Life does not travel forward in a straight line. It swirls, like the water slowly draining down the pipe. For a soul like mine, going two steps forward, three steps back, in an eternal dance of processing, chaos and inspiration, it feels eerily organic to be in the depth of grieving after three full months…
Then again, isn’t that when grief hits the hardest?
Nothing is ever simple. There are circumstances that surround every emotional response, and the context of my reaction was set about ten days before the 2nd of October 2017. It was the last evening of my travel to Greece. I was on the road with my sister. We walked the hidden paths of Greece, falling in love with this – surprisingly still full of mystery – land.
And then out of the blue a very difficult news came: our father’s life was in danger. He had an advanced coronary disease and a heart attack was imminent, if a quadruple heart bypass surgery was not performed immediately. My parents sprung into action. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, unpleasant checkups, horrible news and waiting, waiting, waiting ensued. The day for the surgery was initially set to 28th of September, but a lot of heart transplant sudden cases pushed the date back…
On the 2nd of October I got a call from back home – my dad was on the table for the surgery. The lines on the computer screen of my boring office job (which I can only survive because I listen to music all day long) got blurred. All I could do was just listen to George Harrison’s mantra. “Give me love.. Give me peace on Earth”… My mind sunk into this wordless prayer.
That day, my dad survived. The surgery lasted six hours. Then, he slept. The arteries around his heart were rebuilt, so that his heart could continue beating on. That same evening, when I was slowly shaking off the worst of the shock, I read… Tom Petty was taken to the hospital. Cardiac arrest stopped his heart as my dad’s heart was just beating anew… There were no signs of life, and the news outlets around the world announced his death… before it was time. Because this soldier guy was fighting for life…
Tom Petty is (I can’t use the past tense yet) someone my sister loved dearly, since she was but a tiny child. Growing up in the post-communist, grey Poland and turning on the first channel of the free Western world (so fitting it was the music channel too…), she would sit on the floor and gaze in awe at this magician in round glasses or Mad Hatter getup, singing about free falling, wide open spaces, learning to fly and mary janes.. 😉 In the language we did not understand back then. But it did not matter, the music will always be the universal language that we can all speak. She just looked on, mesmerized and speechless. There was a dream-like quality about him and nearly a painful degree of cool that even a six year old Polish kid could feel – and in the case of my sister, fully relate to it too. She was always a cool cat herself, even at that age.
Years later she told me “I got us tickets to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Hamburg”. It was 2012 and they haven’t toured Europe since years and years. We were in our late twenties – early thirties – by then. Two adults, speaking English, working, travelling, loving, exploring and enjoying life. She said “it might be the last time they come this close to us, I have to see them and I want you to come with me.” Not a fan yet per se, but I also liked them a lot, so what’s not to love about such an evening with her?
She bought the closest seats that were still available, though they were the nosebleed places. We had plane tickets and exploration ideas and before the concert, we walked together through The Beatles Hamburg places. We became friends, not just sisters, through our mutual love of The Beatles. Rock’n’roll has always been there in our relationship, bringing us together. Me and her – it has always been “us against the world” growing up. We grew up in a materially safe, but emotionally neglectful home. The tie between us was music and creativity, and genuine love.
I remember later on, sitting in our dinky hotel room, sharing a cheap Astra beer and watching the Running Down the Dream documentary together… Her already taken not just with Tom, but pretty much with all of the Heartbreakers. They were all engaging: gentle but somehow phantasmagoric – if such a word can be applied to a man – lead guitarist Mike Campbell, with so much talent and a whimsical, keen sense of observation and humor. Then, Mr. keyboard virtuoso with pretty twinkling eyes, and a walking encyclopedia of keys in rock, Benmont Tench, sweet and humble Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone with a precise beat and sunny smile, cool multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, who to me looked just like Mr. Blues himself, high-flying energy charged Stan Lynch and the funky little heart that was Howie Epstein.
This documentary was a testament of friendship, loyalty, hard work and above all else, a dream they shared that propelled them forward, out of Gainesville and into the LA rock scene. Growing up in a tiny Polish town, we both knew the feeling of being stuck in a tiny place and yearning to breathe. So we got out, jumped and hoped to fly. Learning to fly or free falling, one or the other, but do it with intensity that life deserves.
And that was, we felt, what Tom and the Heartbreakers were about as well. They followed the dream that led them out of Gainesville and onto the stages of the big world, where they could impact the people living on the other side of the globe…
This evening was my first proper introduction to all of them and I “got it”. I understood the vibration of the profound camaraderie and love, which surrounded this band and radiated to the outside, to their fans. Such a talented, fun bunch of people, and all these guys are just so real! – I thought later in the evening, as we rocked in our far away seats to an amazing set of songs, vibration and energy flowing to us from the stage. Tom’s charisma at the helm of this incredible group was setting the stage on fire. It was one of the best evenings of my entire life. Yet, I felt a bit bad looking at my sister (though she was rocking hard, jumping up and down) for not being right there in front of the stage. For all her love since a kid, what she saw of the guys was just these speckles of people. And they would not come back to Europe – she would never see them again… that was her only chance…
So when the concert was nearing the end and the Heartbreakers were saying goodbye to the audience, I grabbed her hand and pulled her with me down the stairs of the tribune on their right side, all the way down to the fence to just wave at them. We run downstairs with huge smiles, because who does not like breaking a rule or two in Germany – especially when they come from cheeky Poland : )
Sadly, Tom has already turned away to leave the stage, but our shrieks and frantic waving seemed to had been noticed by his band mates. Mike shoot us a smile from the stage and a friendly wave! : ) This was the best moment at the end of the outstanding evening. Such little moments of connection are priceless. We went back to the hotel flyin’ high in elation!
When my hazy, stressed brain wrapped itself around the devastating news on 2nd of October… Tom being gone.. then not, still alive.. then clinging to life.. I dreaded what I had to do. In my state of extreme worry about my dad, who hadn’t woken up from the surgery yet at that stage, I picked up the phone and called my sister.
Her hurting nerves recoiled with pain at hearing these news, but then she said “Tom is a fighter. Look at him fighting! Let’s just keep hoping he would be alright! If anyone can pull through this, he can.”
Unfortunately, the next day brought the saddest of news. It was like a parallel reality – on one hand with my dad groggy and still unable to speak or sit up, but coming back to life, and then Tom gone… My mind was not processing it, so I pushed it hard and far away to the recess of my brain, to ride the remaining months of 2017, trying to help my dad to get better…
Because how can someone like Tom ever be dead?
It hit me hard in 2018. I have not cried that many tears over a death of a musician since George Harrison’s passing (that one was the hardest for me as he has always been and forever will remain the most inspiring person in my life…). The darnkess of Tom’s death seems to sink in slowly, as I walk around these days with Mojo playing on repeat – because, come on, this blues.. this rock.. this band just wailing and swinging away… and I try to wrap my head around the fact that an era is gone, finished. Closed. They will never be on the road again or in the studio with Tom at the helm…
How do they manage? From reading of what people share online, especially American audiences, hit full-on with painful grief as this music was the soundtrack of their whole lives, there is a tremendous amount of loving energy sent towards the Heartbreakers. Tom’s friends are at the forefront of our minds and people genuinely care that these guys pull through.
Music heals… I hope that one day I would manage to catch Benmont Tench’s show somewhere.. Or go to a live show by the Dirty Knobs with Mike.. Hope that Mike will release his solo album, the one that never saw the light of the day, after he puts the pieces of his grieving heart together.. and Benmont finds solace in rocking away alone with his Steinway as he did in New York. I know this probably requires me crossing the ocean, as I don’t believe they will ever come closer to me now, at this stage… I still might…
Keep on playing, you dear guys. It’s down to you alone now, to keep the dream alive. I hope you will find the energy for that – for all these kids that live in bleak, black and white worlds, that yearn to pick up the guitar and let it sing – just like Mike does – or caress the the piano keys like Benmont. Maybe even dream about being such cool, cool cats, like Tom.. with all his songwriting genius, heart, lyrical light touch, soulful darkness, and such astounding love for music and dreams, his memory will be forever there for all these children in households without joy and hope, who sit listening to the rock’n’roll albums and get laughed at, called ‘weirdoes’ by their peers.
Because let me tell you… they are still out there. In the bleak grey Poland of the 90s, they were out there. In many corners of the world now, they are there. And they listen to you, because rock music is all about passing the belief in freedom, from one generation of kids to the next.
Like you did for my little sister.
Keep on rocking forever.
As a post-scriptum, I wanted to quote what Mike said in the Tom Petty Radio – the only time I ever heard him speak of how he was keeping after Tom’s passing. He is a very wise guy. My favorite guitarist right next to George ❤
“I’ve learned that when you’re in a spot like this, the best healing – and the best way to get through it – is to be of service to other people that you love. Reach out to other people that are struggling and help them and that, in turn, helps you get through it. So that’s my two cents.”
Dear Heartbreakers, I grieve together with you. As much as possible, through time and space, I send you my love.