October 2017, Bristol, United Kingdom

“Tom Petty has died.”

Those four words hit me like a tonne of bricks when my boyfriend uttered them to me around 10:30pm on October 1, 2017.

“What?!” I shouted somewhat agitatedly, thinking this was one of those jokes typical of his black sense of humour.

“Tom Petty has died,” he repeated.

“Give me that!” I cried, snatching his mobile phone from his hand where he had been reading the newspaper.

Frantically, I scrolled through the breaking news section of The Guardian until I came across the headline: Tom Petty: US rock musician dies aged 66.

“No, it can’t be,” I said to myself, shaking my head in disbelief.

I started flipping through as many other news sites as I could possibly think of: BBC, CNN, New York Times, Yahoo, NBC, The Independent. As I read, it quickly became clear that the events were fuzzy and not clear cut at all. While some reported that Tom Petty had died, others said he was in a life-threatening condition in hospital or that he had been found unconscious and was being treated at home.

I didn’t know what to believe.

Finding a clear answer was made worse by the fact that America had experienced a terrible mass shooting earlier that very same day: the Las Vegas massacre. Most news outlets were understandably focused on this story, but this just hindered my ability to find out what exactly had happened to Tom.

It was around midnight by this point, but I knew that it wasn’t worth trying to get to sleep. I needed answers. I stayed awake all night on a high state of alert, constantly refreshing the phone and each time saying a silent prayer to myself that Tom would be okay.

Sadly, at around 5am, the news that I had so desperately feared was confirmed. Tom Petty had suffered a cardiac arrest at his Malibu home and despite the best efforts of medical staff, they could not revive him. He passed away at 8:40pm PDT with his family and bandmates around him.

My brain just couldn’t compute the news. He had just finished his 40th anniversary tour a few days before. I had been following the whole thing avidly on social media. The band were in fine form, and I was so excited about the prospect of seeing them in the UK the following year.

The next few days or so passed in a blur. I felt numb. All I can remember is just walking and walking and walking aimlessly around my city, as if somehow I could turn back time and revive Tom if only I walked fast enough. I’d come home with my feet covered in blisters, my body aching with tiredness, but I’d still get up the next day and do it all over again.

As I walked, I was haunted by a lyric from Tom’s 1999 song Swingin’: After that night in Vegas and the hell that we went through. How horribly prophetic, I thought.

Many of my favourite musicians were no longer living, yet never before had I experienced the loss of a musician I had loved in my lifetime. It was so painful. My numbness slowly transformed into anger, frustration, resentment. Why Tom? I asked myself over and over again.

Then finally, the tears came.

That Saturday evening, my boyfriend was working a late shift at the hospital, and I was at home alone. I decided to watch Tom’s 30th anniversary “Live from Gatorville” concert. I had managed to keep it together until almost the end of the DVD, but when Learning to Fly came on, something inside me just snapped.

As Tom played the opening riff on his acoustic guitar, I felt a shiver down my spine and a lump in my throat. It suddenly became painful to swallow. Then, the first line: Well, it started out down a dirty road… My eyes started to prickle a little. By the time he had reached the chorus, my cheeks were wet with tears. I hadn’t even realised I was crying at this point.

During the end section where Tom stops singing and gives the floor to the entire audience, I began to whimper. And then the floodgates properly opened. Through blurred vision, I saw him on stage with a smile on his face, his arms open wide and head back, a ray of yellow light around him. At that moment, it wasn’t too hard to imagine him with angel wings and a halo, taking off into the night sky.

I’m learning to fly
But I ain’t got wings
And coming down
Is the hardest thing

“Looks like you finally got your wings, Tom,” I whispered between sobs.

The tears just wouldn’t stop falling now.

It was another two years before I could bring myself to listen to that song again.


Stereo Story #673

Lauren Alex O'Hagan is a researcher in the School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences at Örebro University and specialises in the study of music fandoms and identities. She has published works on Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott and Tom Petty, and is the co-founder of the Rewriting Rory blog (https://rewritingrorygallagher.blogspot.com/)