The Hardest Part by Ryan Peckinpaugh
Growing up in the 90s, I had to listen to some shitty music. At the time I didn’t necessarily think the music was so bad, but then again, hindsight. Recently, I found a box of CDs in my childhood bedroom. Among them included Creed’s “Human Clay,” Nickleback’s “Silver Side Up,” Lifehouse’s “No Name Face,” “NOW 6,” and a CD called “Everything You Want” by a band called Vertical Horizon (yes, I actually spent money on this). Needless to say, they all went back in the box.
When I was a kid this was the music readily available to me. I enjoyed the pop of Third Eye Blind, the cheese of Smashmouth, and the incessant catchiness of the Goo Goo Dolls. Even today, when browsing a random 90s Pandora channel, this music still induces fits of nostalgia. But it doesn’t mean it was good.
I’m very aware that there was good music in the 90s. However, where I grew up, the station I listened to (Y-102) didn’t play it. Instead of Radiohead, they played the Backstreet Boys. Instead of Weezer, they played Everclear. Instead of Foo Fighters, they played Hanson. To put this into perspective, the DJ of Y-102 once appropriately chastised me off the air for calling three days in a row to request “Fly” by Sugar Ray.
As one would expect, I didn’t really have a song or an album or a band to latch onto. Even with the CDs I owned, I really only listened to the tracks that were popular on the radio. In the 90s it was much more common for a band’s hit single to be the only palatable song on the album—something I have dubbed the “Chumbawamba anomaly”. This led to a lot of ill-advised purchases, such as investing in Lou Bega’s album “A Little Bit of Mambo” solely to listen to “Mambo No. 5” (unsurprisingly, the rest of the album is cancer of the ears).
This was my music experience from elementary through middle school. By high school, I couldn’t stand contemporary music. Thankfully, I had a little sister to constantly remind me how much I hated Good Charlotte and the All-American Rejects and Evanescence, etc.
I changed school districts from middle to high school, so I had the ability to start over. I didn’t have to be the chunky kid who rocked Payless shoes and the best clothing Factory 2U could offer. I had the real chance to begin anew. My mother knew how difficult this would be for me, so she offered to spend some real money on some good clothes for my first semester. Unfortunately, clothing styles between the two districts didn’t exactly overlap in popularity. The standard of “cool attire” at my district in middle school either never made it over to the other district, or they’d already moved on from this unfortunate trend. I didn’t make a great case for re-invention when I showed up wearing an Allen Iverson Sixers jersey, yellow Dickies pants, and Etnies skater shoes. I spent the first week eating lunch in the portable bathrooms.
Making friends was tough, but luckily I was given some semblance of a sense of humor and a moderately outgoing personality. Through this, I was able to make a couple of acquaintances. They weren’t exactly friends, but I didn’t have to eat lunch while having to intermittently wait for the sound of a piss stream to stop pummeling a urinal cake anymore. What was difficult, though, was maintaining conversation. I entered high school without a musical identity. My interests at the time were baseball and movies (admittedly, these are still my core interests). But music taste was important at this new school. Over half the students repped band t-shirts (I owned none) and headphones frequently protruded through backpacks where Walkmen were stashed. When music became the topic of discussion, as often was the case, I had to appear engaged without actually being able to contribute.
I was facing a pretty harsh reality:I didn’t like music.
Who the hell says that? It’s like saying you don’t like food. It couldn’t possibly be true. But I didn’t like it. The music I liked in elementary and middle school was no longer cool—so I couldn’t like that. The trendy music of the time I felt was so bitchy and whiny I couldn’t even feign interest. And anything preceding my birth was ’old people music’. I was stuck in a music-less world with people who seemed to judge character on musical tastes alone.
Then I met Dorian.
Dorian wasn’t a conventional high schooler. He didn’t fit into any clique. He didn’t play sports. He wasn’t part of any extracurricular activities. And his style didn’t really conform to any set high school law. He was invisible at the school, but not the way that I was. I was just the unnoticeable new kid, but Dorian was invisible because he didn’t yield to any popular trend or posse. He had already achieved individuality and confidence—something teenagers usually discover in their third year of college.
He loved Friends, after it was cool to love the show. He quoted Wayne’s World a decade after everyone had already forgotten about it. His house parties consisted of pizza and Coca-Cola, when everyone else was playing beer pong. And most of the time his attire consisted of a faded pair of jeans, cowboy boots, and a band t-shirt representing a favorite band of his or a souvenir from a concert he’d been to.
His shirts ranged from AC/DC, to The Rolling Stones, to Def Leppard, to Ozzy Osborne, to Led Zeppelin, among several others. Half the shirts he owned were of bands I didn’t know, and the other half I related to music my dad listened to.
After several weeks in class (an acting class we both publicly detested, but privately loved), Dorian and I became friends. We’d eat lunch together (outside the portable toilets) or loan DVDs to one another or hang out after school until that fateful day that I was deemed worthy of an invitation to his house.
I’m not sure I ever saw the inside of his home because Dorian spent most of his time in a detached garage, about ten yards from the house, that he turned into his own chateau of testosterone. It was everything a young pubescent male could dream of. He had his own pool table, a dart board, a TV, a leather recliner, a sound system, and eventually, just outside, his own built-in Jacuzzi. As fascinating as the garage was, it was the décor that caught my eye.
The walls were nearly all music-themed. He had posters of his favorite bands next to vinyl record album covers peppered all over the walls. Finally I was ready to start the conversation, and asked him about his taste in music.
He talked to me for hours about classic rock. Like me, he couldn’t stand modern music, but only because it couldn’t match the sound and quality of classic rock. No guitarists could shred like than Eddie Van Halen. No drummers could attack the kit like John Bonham. No songwriters that could match the poetry of David Bowie. No group had the showmanship of KISS. He spoke with such enthusiasm; it didn’t take much to convince me to look into this music of olde.
He made me a list of the bands I needed to check out. I went to a (now extinct) music store called the Warehouse and rummaged through bins upon bins of used CDs searching for bands on my list. It didn’t matter which albums they had, I hadn’t heard any of them. As long as they were cheap, all were fair game.
After an hour, I had a basket of CDs, all under $6.99. I left that day with Black Sabbath’s “Greatest Hits,” AC/DC’s “T.N.T.,” Def Leppard’s “Hysteria,” Van Halen’s “1984,” Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic,” Led Zeppelin’s “IV” (untitled, or “ZOSO” depending on who you ask), Foreigner’s “4,” Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “Pack Up The Plantation” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just walked out with a CD that would change the way I looked at music forever.
I began listening to the albums. I started with Aerosmith because they were still somewhat relevant and I was familiar with a few of their songs. My father was overjoyed that I now possessed music he’d listened to in high school. He advised me that I should never blast this music in my car, in fear that I would blow out my speakers (or eardrums), but if I ever felt the need to do so, I was allowed to blast Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” as loud as I wanted (something he’d done in his own car in high school).
I listened to three or four more albums before I got to Tom Petty. I inserted the disc and immediately heard a crowd roar as “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star” began to play. I hadn’t realized I bought a live album, something I tried to shy away from. I’d never been to a concert at that point, and always thought the live versions of songs never sounded as crisp as the studio versions. I nearly turned off the CD, but I didn’t have another Tom Petty album to replace it with and decided to give it a chance.
The second song, “Needles and Pins”, a duet with Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, didn’t hit as hard as the first song, so I gave it the standard thirty seconds we all do when judging a song, and skipped ahead. This is when everything changed. “The Waiting” is the third track on “Pack Up The Plantation” and it was everything.
It begins quite slow—not the same tempo for those familiar with the studio track from the “Hard Promises” album. Enter Tom Petty, solo, strumming a 12-string electric guitar. He begins to sing—the performance is quieter and more subdued than the studio version. He slowly builds using only the guitar, his voice and the intermittent claps of the crowd. As he commands the crowd, he builds the song up louder and louder. Then, Mike Campbell launches in with his guitar. Stan Lynch bursts through on the drums. Benmont Tench on keyboard and Howie Epstein on bass follow suit until finally, the song explodes into a fury of some of the best live classic rock I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t just music, it was poetry.
I must’ve listened to “The Waiting” fifty more times before moving on to the next track. By the time I hit “American Girl” I had a new favorite band.
I returned to school the following day and raved to Dorian about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. How had I never heard of them? Sure, I’d heard “Free Fallin” a few times before, but didn’t love it enough to pursue any further research. As soon as I could get another ride to The Warehouse, I purchased four more Petty albums: “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Full Moon Fever,” “Into the Great Wide Open,”and of course, the Greatest Hits.
While I was still beginning my adventure into the world of classic rock, not only was I able to appreciate music again, but I’d found a band, and a songwriter, who spoke to me personally. As strange as it sounds, a lyric as simple as “the waiting is the hardest part…” rang true. His songs were lively and ranged from electrifying, to poignant, to intimate, to, well, heartbreaking. I became obsessed with many, many Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ songs, but none as much as “The Waiting”.
Junior year of high school, I attended my first concert. Dorian and I (and a few friends) saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Hyundai Pavilion in San Bernardino. From our lawn seats we could barely make out the stage, but I was able to hear them live and truly understand the remarkable experience of listening to my favorite band right in front of (or a great distance away from) my eyes. I purchased my first Tom Petty band t-shirt as a souvenir, a tradition I also learned from Dorian, and one I continue to this day with every show I attend.
Over the next fourteen years, a beautiful love affair blossomed with a band I still truly deem my favorite. I purchased a record player at the Goodwill and spent several years locating all of Tom Petty’s albums on vinyl. In college, the album covers created a mural on my dorm room wall. I bought a $25 guitar from a friend and made him teach me how to play “The Waiting” (along with several other Petty songs). I’d see Tom Petty in concert at least a dozen more times and collect a dozen more shirts commemorating each event.
June of this year, 2017, was the last time I saw Tom Petty perform. He headlined at the Arroyo Seco Weekend music festival. Once again, I went with Dorian. We had no interest in any other band performing, but the price of admission was worth Petty alone. We arrived early and staked out a spot close to the stage. As a poor high school/college student, I’d always imagined a day I’d be able to afford being right next to the stage, but never had the money to get very close. With each concert I attended, each ticket I bought was a bit more expensive than the last, inching me closer to the stage with every performance. The Arroyo Seco show got us within five to six rows of people from the front. If Tom Petty had been wearing a watch, I’d have been able to read the time.
He played for nearly three hours and it was one of the best shows we’d ever seen him/the band play. He played all the classics, even some I’d never heard live before (thank the Lord baby Jesus I got to hear him play “Wildflowers”). He was as youthful and magnetic as I’d ever heard him and the show left a lasting impression on us. As we headed toward the exits after the show to purchase our t-shirts, we had no idea this would be the last Tom Petty concert we’d ever attend. Since 2005, for me, the sure things in life were death, taxes, and getting to see Tom Petty shows every other year for the rest of my life. This tragically ended on October 2, 2017.
The first time I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a band that finally taught me to love music, Dorian was with me. So, it’s fitting that it was he and I were together for the last one.
But I never got to see him perform “The Waiting”. I’ve seen him play “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin Down a Dream” every time. I’ve seen him close with “American Girl” every time. I’ve seen him play new songs, and Traveling Wilburys songs, and Animals covers, but in the dozen or so concerts I’ve attended they never performed “The Waiting.” And even though I never get to now, I’m still satisfied. My first experience with Tom Petty was listening to the live version in my car on repeat. So, while I never got to see them do it in person… I’ll always have the memory of hearing it live.
About the Author:
Ryan Peckinpaugh is a stand-up comic and budding screenwriter living in Pasadena,CA. You should follow his movie blog at bigpeckcineflex.blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Facebook or Instagram.