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Heartbreaking Goodbye

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

October 2, 2017...dealing with the already devastating mass shooting in Las Vegas, taking 59 lives (so far) and wounding over 500, news breaks that rock icon, Tom Petty has suffered a massive heartattack and is in hospital. A few minutes later, there is news that he has been declared brain dead and has been taken off life support. At that point news agencies around the globe were reporting Mr. Petty deceased. A very dark moment indeed.....Then his daughter, AnnaKim Violet Petty, known as 'Kimberly,' spoke up and said, "Fuck you, my dad isn't dead!" Wooosh... the gamut of emotions pass through my body. A ray of hope! I'm thinking, miracles do happen...lets have a miracle happen now! But sadly, that night, there was no miracle for Mr Petty and official word came from his family, and Tony Dimitriades, his longtime manager, of his passing. Stating, the legendary rocker "died peacefully at 8:40 pm surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends" after suffering cardiac arrest. This news was a gut punch to millions of people around the world.

Tom Petty, born in Gainesville Florida in 1950 would have only been 67 years old, on his next birthday, October 20, only days away. Young for standards today. In his short 66+ years, he has given the world of music so much and left a legacy behind that spans decades. Everyone will remember a day in their life that can be readily associated with a TP tune. Whether its Mary Janes Last Dance, Freefalling, American Girl or any number of other top songs in the vast library of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, and The Traveling Wilburys.

I'm hoping for a cathartic experience whilst writing this blog, as TP has given me so much over the last 30/40 years. Through the years we have seen him blossom and grow. We have seen him stand up for whats right and for whats wrong in the world. Even when the record companies wanted to increase album prices by a couple dollars decades ago, TP stood up then, and refused to increase the price of his. Everyone else followed suit and us music consumers got a couple more years of the under $10 price of a record...all because of this one big hearted man.

As you can all google TPs history, discography, and details of his recent death on your own, I thought I'd tell you a couple of personal stories about my dealings with Tom Petty instead of recounting content you can get anywhere.

The first time I saw him live was exactly 30 years ago this month, on October 17, 1987 at Wembley Arena in London opening up for Bob Dylan. I was heavily pregnant and gave birth to my first child only five weeks later. Even couldn't keep me away from the stage. My (ex) husband suggested we take seats for this show, as I was so pregnant...NO WAY, as close to the stage as I could get was where I knew I wanted to be! I remember Tom Pettys' set and how magical it was, from beginning to end, he gave 100%. Pretty much the opposite can be said for the headliner that night, Bob Dylan. TP was a definite stand out for me and from that night onward, he would be part of my world. And remain forever in my musical heart.

On October 5, 2014 at the San Jose SAP Center was the first time I got to professionally shoot TP and the Heartbreakers. Steve Winwood was the opening act. The stage was set, photographers were in the pit, waiting for Tom Petty. And then the man himself enters the stage. Me with my camera in hand and positioned center stage, TP walks towards me, takes his place center stage directly above me. I was perched between his two center monitors. He starts with, "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" then right into, "Mary Jane's Last Dance." I was having the time of my life, singing and dancing to the music, completely overwhelmed with the great icon standing one foot in front of me. I noticed he glanced at me several times, I thought he was looking at me cause I'm the only female in the pit amongst 8 or 9 other photographers, and to be honest...I never normally blend into any crowd, so I didn't give it much thought. All I knew at that point is that I was having a ton of fun and totally in my element, hanging on every note and every lyric this rock god was giving. I remember towards the end of Mary Janes Last Dance, Jay Blakesburg, the photographer standing to my left, elbows me, and says, "Cheryl, you probably should start shooting, as we only have one song remaining, then we are out of the pit." That was the first time (and last), that I had ever completely "lost it" whilst on a shoot. I got all my shots during that third song, "American Dream Plan B"...and that was ok, cause I had the time of my life, a most memorable 2 songs, stood before the man himself. During those songs, in my own little world, I felt that he was singing only to me and I was the only one in the room...until Jay elbowed me and 'woke me up' outta my dream!!!

Fast forward a couple years to 2017...Seeing TP and the Heartbreakers at the end of May this year, at BottleRock Napa. Was a very different experience. I was with my dear friend Robin, and we danced and sang for the entire set. Robins' son, Riley was a huge TP fan, in his life that was tragically cut short last year whilst hiking. He was only 20, and a musician himself, just like his father. They shared Petty music together throughout Rileys life. I knew how special TP was to Riley, and that made this experience so dear to my heart. We both felt Rileys' presence with us, enjoying TP as we did. And I will always remember that gig, for that reason. Now, since Pettys' passing, I picture Riley in the front of the queue when Tom walked through the pearly gates last night. I envision Riley with a huge smile, hugging Tom as he joined the heavenly jam.

Pettys' last show, marking the last of this 40th anniversary tour, was only a week ago on September 25 at The Hollywood Bowl. However, only six shorts weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege to be one of the few photographers shooting the Tom Petty gig, August 22, 2017, at the first of the three Greek Theatre dates in Berkeley. They were to be his last concert appearances in Northern California.

As a photographer, I am usually asked to sign a contract before the show, for the artists' management, usually stating that I relinquish all photos to them after the shoot, GRATIS! Pettys' contracts read very differently....It says that if Petty uses my photo for X, I will be paid X, and if its used for an album cover the fee they will pay me is higher. This shows a respect for the photographers that shoot the music. Very rare indeed. As we pay for everything from getting to the venue, to parking, to camera gear and any other expenses we may incur, out of our own pockets. Very seldom that any artists offer payment for what we do. Tom Pettys' management team has always been kind, and generous, and a is a true reflection of everything I've ever seen and read about the man himself.

That last show was special to me. Although I had seen him only 3 months before, as always, I had been looking forward to seeing him again. (Actually I was so excited, I was counting the days till the Berkeley show). My companion on this night was Curt. He has written an article or two to accompany my photos for BAM magazine submissions in the past, but on this night he was simply there to enjoy the evening with me. After photographing from the pit, I remember making my way back to Curt, being on cloud nine after shooting the first three songs. When I got back to Curt at our excellent seats that the artist provided for us, I was grinning from ear to ear. A smile so exhilarating that my face ached! And having him greet me at the seat when I returned was very special moment indeed. Being able to share the experience was enormous. Curts' 13 year old son is a big TP fan. He also attended the TP show in Berkeley the following week, and as a Petty super fan and a young musician himself, he said after the concert, that it was the best gig he's seen, (and he's seen some great ones, thus far in his young life!) Upon hearing of Pettys' condition, and then later, his death, I was concerned about this young TP super fan, wondering if he'll get the bad news at school, as everyone has smart phones, and low and behold, I think kids think differently these days. From what I hear, he's a bit down about Pettys passing but its not darkening his day as it has, and is for us older fans. I'm sure he's grateful to have seen him. And when this young fan grows up, he will have a super special memory of that night!

As a TP fan for life, I am deeply saddened we have lost this legend, this super talent, and musical icon. I'm equally grateful for the gifts of music and lyrics he has left behind. I try my best to live by some myself, I specifically love, "You never slow down, you never grow old,"... always been one of my faves.

There's a film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich,"Running Down a Dream" about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers...I think it's a must see... the film took more than two years to make and spans four hours, (plus three for concert footage!)

I imagine that Tom Petty, Prince, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Chris Cornell, Roy Orbison, and many other super talents are having quite the jam, wherever they are now.

From the words of Tom Petty..."You belong among the wildflowers, you belong somewhere you feel free." Farewell Mr Petty, we love you and will miss your talent, your music and your energy!

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