inspiration to so many, and it’s comforting to think that he ended on top.