Tom Petty went out a rock star. He had just wrapped up his 40th-anniversary tour with his band the Heartbreakers a week ago. It's always too soon for relatives, bandmates, and fans — a rock star's extended family — but as with David Bowie's recent demise, there's some comfort in knowing that the triumph of his swan song was poetic in itself.
Today the world mourns the untimely loss of this great American rock star, who went from poverty and a difficult childhood to writing some of the greatest songs to come out of the U.S. and playing in a supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison. One town in particular is mourning especially heavily this morning: his hometown of Gainesville, Florida.
It's difficult to overstate the massive hold Petty had over the college town in which he was born, the one in which he started his first bands, including Mudcrutch, which later evolved into the Heartbreakers. For anyone growing up in Gainesville or rolling through the transient Central Florida town for school, Petty's music is inescapable. Every G'ville punk band learns a Tom Petty song as a gimmick. When I saw Of Montreal play there ten years ago at what is now the Florida Theater, the bandmates covered "American Girl" because they were in Gainesville. Kevin Barnes sang it while he was still covered in whipped cream.
No matter how hard Petty tried to debunk them, the town's Tom Petty legends would not die. There's the one about "American Girl" being about a girl who committed suicide by jumping from the Beaty Towers dorms at the University of Florida. It's become ubiquitous enough to warrant its own Snopes fact check. The rumor is false, but 13th Street, on which Beaty Towers stand, becomes Highway 441 a couple of miles south of campus. To this day, when I visit friends, I can't drive by without thinking, "She could hear the cars roll by/Out on 441/Like waves crashin’ in the beach."
For me, he's the soundtrack to many a Highway 441 joyride and also to drunk nights after last call when I was the last visitor at Flaco's or the Bull while my buddies' band covered "You Wreck Me."
It sometimes felt like Petty didn't love the town as much as it loved him. Our memories are soundtracked by his music, but for Petty, Gainesville represented painful memories of poverty and physical abuse at the hands of his father. But even the most resented hometown is an inextricable part of one's heart, and Gainesville showed up frequently in his songwriting. His 2006 homecoming at the O'Connell Center at UF is remembered fondly by locals. It reaffirmed his gratitude to the town in which it all began.
Glenn Richards, host of WUFT's Morning Edition, has more than 30 years of experience in radio, including at WVUM in the '90s and at Gainesville's Rock 104. When he moved from Miami to Gainesville in 2006 to pursue a telecommunications master's degree, Richards says Tom Petty made the move more bearable. "Between Petty and the Gators, I prefer Petty," he says, adding he was able to connect to the city through references in Petty's songs. "There's always been something about Gainesville that I was aware of, but moving here and really delving into the Gainesville music scene, naturally, it all begins with Tom Petty."