With Rutgers football in their bye week and Rutgers basketball just a few days into practice, I wanted to take a rare break in writing about my favorite sports teams and acknowledge the passing of my first rock hero, Tom Petty. I rarely skip a beat in hearing about a celebrity or legend in a certain field when they pass, other than to pause for a moment and think about how unfortunate death is to anyone, whether you know them or not, appreciate their talent, and then move on. Hearing that Tom Petty died on Monday upset me in a way I somewhat expected, but hadn’t experienced before, because he was a true one of a kind and knowing he is gone forever was a thought I hoped to not ponder for some time. He was just 66 years old, far too young to pass in this day and age.
I’m 40 years old and my childhood is well behind me, but my musical education more or less began with Tom Petty, so I immediately recalled my first memories of him from my youth in hearing the news. I’ll never forget the moment I got Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever, as a Christmas/Hannukah present from my Uncle Rick, which is one of my favorite gifts that I’ve ever received. I was 12 and he was the cool uncle that made sure I listened and appreciated good music. I am forever thankful of that and was fortunate to see Petty live in concert four times in my life. The best musical acts have a way of coming alive in concert that doesn’t translate in a studio recording. The great one’s feed off the energy of the crowd and deliver a performance at the top of their musical powers, similar to how some athletes enter “a zone” in certain games.
The first time I ever saw Petty live, he delivered one of my favorite concert memories ever. To give perspective, I love seeing music live and have seen dozens of concerts in my life and Petty was as reliable as it gets. He always brought it and I always left his shows feeling a renewed love and appreciation for his talent. The first time I saw him was a week before my senior year of high school began and two of my friends and I drove to Camden at what was called back then the Sony-Blockbuster Music Center, which is now the BB&T Pavilion.
This was 1995 and Petty was back touring with his band, the Heartbreakers, one of the best names for a group ever, in my opinion. The human experience during the bad times in life is never easy, but can be the most educational and rewarding times that a person can have. I loved the name for that reason. It also is a good name if you are a diehard Rutgers fan, like me. Nowadays, that passion has led me to write about the triumphs and heartache that we all experience rooting for the Scarlet Knights. So yes, you could say I immediately loved that Petty’s band was named the Heartbreakers. Another thing I loved about Petty is that he was a superstar in his own right, but always came back home to his beloved band. He valued the team experience and was always at his best with the Heartbreakers.
At the time when I first saw Petty, he had just made his second successful solo album, Wildflowers, which was a great work of art and a very different sound for him. This was his first tour back with the Heartbreakers after his break and I was ecstatic to see the band back together. I’ve long thought Mike Campbell is one of the most underrated lead guitarists ever, something I say to my wife probably once a year. And Benmont Tench is a wonderfully versatile musician and the equivalent of a glue guy every great team needs. So to say I was excited to see them in action live for the first time was an understatement.
We sat in the lower level, about ten rows from the stage on the left hand side. The moment of greatness happened during the encore, when Petty played his iconic anthem, American Girl. Midway through the song, a fan stormed the stage, running past us, surprised security and somehow made it past them and on the stage, coming face to face with Petty. It was a moment frozen in time and what happened next will never be erased from my visual memory. Petty casually turned, took his guitar and jabbed it at the guy, using it as a weapon to stop the intruder’s forward momentum. The stage crasher immediately stopped, threw up his arms, and stood there in shock until security dragged him away moments later. Petty, with a certain elegance and swagger, turned back to the microphone and picked up the song with the lyric he had just paused at, finishing it with style. The crowd went nuts and it was my first “I can’t believe that just happened” musical moment.
The last time I saw Petty was with my wife at the Beacon Theater in 2013 and I’m glad we had that moment together. He had the legendary venue rocking that night and he made the moment seem like it would last forever. Sadly, life reminds us often that nothing does, but Petty left me with many great memories over the years and hopefully you too.
As Rutgers fans, it’s been a rough few years with football and a more than a couple difficult decades with men’s basketball. Patience is wearing thin with football, while basketball has given more hope that things are getting better than it has in a very long time. As for the Olympic sports, there are highs, women’s soccer, wrestling, and men’s lacrosse to name a few, and some programs still lagging behind. It hit me this morning that there are more than a few Tom Petty songs that serve as good lessons and reminders for Rutgers fans.
Since joining the Big Ten, the athletic department is certainly still “Learning to Fly”, but they are definitely starting to hit their stride. While some fan’s hopes have been “Free Fallin” this football season, maybe put on “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and get some pent up frustration out of your system. Of course, after tough losses you can turn to “You Wreck Me” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” for therapy. And when Rutgers does lose, I always hope they go down "Swingin". However, in terms of being a Rutgers fan, I like to think of “Runnin Down A Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down” as odes to our plight in loving our school and sports teams, with hope towards better days ahead. Perhaps the most appropriate of all though is “The Waiting”. Read these lyrics:
“The waiting is the hardest part”
“Every day you see one more card”
“You take it on faith, you take it to the heart”
“The waiting is the hardest part”
Most of the songs mentioned by Petty are love songs, but being that we all love Rutgers, they are easily relatable. The world is a crazy place these days and I always revert back to music to stay level. Tom Petty has been a constant in my life since I was young and he will be until my last day. Learning of his passing hit me hard. Being a fan of Rutgers isn’t easy, either. Patience is needed and many of us have remained so for decades, but we can’t ever lose hope. So maybe after the next tough loss, put on Tom Petty and let him work his magic. RIP to a true musical legend and my first rock hero!