All-American heartbreaker

All photos by Jennie McKeon

Perhaps it’s the light-hearted rock, relatable lyrics or charming band name.

Whatever it is, for me, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers has always represented the most all-American group. In that same way, Tom Petty has always represented the most all-American guy.

In my mind, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is the purest definition of rock 'n' roll.

My mom loved Tom Petty. I can remember her playing “I Won’t Back Down” on the way to my soccer games and singing to me the lyrics of “Free Fallin’” as if they were written about me. I was certain they were, too.

With his recent death, those memories feel stronger than ever.

When a musician as beloved as Petty dies, I like to think something good still comes out of it, their legacy. Reading stories about how Petty and his music changed people’s lives is incredible. It's cathartic, and it truly brings people together.

While hardcore Petty fans can’t corner the market on feeling sad about this loss, I do acknowledge how challenging it must be for those who grew up with his music. It’s an interesting concept, because I feel like one of my favorite musicians today will someday die, and then younger people will look to me to tell them how to feel, just as I'm doing now.

My mom purchased most of my Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ records when I first started my collection. They were part of a Christmas gift she called “must-have records,” and, boy, were they. My memories of listening to these won’t only be memories with musicians like Petty, but also my memories with her.

While I made only a few memories with Petty before his death, I continue to make more now through his music. Others will, too.

My next memory with Petty will start with his 1982 album with the Heartbreakers, “Long After Dark.” I think it’s perfect, because the red image of him on the album art is the way I always picture him in my mind — with long hair, a leather jacket, a guitar and a soft smile.

The most popular songs on the record are “You Got Lucky” and “Change of Heart,” but I personally adore the opening track, “A One Story Town.” I think I’ve lived in a few of those.

It captures a feeling to which many can relate.

I’m for standin’ up, I’m for breakin’ free

I don’t want fate handed down to me

— “A One Story Town”

It’s not the only song I love on this album. “Finding Out” drew me in from its first notes.

In the lyrics, “a working man” realizes the importance of having love in his life. He recognized how lonely he was before love only after he had truly experienced it.

My favorite song to sing, though, is the final track, "A Wasted Life." It's a hidden gem with a powerful message of not giving up, a message to which Petty often alludes.

Most Heartbreakers’ songs ring in at 3 1/2 minutes. In a short time, Petty tells a story with a clear moral and a sound consistent with the group’s style, yet still fresh. Reading the song titles alone is like peeking inside the heart of someone who proudly wears it on his sleeves.

It’s not as if Petty made any new observations about love, but it’s the way he dusted off the old ones.

Petty’s ability to capture the trials of love and other hardships time and time again through classic rock is what sealed him in as a protagonist of the music industry. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

One of my favorite albums is “Hard Promises,” which Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers released just a year before “Long After Dark.” But, when I put the two up against each other, I don’t connect to either stronger than the other, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Each album is like merely an extension of the ones before it.

Hard promises are made during the day, but loneliness is felt the most long after dark.