A part of my generation’s soundtrack

We were pretty full of ourselves, I guess. Barely 19, barely finished with our freshman year in college, having left our provincial little town behind for the urban chaos and the infinite possibilities of university life just over a year ago. Now here we were again, back in town for the summer. We knew we were going back to school soon enough, so we wanted to cram every bit of experience and drunken camaraderie into those last few weeks together before packing up our junk, moving back into the dorm, settling on a major, and getting serious about the future after a few false starts and narrow escapes during our freshman year.

The first thing on the agenda was going to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Carowinds. We all had different taste in music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and had discovered punk rock in college, which opened up a whole world I did not even know about until I heard some guy down the hall playing a New York Dolls album one day. Some of my friends were partial to The Who, others to Lynyrd Skynyrd, others to the Eagles or Van Halen. But we all loved Tom Petty. In my entire life, I have never met anyone who did not love Tom Petty. When we heard he was playing Carowinds, we snagged some tickets immediately.

On the day of the show, we met in town at The Pantry and bought some cheap beer and cigars, chips and dip, and mixed nuts for the road. Mark gassed up the car and we lit out for I-77, a straight shot south to Carowinds. On the way, we listened to “Damn the Torpedoes” all the way through, screaming more than singing and banging the dash and the windows with our fists, wailing on air guitar during Mike Campbell’s solos.

“You don’t have to live like a refugee!”

(“Give me a beer back here, asswipe!”)

“Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some!”

We sang all of the songs and then argued about which were the best. Then we argued about whether “Damn the Torpedoes” was better than the last Tom Petty album. Then we argued about whether Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of all time, since the Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin were all British bands. Somebody said Creedence and got hit with an empty beer can.

“Even the losers get lucky sometime!”

We got there in plenty of time to find our seats, which were just a few rows from the stage. All of us had been to Carowinds a few times to ride the rollercoasters and do the theme park thing with our parents or youth groups, but this was the first time we had ever been here — sans parents — to see a rock and roll show. More importantly, it was the first time any of us had seen Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

“Tom Petty!”

“And the Heartbreakers!”

“Tom By God Petty!”

High fives were attempted, not altogether successfully. We may have been a little buzzed from our refreshments, but mostly we were just bristling with the energy that flows among a crowd of people getting ready to see and hear music that they love so much that it is part of the fabric of their day-to-day lives. There is no feeling in the world exactly like that.

The opening act was a guy named Tommy Tutone, whose song “867-5309/Jenny” had become a huge FM radio hit that summer. He was fun, and everybody sang along and jumped around when he sang that song. The rest of his set we spent restlessly, watching girls and waiting for Tom Petty.

Finally, about half an hour after Tommy Tutone left the stage and the roadies changed out the equipment on stage, The lights went down and out came the Heartbreakers, taking their position on the stage. When Tom Petty came out, he nearly tripped over the monitor before strapping on his electric guitar and launching into the first song, “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).” The crowd erupted, swaying, singing, jumping up and down. I saw two girls in tears, hugging tightly. The Heartbreakers were lanky and funny and completely unpretentious, and they absolutely tore the place apart for the next two hours with blistering versions of all those songs we knew so well. It was one of the best rock and roll shows I have ever seen, before or since.

Somehow, I never got around to seeing Tom Petty again, but his music has been a constant in my life since I was a junior in high school. I like to think of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers songs like Marcel Proust’s biscuits from his novel, The Remembrance of Things Past. When I bite into one, a flood of memories carries back people, places, and times that have drifted away on the tides. When I put on Tom Petty, I am suddenly “free falling” in Boone in 1989, or “learning to fly” two years later, when I made the move from Boone to Waynesville to begin a whole new life. Or, drifting back further, sitting in my driveway late at night, basketball practice over, playing “Even the Losers” over and over again before going in the house for supper.

“Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof

Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon

And I showed you stars you never could see

It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.”

I will never forget you, Tom. Thanks for all those times you gave us, thanks for the memories, thanks for making us believe that, sometimes, you were singing especially to us, or even about us.

(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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