Category Archives: Obituary

Reflections on the lives of noteworthy persons.

Tom Petty, 1950–2017

Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 3, 2017 | waynekspear.com

When Tom Petty arrived forty years ago I was ready. I first got into music during that delicious interval when British rock was still king but when its chief rivals—punk, post-punk, and new wave—were charging the palace gate. It was the 1970s and Rock-n-Roll having crossed the Atlantic over a decade before was now crossing back. Early Tom Petty was punk around the edges but you could discern the influence of rock, blues, and country. He had Joe Strummer’s breadth of musical vocabulary and the on-stage confidence of an overnight sensation ten years in the making.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977. His “Flying V” guitar is featured in the band’s logo.

American Girl wasn’t a song, it was a drug, and no normal teenager could resist it. When you heard that opening D-major open chord you had to know Who is this? Simple and infectious, it showed Petty’s genius for pop hooks and story-telling. Breakdown and American Girl were followed by the 1978 hit I Need to Know, but it wasn’t until Damn the Torpedoes that Petty’s song-writing talents were fully materialized. The album is even more impressive when you consider its circumstances. Recorded while Petty was at war with his record label over publishing rights, the reel-to-reel tapes of Damn the Torpedoes were secretly shuttled by engineers into the recording sessions and then shuttled out at end-of-day to avoid seizure. The Tom Petty who recorded Refugee knew from personal experience that “everybody has to fight to be free.” He had bankrupted himself and risked everything to do so.

Tom Petty’s victory over MCA would be repeated with the next album, Hard Promises. MCA wanted it to retail for $9.98 but Petty was adamant that it should sell at the standard price, which at the time was $8.98. He refused to give the label Hard Promises just as he had refused to give it Damn the Torpedoes. When I rode my bicycle the 30 kilometres to Niagara Falls to buy the new record, I paid the Tom Petty price. Throughout the 1980s Petty released hit after hit, closing out the decade with another simple and infectious tune based on a jangly D-major open chord, Free Fallin. He played an early version of this song at Bob Dylan’s studio, where he had been spending time with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. Eventually this association would lead to the short-lived project, Traveling Wilburys.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers traversed genres and generations. The Beatles convinced Petty that “I could do this, too” and Petty likewise inspired younger generations. My friends aged, their lives and circumstances evolved, and in many instances we drifted apart. Despite the vagaries of fortune and fashion, Tom Petty entertained and inspired, year after year and decade upon decade. For me the early years will always be the best, but Tom Petty was a reliable stage and studio artist from the late 1970s until the end. With so much else having drifted to the curb, my friends and I loved his music Back in the Day and we love it now. There isn’t a covers band that doesn’t play at least one Tom Petty song. (The band I saw this past weekend at Bloor and Jane played American Girl.) I don’t know a human being who professes dislike of Tom Petty’s music. If such a person exists, that person is taste challenged. As for the rest of us, we will always love the music of Tom Petty, and we will miss him.

Larry Loyie, 1933–2016

2014-Toronto-109

WITH CO-AUTHOR LARRY LOYIE

I learned today that my friend and co-author, Larry Loyie, is gone.

Larry’s Cree name was Young Man. It was fitting. He had a gentle, even light spirit, despite all he’d been through. Somehow he never lost touch with the character of childhood. I won’t say innocence: there was little of that for children like Larry. In residential school, he dreamed of being an author, but his education at St. Bernard Mission was cold and meagre. He was in his 50s when he went back to school to fulfill his life’s purpose. And fulfill it he did.

Larry developed a simple yet powerful voice. He had an ability to communicate with readers of all ages, but especially with the young. Along with his writing partner, Constance Brissenden, he published books about his youth before and during residential school, reaching thousands of readers across Canada and beyond.

His love for his culture was with him throughout his life, as was his love for writing and for teaching the young. Gentle and honest, compassionate and warm, Larry’s work reflects the respect that he had for his readers, whatever their age. He had a few guiding principles: always tell the truth, make sure the writing is interesting, and inform the reader.

Larry was soft-spoken. He could summon a mental picture with great economy. He felt no need to hit anyone over the head with his message, and so he never did. His prose is disarmingly open, and anyone who follows him in the work of writing about residential schools is well-advised to study his example. He’s given us a wealth of books, and if you haven’t read them I encourage you to do so.

He loved baseball, and we enjoyed going to the stadium together. Connie and I would talk shop, and he’d hush us. “I’m here to watch the game,” he’d say. He’d go from funny to serious in a beat, hitting just the right note in each register. A few times I got a glimpse of the darker stuff, when he’d talk about picking potatoes and chopping firewood. He wanted so badly to read and to learn, and the residential school system denied him. To the school he was a source of cheap, forced labour, nothing more. It could be hard to reconcile this with the gentle, funny guy sitting behind home plate. Why wasn’t he angry all the time? I know survivors who are. It’s a mystery to me, and I guess it always will be a mystery.

Larry left us peacefully. He has done what he came to do. I miss him, and I’m sad he’s gone, but I know if he were here he’d have none of that. Not for Larry, the long-drawn face and the dirge. “Cheer up, young man, and keep going,” he’d say. For you, Young Man, I will. For you.