Tom Petty: one of the musicians whose soundtracks play behind our lives

By Alan Vitello

Tom Petty’s death has made me feel old.

When the people whose voices and whose art were the soundtrack and the landscape of our youth start passing away, it’s easy to feel the road ahead is considerably shorter than the road behind. It’s easier to hear the clock ticking away.

Alan Vitello is a writer and an award-winning cartoonist who lives in Colorado. Learn more about Alan…

In 1980, I was working at Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes, on Arapahoe, in Boulder. I worked there when John Lennon was murdered. I was 18 years old at the time.

I remember scoffing at all the people who were so distraught at Lennon’s death. I was never a Beatles fan, and I had little regard for Lennon, so the whole thing struck me as more than a little bit stupid and overwrought.

I said as much, in a letter to the editor that I wrote in the Colorado Daily newspaper. I believe the words I used to describe Lennon were along the lines of “What’s the big deal? He was a drugged-out, old has-been.”

I was 18.

The assistant manager at the record store was a guy named Ron. He was older than me, probably closer to 40.

After my letter was published, he stopped talking to me. For months. Even if we were the only two people in the store he would ignore me. Being around him was like being in an ice storm; nothing but a brutal coldness, all the time.

Finally, by the fall of 1981, I got tired of it, and finally asked him why he was so mad at me.

He said he could never forgive me for my letter to the editor. He said Lennon had been his “guiding star,” a constant in his life, who helped him get through good times and bad. He felt that when Lennon died, a part of him died, too.

My letter made him feel angry and hurt. Not only had Lennon’s death pulled the rug out from under Ron’s life, but my words had rubbed salt in the wound, as I was dismissively laughing at his pain.

“What an idiot,” I thought.

All these years later, I’m rethinking that sentiment.

I was nothing more than the most casual of casual fans of Tom Petty.

I never saw him live. I think I owned one LP and one CD. But he (like so many others) has been playing the background music of my life since I was a teenager.

Tom Petty: 1950 to 2017.

I don’t think I’m quite up to the level of my old co-worker, Ron, but I do have my pop-cultural “guiding stars.”

Brian Wilson’s music has been a constant in my life for nearly 50 years.

The Beach Boys are truly the soundtrack of my life. I’ve spent countless thousands of dollars on them, to say nothing of the vast quantities of emotional and psychological energy I have invested in them, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of hours of my time that they have occupied.

I can still feel just like the 12-year-old that I was in 1974 when I heard “Let Him Run Wild,” for the first time, every time I hear that song, even to this day.

Against all odds, Brian Wilson is 75 years old now. His story of creativity and perseverance in the face of the seemingly insurmountable challenge has been a continual inspiration to me.

What will I be thinking and feeling when he is no longer with us?

Will a part of me go with him, or does a part of him live on in me and tens of millions of others, when he’s gone, or both?

I think people from my generation (and those after) really do have personal soundtracks playing behind our lives, just like in the movies.

When the artists who gave us those songs start passing before us, it’s hard not to feel that our end credits aren’t as far off as we would like to think they are.

Rest in God’s arms, Tom Petty.

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