Back in the day when I was a young, rebellious teenager, I would wait anxiously, hoping that my favorite song would come on the radio before I went to that horrid place called High School, “where the teachers that taught me weren’t cool…holding me down…turning me ‘round…filling me up with their rules,” The Beatles.

The song that I was waiting and praying to come on the radio was the classic, “American Pie” by Don McLean: A seven-minute eulogy to the late Buddy Holly, who, along with Richie Vallens and The Big Bopper, died tragically in a plane crash back in 1959.

Drinking from a bottle of Gordon’s Gin, I was not only risking being late for school, but also having my parents catching me as I was drinking from that bottle of gin. The punishment would be severe: A loss of my allowance, pleads to the Almighty for guidance, the never ending question, “What have we done wrong to deserve this?” And, of course, no outdoor privileges, which would have been devastating because I was addicted to basketball and the courts that were right outside our apartment in Parkchester.

Yes, “I was a rebel without a clue,” as Tom Petty sang in one of his famous songs. The power of music is a scientific fact. It can change a frown into a smile and make an average movie such as “Ghost” into a giant box office hit…thanks to the song, Unchained Melody, written by Alex North and Hy Zaret and sung in the movie by Todd Duncan … but originally made famous by the Righteous Brothers.

The recent deaths of musical icons such as, David Bowie, Lou Reeds, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and the recent and tragic death of Tom Petty make one reflect even more on the power and inspiration of this greatest of all art forms.

The morning after the murder of John Lennon, I was sitting in the study lounge in my college dormitory cramming for a final’s test later that morning. I don’t recall the test I was studying for, but I remember quite clearly the words of a middle age black lady who used to clean the building. Previously, I had only said ‘hello’ to her throughout the rare times I saw her. She started before dawn and unless I was up from the night before still partying, I did not wake up before dawn.

She entered the lounge with her bag of supplies and immediately started cleaning. Unaware that I was in the lounge, she turned on a small transistor radio that was naturally playing Beatles’ music.

Finally, when she did notice me she went to shut off the radio and I insisted she keep it on. She looked at me and remarked, “Can you believe someone killed that young man? He made such beautiful music, I don’t understand. I love his music.”

I looked at her as tears swelled in her eyes and travelled, unchecked, down her cheeks. We talked for a few minutes and discussed out favorite Beatle songs. She went back to work as I laid my head against the wall behind my chair and listened to “Norwegian Wood” and “Girl” from the Rubber Soul Album. I remembered the first time I heard both songs and the euphoric feeling the music generated inside me. It was sublime. That morning, it was a dismal reminder of the senseless violence that existed in our society.

Music has existed, in some form or another, since the beginning of time. It is mentioned throughout the Bible, allured to throughout Greek and Roman mythology, and antiquated musical instruments have been found dating back ten thousand years.

It is the only art form that can be found in all other art forms. In Literature, Joyce’s “Ulysses” has an unmistakable musical cadence that runs throughout the novel… a result that Joyce said he was hoping to produce. The same can be said for Hemingway’s masterpiece, “The Sun Also Rises,” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Lord Byron’s epic poem, “Don Juan” is an astonishing, lyrical work of art that could just as easily be sung as recited.

In galleries and museums throughout the world, the paintings and sculptures of artists as diverse and brilliant as di Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Picasso reflect, in nearly every stroke, the influence of music.

Soldiers have marched into battle accompanied by musicians. Ball players enter games as Queen’s song “We Are The Champions” blasts from arena speakers, and I remember shooting alone on the basketball court outside our apartment in Parkchester listening, on my portable radio, to “Silly Love Songs” whose upbeat sound made me believe that with enough practice I might one day be the next Walt Frazier playing for my beloved New York Knicks.

Tom Petty, as much as The Beach Boys, The Eagles, and The Mama And Papas, symbolized the California experience. His lyrics were as strong and powerful as the lyrics of such legends as Billy Joel, Elton John, Bob Seger and Bob Dylan. He played with the greatest rock and rollers of his time, Eric Clapton, Prince, George Harrison, Dylan and McCartney and he always shined like the brightest of all stars.

He fought the record companies and insisted that his albums were never overpriced. He never forgot his humble roots growing up in Florida and he never wanted working class people shut off from his music because of greedy record executives.

Tom Petty died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of sixty-six. I remember driving down Ventura Boulevard thousands of times in the thirty-one years I lived in beautiful Southern California. Today, I could never think about Ventura Boulevard without Mr. Petty’s lyrics from the song Free Fallin’ ringing loudly in my ears:

All the vampires, walking through the valley
Move west down Ventura Boulevard
All the bad boys, standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts

One of the famous lyrics from the song American Pie is “And the day the music died” but in truth the music never dies. I realized that back when I was talking to the cleaning lady, as tears swelled in her eyes, and the Beatles music played nonstop on her small transistor radio.

On the day Mr. Petty died, his music played continuously on all the rock and roll stations across our great country. And I will never stroll down Ventura Boulevard without seeing the shadows of vampires walking alongside me. Rest in Peace, Tom Petty.

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