Tom Petty, best known as the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, died on Monday in Los Angeles. His songs were staples of rock radio for decades, and with hits like “Refugee,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin’ ” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” Mr. Petty sold millions of albums and headlined arenas and festivals well into 2017.
Our contributor Michael Venutolo-Mantovani recalls his own fond memories of the legend below.
It was the soundtrack to each of our summers. Generally toward the end of the season, but almost without fail, Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers would be playing at Holmdel, New Jersey’s massive amphitheater, called either the Garden State Arts Center or the PNC Bank Center depending on the age of who you’re asking.
We would all buy tickets early in summer or sometimes in late spring. It was the pre-Internet era which meant that a small envoy of us would take the one hour drive up the Garden State Parkway from Tuckerton to Holmdel the day the tickets went on sale with everyone’s ticket money in hand. It was a precursor to summer or a full-stop on the school year, a mini-sojourn with the windows down and the glorious sun of a New Jersey afternoon filling our trucks.
We’d wait at the box office behind the acid-washed Petty lifers who would pass the time in line recounting all the times they’d seen him play. We’d wait behind the other kids from the other beach towns who were executing the exact same plan as our own. We’d wait behind the dads planning to take their little girls and boys to their first real concert. We’d come home with eight or ten or twenty or thirty tickets, always the cheapest, always the lawn seats.
The summers would wear on and the beach days would never end. The girls were often too numerous to count and few things stood in the way of our sworn missions of getting fucked up and getting laid with as much frequency and veracity as possible. Our hangovers would rise and fall with the sun and we’d spend agonizing days painting houses or roofing, working at WaWa or pushing carts and loading trucks in the Home Depot’s parking lot.
Some friends would fall out of favor or simply out of touch between June and late-July. But we knew exactly where we might find them come August. We had their ticket to the Tom Petty show. They’d have to come back.
The days of the shows were always the same. Meet at someone’s house early in the afternoon, drink as many beers as we could while waiting for our ranks to fill, pile into the second-, third- and fourth-hand cars, vans and trucks that our dads and moms had passed down to us, and head up the bucolic Garden State Parkway to Exit 116.
We were often dug into a section of the parking lot by three or four pm at the latest. The drinking would continue, the games would commence. Beer pong or Asshole or Up The River, Down The River. We would shotgun a few cans worth and eventually when we could hear the opener was well into their set, we would make our way toward the venue.
Inside it was always the same, as shows of that size often are. Petty and The Heartbreakers would play the hits until they didn’t, at which point we’d run for a piss and another round of beers. The lawn would be full of dancing and drinking and weed and making out and the occasional fight. Sometimes we’d all stick somewhat together but most often we’d split up almost the minute we were through the gates, the alchemy of excitement of the last few months and the dozens of beers of the last few hours providing too much distraction to worry about what your friends were doing.
The show would end and Petty would come back for an encore or two, usually “American Girl” or “Free Fallin,’” and we’d march back to our parking spot. We’d wait an hour or two for the stragglers, enjoying the few warm beers we’d intentionally left behind for that very instance. We’d recount our stories from the lawn for each other. Who puked on a neighboring couple. Who made out with some girl from up north during “Breakdown.” Who got punched in the face. There were always a few of us that never made it back to the van. They met a willing girl who took them home or caught a ride with some others they ran into from back home.
We knew we weren’t leaving anyone behind, as they knew we would only wait so long in the parking lot. We’d find them back at the beach in a few days time to hear tell of their weekend with some girl they met who took them home and how they partied for the rest of the weekend in this girl’s hometown. Or how they ended up kicked out early in the show, passed out on a curb in the parking lot shortly thereafter only to be woken by security once the parking lots had cleared. They’d called their moms or their dads or if they were lucky, a brother, sister or understanding friend, who drove up the Parkway at one in the morning to pick them up and get them back to Tuckerton.
Soon the sun would be lower in the sky and the winds off the Atlantic would chill. Soon we’d head back to our colleges. Soon we’d disperse.
I don’t mourn for Tom Petty, as I don’t for any celebrity. I have suffered enough loss in my life to not waste a minute of my ever-dwindling time being sad about someone who never knew who I was, nor could have ever cared.
Still, I do mourn and the core of my sadness is not that there will be no more Tom Petty albums or shows or interviews just like there will be no more David Bowie or Charles Bradley or Those Darlins albums or shows or interviews.
Today I mourn my youth. I mourn the times that are gone that can never return. I mourn the beers and the friends and the little mudslide that during that one show that started out with just the few of us and ended up encompassing almost the entirety of the PNC Bank Center’s lawn.
I mourn the parking lot beerathons and trying to meet a girl on the lawn that might make out with me during “Yer So Bad” or “Even The Losers.”
I remember the trips up the Parkway on on-sale day. I remember the girls and the beach and the beers and the awful humidity of a New Jersey summer. I remember no responsibilities and the cigarettes and the decisions that would have no ramifications beyond that night. I remember staying up until sunrise.
I remember those guys. I remember the ones I still see all the time. I remember the ones I don’t see so much anymore. I remember the dead ones. I remember the ODs, the car wrecks, the suicides. I remember the ones who still call me every week or on my birthday or on Mother’s Day just to make sure I’m doing okay.
I don’t mourn Tom Petty.
And though I’m happy with the man I’ve become, the husband I am and the father I am soon to be, today, in the wake of the death of the Heartbreaker himself, I mourn a large part of my history. I mourn my past. I mourn myself.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Guitar player who occasionally writes stories in a quiet corner of Chapel Hill.
Follow Michael Venutolo-Mantovani on Instagram @christglider
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