Two heartbreaks

The legacy of two careers cut short

Ellis Giacomelli, Science and International Editor

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After 15 years without Howie Epstein and nearly five months without Tom Petty, I have been thinking about my dad sharing his love of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with me. Growing up, I must have heard songs from the group’s “Into the Great Wide Open” album hundreds of times and “Highway Companion,” Tom Petty’s 2006 solo album, hundreds more.

Music has always been a part of my relationship with my dad. We say few things, but we understand each other and could sing along to songs we love forever. The music of the Heartbreakers is timeless and will always bring a smile to my face, but because of its role in my relationship with my father, that music means so much more.

So, I remember the music and what it has meant to me — to honor Epstein, Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The group’s sound is relaxed and cool while still being energized. The uniqueness of their style has best been described by Eric Harvey, Pitchfork music magazine contributor.

“Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made music that still befuddles critics: they were too chill to be punk, and too famous to be underdogs,” Harvey wrote for Pitchfork in October. “Petty was too unassuming a superstar to be Springsteen, and though he was equally gnomic and cantankerous, he was far too lyrically judicious to be Dylan.”

The artistry of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has been meaningful to the American music industry, but, perhaps more importantly, Petty’s early administrative determination earned him eternal respect and gratitude from the industry.

Petty operated as both artist and businessman, was outspoken about creative property rights and fought for publishing royalties, especially in the 1970s as the band worked to release its third album, “Damn the Torpedoes.”

As Petty and the Heartbreakers — which originally included Petty, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch and Ron Blair — grew to prominence, Epstein began to serve as the group’s bassist in the 1980s, replacing Blair.

But Blair returned to play in 2002 when Epstein’s heroin addiction had pulled him away from the Heartbreakers. It eventually killed him in 2003.

Following Epstein’s death, Petty and the Heartbreakers often responded to the loss of their friend and fellow Heartbreaker with condolences and admissions of awareness about Epstein’s drug abuse.   

“It’s like you got a tree dying in the backyard,” Petty wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine. “And you’re kind of used to the idea that it’s dying, but you look out there one day and they cut it down. And you just can’t imagine that beautiful tree isn’t there anymore.”

By 2010, the Heartbreakers had released a song addressing the loss of Epstein. “Running Man’s Bible,” from the 2010 album “Mojo,” features the lines, “It was not in my vision, It was not in my mind, to return from a mission, a man left behind.”

I was too young in 2003 to know anything about Howie Epstein’s talent, heroin addiction and Feb. 23 death due to overdose complications. I can now recognize the loss as devastating, and news of Petty’s death in October evoked a new, inexplicable sadness. That sadness deepened in January when Petty’s wife, Dana, and daughter, Adria, released a statement about the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office report.

Petty’s cause of death was an accidental drug overdose on Oct. 2, according to the family’s statement posted to the Tom Petty website and Facebook page.

“As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives,” the statement reads. “On a positive note we now know for certain he went painlessly and beautifully exhausted after doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans on the biggest tour of his 40 plus year career.”

The family also stated Petty had been managing pain from knee problems and a fractured hip with the prescription medications on which he overdosed, including Fentanyl patches, a type of opioid.

We often describe increasing opioid-related deaths as the opioid “epidemic” or “crisis,” but we cannot forget the weight those words carry.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in 2016 titled, “Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000-2014,” which demonstrates the appropriateness of the terms “epidemic” and “crisis.”   

“In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths, or 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths; the rate of opioid overdoses has tripled since 2000,” the study reads in part.

Despite such reports, Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration of a 90-day opioid disaster emergency in Pennsylvania in January and President Donald Trump’s declaration of an opioid public health emergency in October, no additional funding has been allocated by the Pennsylvania state or federal government to handle the emergencies.

Epstein and Petty, along with too many of our friends, colleagues and neighbors have died because of inaction hidden behind sympathetic words and “emergency” declarations.

Perhaps by 2020, the CDC will publish another study describing how the rate of opioid overdoses has quadrupled, and state and federal administrators will at least begin to remember the meaning of “emergency” and develop budgets that reflect such declarations.

The deaths of Epstein and Petty are no more tragic than any other drug-related death, but because of their fame, Epstein and Petty serve as national symbols of the crisis and could — as Petty’s family said — “save lives.”

I looked forward to hearing more from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which had evolved to include Petty, Tench, Campbell, Blair, Scott Thurston and Steve Ferrone until Petty’s death.

But now their songs will be set to repeat hundreds of times more. I will smile every time I hear the song, “Learning to Fly,” or think about the funny name of Petty’s first major group — Mudcrutch — or Petty’s time with the Traveling Wilburys — the supergroup of Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. All of my dad’s favorites.

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