Editor’s Note: The thing I found strangest about this article is the fact that he never thought to look up the magazine articles before the concert.
The painful truth about a role model: It is best that you investigate before you decide to imitate
By Darren Mart
The Snapper — April 19, 1995
Even in the worst time of my life, the middle of 1989, there was a source of inspiration. For even during my first encounter with a death in the family, somebody was helping me to look at the brighter side of life. It may sound foolish to some, but the music of my all-time favorite artist, Tom Petty, was actually helping me to overcome tragedy. At the same time, I was shaping my personality around some of the ideas he’d expressed in his music.
His music meant everything to me. He taught me how to believe in myself, how to be strong when a relationship goes awry, how to have a sense of humor in nearly every situation. To me, he was more than a singer, he was a teacher, or even a second father.
So when I learned that Petty was coming to Pittsburgh last month, I wasted no time in securing tickets. To hype myself up, I drove my roommate nuts with ceaseless Petty-thons. Weeks before the concert, I’d dream of singing with the Heartbreakers in front of the Pittsburgh crowd.
The show came soon enough. There I was, only 30 feet away from the stage, watching my role model walk onto the stage. I ignored the marijuana-toting fans directly in front and to the right of me — no stoned or drunken fan was going to spoil my evening.
As soon as Petty struck the first chord, I cheered until my voice was hoarse, which took less than a half hour. It was all so overwhelming to me; I stood there at times with my jaw hanging, wondering if it was really happening.
The band needed a short break, so Petty took the opportunity to talk to the fans for a bit. I stood there hanging onto his every word, as he thanked the crowd for coming to the show. But my excitement transformed into confusion as he continued…
“I don’t wanna give the wrong impression that I’m up here performing under some controlled substance [a sarcastic grin]… no, no, really, I’m sober, I’m sober!” Petty said.
I applauded louder than ever for that statement, because I always felt he was decent, down-to-earth, and honest with his fans.
“Now,” Petty continued, “I said I was sober. That doesn’t mean I’m not high as a kite.”
My applauding hands fell limp to my sides; my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach. The crowd burst into applause — salt in the wound. The marijuana scene was evidently a subtle element of Petty’s persona.
I’m sure some of you already guessed this before, but I’ve been blindly protecting him from rumor after rumor for years now. To hear him admit it in front of all those fans was, at the very least, devastating to me.
At the risk of offending some of you, I must say that I don’t support any kind of drug use whatsoever. Perhaps you won’t understand how this would affect me. But hearing my role model say those words has changed my life. I feel so misled, so foolish, so naive.
Perhaps role models are important for inspiration and reinforcement of positive ideas, but they’re dangerous in the fact that they are human, and every aspect of their lives is subject to imitation. Patterning your life after someone else’s image can lead you to a huge disappointment down the road.
When I left the concert, I just wanted to get back home. I didn’t want my friends asking me about it — I found it difficult to even share the news with my parents because they knew how much I related to Petty.
I did my best to ignore every thought of the concert for two days or so, but then I played Petty’s music non-stop to see if I could “flush it out of my system.” It has worked in a way, because I now see that his music is what I enjoyed the most — it was my choice to analyze his lyrics and personality.
The hardest thing to accept (which should have been the easiest) was the fact that Tom Petty, despite the dangerously high pedestal I had placed him on, was not perfect. I was all-out angry when I had to face the fact that the real Tom Petty and the man I had envisioned were a bit of a contrast.
I investigated further by reading some old Rolling Stone articles on T.P. and the Heartbreakers, and sure enough, the Petty portrayed in the articles was different from the man I thought I knew. His incessant swearing and “whatever feels good” attitude presented in the text nearly shocked me. I sat there in Gasner in front of a microfilm machine, scanning article after article, hoping I’d find a miracle story that would disprove all that I had previously read. Never happened.
Whether you consider Tom Petty a pathetic or perfect man to be placed as such a level isn’t the issue; the truth is, he had a positive influence on me — something everybody needs. The strife that is created from all this is that Petty, my role model, the very essence of my esteem, has flaunted his marijuana use while my parents, whom I cherish more than anyone else, have done the job of keeping my head turned away from such things.
This internal “collision” could possibly destroy one of my favorite facets of life — the inspiration provided by a man I considered to be a legend.