We live in a culture that’s created a neverending cycle of men telling boys not to cry, take one for the team, shake it off, or toughen up.
We give them no outlet for their feelings when they suffer trauma or tragedies and then wonder why they turn silent or act out with violence.
My dad was a pilot who died in a plane crash when I was six.
No stepping around it, no lengthy explanation. Simply put, the progression of my life, the life of my mother, and the life of my three-year-old sister were forever changed on April 17, 2000.
My dad loved Tom Petty.
Some of my clearest memories are of sitting in the backseat of his black Chevy Impala SS with its Corvette engine, driving to the grass airport he ran on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, listening to “Into the Great Wide Open,” “Full Moon Fever,” “Echo,” “Wildflowers,” and the rest of Petty’s discography.
Both my father and Petty were from Florida, both had long straight blondish hair, and both had an unquenchable thirst for freedom. Tom took to the stage to find his, and my dad took to the sky.
And there I was, a wide-eyed six-year-old, equally obsessed with my dad’s passion for flying and Tom Petty’s passion for songwriting.
Being at the airport on hot summer days to watch my dad fly was the movie of my life, and Petty was the soundtrack. Both raised the romantic in me and were the reason I started writing down song title ideas when I was five years old, the same age I confidently told my mom I was going to be a rock star.
So when my dad died on that cold April day, scheduled to fly a banner over the Boston Marathon, I reacted the way any developing six-year-old would—I was angry. I hated my dad for not saving himself, and I didn’t listen to Tom Petty for a long time. I struggled with anger and outbursts into my teenage years.
I’m incredibly proud that I was essentially raised by women.
My mom is the most important person in my life, fiercely compassionate, hard-working, and authentic. My sister is a rebel, a lightning rod of humor, and the most supportive person and confidant in my life. My grandmother and aunt were there when my mom was working two jobs while also finishing her doctorate, taking me to my baseball games, and sharing formative experiences together.
I am the songwriter and human I am because of these women.
But as a young, angry boy who had lost his hero, I needed a consistent and positive male figure in my life. I was bullied, felt alien among my male peers, and learned to put on a mask and feign belonging just to survive.
Consistent male figures continued to elude me, so I found myself returning to Petty when I was 14. I latched onto him as my father figure, learning everything I know about being a songwriter, an artist, and a man from him—I couldn’t have chosen a better model.
He wrote about love, loss, and life in a more compassionate and vulnerable way than any of his male peers. His female characters were built on strength, depth, and equality—not sex objects or sirens. He stood up to the record industry because he valued his own integrity and authenticity above all else. He was open about his mental health and drug abuse after his divorce in his late 40s.
My mom and I went to 10 Petty concerts together, bonding over our shared interpretation of Petty songs coming on the radio as signs from my dad.
We even won front row tickets to one of his concerts, and whenever either of us were in need of reassurance to keep moving through adversity, a Petty song and a 714 (the number on my dad’s prized yellow biplane) would appear. The connection between the two is quite simply stranger than fiction.
At every show, I had the same thought looking up from the crowd: “That’s my dad right there.”
When Tom died tragically in 2017, I spiraled.
I not only lost my other hero and the most consistent male figure in my life but I was forced to relive the death of my own father as an adult. But because of Tom’s influence coupled with the incredible values the amazing women in my life had instilled in me, I didn’t react violently like I did when I was six.
I cried. I spoke openly to those close to me about my struggles. I eventually sought therapy. And I wrote music. Good music.
Most children who lose a parent at a young age romanticize that parent. But unequivocally, my dad was larger than life: a father figure to dozens, the smartest man I ever knew, and a natural-born leader who built a community at that airport.
That community shattered after his death, with everyone eventually going their separate ways.
I’m still in contact with some of his old friends, who are the sources for the above quotes, repeated every time we catch up on the phone. But the one quote I hear from each of them now that I’ve been releasing music is, “Man, your dad would have loved your music.”
My mom had a vision shortly after Petty died.
Clear as day, she saw my dad and Tom together in the afterlife. Both with their blonde hair and confident, all-knowing Florida grins on their faces. Tom getting into a small airplane that my dad was ready to pilot—she said they seemed like soul brothers. And I believe it.
Because ever since that April day, our lives have been intertwined, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them, and I’m grateful that I am the brand of masculinity that I am because of them. And I hope wherever they’re flying to, they’ve got one of my songs blasting through the speakers, and they’re proud of the person I am because of them.
I hope to use the values from my amazing circle of women and spiritual male guides to inspire other young boys who grow up without fathers to choose vulnerability, authenticity, and passion over the traditional themes of toxic masculinity like anger, repression, and destructive communication.
Because I now love the person I am, not despite all the adversity I’ve faced, but because of it—and we as a society can change the course of the future by encouraging positive masculinity.
In the strangest twist of fate, without my foreknowledge, I woke up on June 26, 2020, the release day of my critically acclaimed debut LP “The Past (Romanticized)” to see that a new Tom Petty single had been released to kick off the “Wildflowers and All the Rest” box set era.
And I cried, thankful to the universe for allowing me to share a release date with Tom f*cking Petty. The universe does indeed work in mysterious ways.
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