You Don’t Know How It Feels Without Tom Petty


You Don’t Know How It Feels Without Tom Petty

Illustration: Shruti Yatam / Arré

Some songs sear the heart, while some singers take a shot at healing it. Funny how some people exist only to pretty much show light. And when their own light is dimmed for good, you feel a sense of loss that is too close to be forgotten – and yet, somehow, far enough away to not devastate completely. When Tom Petty died, I was probably on my way to work, stuck in Bombay traffic, and muttering “Into the Great Wide Open”.

When Tom Petty died, probably from overdosing or overworking his heart, I was most likely looking dead-eyed at the post-Dussehra celebration waste on the roads and wondering when would be Mary Jane’s last dance.

But let me rewind a bit to when Tom Petty was alive. Breathing his full and dealing those sidelong glances as he played simultaneous musical instruments, and getting his audience to come with his words. The harmonica was the labia majora; the microphone, the labia minora; and his tongue was the magic snake coiling and uncoiling words that lifted and crashed you like a doll made of desire. But somehow, to me, eating allegorical pussy was not so much Tom as breaking real hearts. Let me tell you why.

It was in the ’90s, that era of schoolboy romance, tired afternoons making mix tapes, discovering pimples and watching Cindy Crawford that I came across an ugly, horse-faced man with thinning hair and a penchant for hats. Now there was no fucking business for an introverted, ugly-enough social outcast in Calcutta to seek out an uglier, older American man with equally bizarre habits. So I didn’t. For a long time.

In fact, I usually avoided people. Ugly or otherwise. Songs made sense to me, as did words and dogs. But not people. So it was working along fine, this “thing” between me and my universe that is now fashionably called “dysfunction” and is a billion-dollar-plus industry in India. And then one day, out of fucking nowhere, I heard “You Don’t Know How It Feels”.

I remember my dad used to have a big ass SONY twin player, slick as a pimp on the Strip and as effective as a dating site on a lonely night. That beast used to sit on top of the wooden almirah, surveying all below it and dispensing music like a jukebox from heaven. I usually slotted in my sorrow, and more often than not, the beast belted out a salve of sorts. On this fateful afternoon, it decided to fuck with the fucked head of a schoolboy with borderline sociopathy by singing “you don’t know how it feels to be me”.

rip tom petty

Singer Tom Petty, backed by his band, The Heartbreakers, prances onstage during a 1980 Santa Cruz, California, concert at the Civic Auditorium. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

It wasn’t just a song. It was an epiphany. A sledgehammer aimed at the centre of the left. A chance to dance with the demons. That song explained shit to me but it also assured me that everything doesn’t have to get explained for the next day to happen in your life. Tom kind of made sense when he said “people come, people go” and totally killed it with “I’m too alone to be proud”. He drove a stake that clarified something for me – that a significant part of having a heart was getting it broken. In fact, oftentimes, that was the only way to make sure you had one in the first place. And then, just like that, it was no longer “Tom The Ugly” but “Tom Petty, The Heartbreaker”.

Oh there’s more to Tom and me. When I stalked him after what he did to me with “You Don’t Know” I found “Free Fallin” and it beautifully summed up all the minuses in my life. I had no fucking clue what he meant in that song, but I got to the T what he wanted to. Good girls with bad hearts or motherfuckers with broken ones. He asked me to choose and even though I am still deciding, I can’t blame him for not giving me the compass.

In effect, Tom managed to corner me in one of the dark alleys of my mind and slip me a joint.

And if you can remember when you were old enough to fall in love but too young to know it can’t last, you would know what kind of joint it was. With every toke, it told you love was a joke. And the heart was a fucking bone china chimpanzee on cocaine walking a tight, lubricated string. If you are looking for love, you should be prepared to get fucked. Both would make memories and some would go on to become songs.

Tom’s career and his songs, his music and his bands, his record company deals and chart-smashers will all be there somewhere out on the great wide Internet, absorbing hits and collecting traffic all the more now that his body is cold and stiff. His Wilburys won’t be travelling anymore and his stopped heart is beyond broken. I have absolutely no intention to add to that white noise.

rip tom petty

Tom Petty and Bob Dylan perform at Great Woods Pavilion in Mansfield MA. (Ron Pownall/Getty Images)

But I can tell you why I am even writing this ode to him. Like with so many so-called public figures, Tom’s music was for everyone but its impact was only mine. His songs to me were words soaked in kerosene and set alight, aimed straight at the heart of cynicism yet somehow missing it. Close enough to singe but not quite burn the place that says “try again”.

Tom’s forte wasn’t really second chances, and I found him on first impressions. But who is to say how something ends? Surely not only by how it began. My tryst with Tom started with sledgehammer words and a horse face. My memory of him will remain frozen into the great wide open, where all words come to rest and all music stops for a breath. Tom’s music, his words, the names of the bands he formed and dissolved, his looks, his fucking hunger, and his quiet anger were all a package delivered incognito, masked by the ugly face that resembled an elongated, unbalanced equation but somehow illuminated my math when he opened his mouth.

And if you think I am being petty by calling Petty ugly, then you don’t know Jack about Tom.