The first thing I put on when my shift starts is “Damn the Torpedoes”. I’ve been taking out CDs from the library and copying them to iTunes ever since I started bartending at the Skylark so I could have a wider range of music to play Sunday nights. They let you take ten out at a time and I figure they’ll probably eliminate them altogether before too long so I better take advantage in the meantime. It’s a chance to listen things I don’t know, forgot, or don’t like enough to pay for.
Tom Petty was already around when I first began choosing what music to listen to on my own. He was on MTV dressed as the Mad Hatter, singing for me not to come around there no more. Before that he was getting out of a dusty spaceship singing about how I got lucky. He looked like a praying mantis skulking around. Even in close up it felt like he was far away. The wide-set eyes, pencil-thin nose, and big mouth full of teeth was sort of skull-like, but not menacing exactly, just remote and knowing. Spectral. His songs were on the radio all the time back in the 80s, which was the last time I listened to music on the radio.
I got a couple of his CDs from the library after he died. I never bought any before and figured now was the time to give them a shot. The songs stand up a lot better than much of the roots-rock Americana he’s usually lumped in with. I doubt I’ll be going back to Springsteen or Mellencamp when they pass. The working-class hero act doesn’t age so well in my book. Petty was always his own thing. His laconic tunes became anthems without trying to be, the way some of those other guys’ ones often seemed to overreach and oversell their authenticity.
A young man sitting by the taps, nursing a Schlitz tallboy, slurrily sings along from the first verse of “Refugee” on. He asks if I like Petty and I nod sure. Says he got to see him live a couple times and is shocked when he hears I never did.
—Those guys are like athletes. They really cranked it out.
He goes back to singing along badly as I walk away.
—I can’t believe what a big deal everybody on social media makes when famous people die these days. I mean, he was like sixty! I’m thirty now and I probably won’t make it to forty.
Be careful, I tell him, you might surprise yourself and live to old age the way Petty did. He asks how much the Pabst is and orders one when I say it’s $2.
I ask Jesse if he saw Sam doing shots with the guy. Jesse shrugs and says Sam does shots with everybody. The next time I pass him he seems a lot drunker than he was moments ago. He asks how much the free shots are. I say at our prices we’d go broke giving away the bar.
—But you know the bossman’s getting rich, right?
He doesn’t believe me when I assure him the bossman really isn’t getting rich. He’s teetering on belligerent now and takes forever gathering his belongings to leave once it sinks in he won’t be getting one on the house.
Petty’s record ends and I put on something else. The guy takes another five minutes fumbling with his zipper by the door before finally walking out.
RIP Tom Petty.