Dear Tom Petty: I emigrated to America largely because of you
I wanted to be your ‘American Girl’ far away from Belfast and bombs and bullets
Yvonne Watterson from Co Antrim now lives in Arizona: ‘I wanted to be far away from Belfast and bombs and bullets and all that was bad back then about my Northern Ireland. I just wanted to be one of your Heartbreakers.’
Following the news of American singer Tom Petty’s death on Monday night at the age of 66, superfan Yvonne Watterson, who emigrated from Northern Ireland to the US in the mid-1980s, writes this tribute from her home in Arizona to the musician best known for songs like I Won’t Back Down and American Girl.
Last Friday night, you and your Heartbreakers played the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and I was there with my boyfriend. It was his first time seeing you perform. It was special, every bit as special as I had expected, knowing you had told Rolling Stone magazine last year that you’d be lying if you didn’t say it would probably be your final tour.
And the Hollywood Bowl? A bucket list venue for me, the place that still conjures black and white Beatles taking America by storm, and then the lovely George Harrison, another Traveling Wilbury.
Although our paths never crossed, I’ve been a little bit in love with you for about 40 years - just ask any of my friends - and honestly, I’m convinced that had you met me when I was younger and could hold a tune, you might have been convinced to let me do at least one tune as a “heartbreaker”. I know Stevie Nicks is the honorary female Heartbreaker, but she had proximity on her side.
The bigger truth, Tom, is that you (as well as the miles of highway that stretch from coast to coast) are largely responsible for my emigrating from Ireland to America in the first place. Well, you and having to find work and leaving The Troubles and the rain behind.
Still, as far as this immigrant is concerned, there is nothing more American than driving down a highway with the top down and the radio up and your Free Fallin’ blaring from the radio. Just ask Tom Cruise how his Jerry Maguire is feeling as he sings along.
When I was just 15, I first saw you on The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2. I wanted to be your “American Girl” in America; I wanted to be far away from Belfast and bombs and bullets and all that was bad back then about my Northern Ireland. I just wanted to be one of your Heartbreakers.
Almost 40 years since first seeing you on our tiny TV set, I have to finally accept I will never be a heartbreaker, but I will be heartbroken as I am tonight. After an interminable day of confusing reports on Monday, it has been confirmed that you aren’t here anymore.
You have always been here with me, through the best and worst times of my adult life. I remember after my husband died, you announced your Hypnotic Eye tour with no stop in Phoenix. He loved you too but not enough to drive out of state, and I like to think he would be happy I convinced my best friend Amanda to drive to San Diego to see your opening gig.
A mere five hours away, all we needed were tickets, gasoline, a place to stay, at least three outfits, and an assurance to each other that we would be back to Phoenix the morning after to see our daughters off to school - my daughter’s first as a high school senior, and her little girl’s very first as a pre-schooler. We made it.
I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that each of us still had “beer” stamped on our hands the next morning. It was worth every ounce of inconvenience that comes to people who are notoriously bad at planning. “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Soar”, screamed the review from a San Diego newspaper the next day. I hope you read it.
Next, there was Red Rocks, Colorado. I had always wanted to go, and another dear friend had never seen you perform, so it made sense that we should take the trip. I don’t know how it was for you and your band that night, looking out at the thousands of adoring fans between those red rocks, but it was magical for me. As the sign says, there is no better place to see the stars.
I want to say so much more to you today Tom, to the family you leave behind, your fans, your band members. I want to thank you for all the things you did that were so right - like the time you apologised for using the Confederate Flag in your promotional material for your Southern Accents tour in 1985, or when you told George Bush he couldn’t use I Won’t Back Down as his campaign song.
Tom, I don’t know if you know what happened in Las Vegas just hours before you died, that a gunman shot into the crowd attending a country music festival, leaving at least 59 people dead, and injuring 527 others. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
Tom, on such a day, how can we believe something good is coming?
Rest easy, now.
Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the United States in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. She has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field where a version of this article originally appeared.