Early on the morning of October 2nd got a call from the New York Times asking if I had any comment on Tom Petty. Perplexed, I asked what this was regarding and was informed that they were working on a story about Tom and my name came up. I assumed that Tom had done an interview with them on the heels of his recent tour and this was some young fact-checker who hadn’t registered the time difference between coasts. I dismissed the call and told him I had no response. As I disconnected the call my phone rang again so quickly that I assumed he was calling back but a woman’s voice explained she was from TMZ and wanted to know if I had any information I could share about Tom’s “condition”. A cold shiver shot up my spine as I realized something had happened. Information and misinformation was quickly abundant but I wasn’t getting any word directly from inside Tom’s camp. I checked his Instagram and Facebook feeds and the most recent posts on both were an image I shot of him scoring a film years ago.
Like so many others, Tom’s passing hit me as a gut punch out of nowhere and it has been difficult to even consider trying to articulate my thoughts in writing. It’s futile to try to say anything about Tom that others haven’t already said more eloquently and with more literary finesse than I am capable. It’s too hard, too complex and too big to process. Perhaps the only thing this post can provide is an adherence to my tradition of removing those that pass from my gallery, acknowledge them and give thanks for their impact on me.
My keyboard is inadequate to encapsulate the large arc of his career and the arc of my own that we shared. Furthermore, this entry allows too few of the thousands of images my camera captured of Tom over the years to even start to tell the story. The images in this post are comprised primarily of images I have cycled through my home page in the last two weeks.
We had spans of close communication and camaraderie separated by periods of silence. I have been through some very important and crucial periods of my life where Tom played a pivotal role and I’m proud that I have been a discrete friend to him when he needed the same.
During the recording of Wildflowers I would leave the studio each evening usually to receive a late night phone call from Tom to commiserate over our pending divorces. It was during this period when we really got to know one another over long rambling conversations.
As our respective marriages were over and we were both doing more than just a little soul-searching. These conversations, along with a steady stream of Woody Allen films for him and Hank Williams music for me seemed to quiet the internal voices.
It was during one of those early-morning marathons that I mentioned that were I to get married again I would have Little Richard perform the ceremony. Tom had been unaware that Little Richard was ordained. The day Tom married Dana at their Malibu home he handed me a thick envelope of cash and asked me to pay the minister when he arrived. As a white stretch Cadillac rolled to a stop in a shady spot reserved for it, I found myself helping Little Richard out of the car. I turned to see Tom on the lawn, raising his cocktail glass to me, grinning from ear-to-ear, toasting his having beat me to the punch. Tom had a dry, wicked wit and enjoyed playing the long game.
We shared a lot stories, some adventures and I treasure the long hours spent in studios and rehearsal stages. I tried to respect Tom’s space and set the camera aside for long periods of time which gave me the opportunity to quietly witness his process in making his magic, with and without, arguably the best live band in the business - The Heartbreakers.
Over the years I saw important members of the intricate machine that powered Tom’s career come and go, band members leave and return, his family circle grow and his kids mature to start their own families. I watched Tom battle some demons and saw him grow spiritually but I never considered, not for a second, that we would all wake up one morning and he would be gone.
At Tom’s memorial, dubbed “Nil Deperandum” (Latin for Don’t Despair), the long, strange trip it had been was brought into sharp focus for me. In one of the many rooms looking out onto the surf as waves were continually being born, crashing to their demise and being swept out to be reconstituted into an endless parade of other waves, there was a large monitor with a loop of Tom joyously performing and recording over the years. About every 5 minutes a clip would pop up with a skinny, long-haired photographer embarrassing himself craning to get an impossible angle of a young Tom Petty at at a piano during a rehearsal. Few probably even noticed the kid in the frame and those who did would not likely know it was me. In many ways the kid in that footage is gone but the guy at the piano, he and his legacy will outlive us all.