Mark Aviles, from Northridge, has been a Tom Petty fan since the 1970s. Justin Emord, from Sherman Oaks, celebrated his 30th birthday a few weeks ago watching Petty play at the Hollywood Bowl, in what would be the superstar's final show. Erik Szabo, of Woodland Hills, looks eerily familiar to the late singer and fronts the tribute band Petty or Not. Jennifer Knoll, from Fullerton, is a music therapist who uses Petty's music with her clients.
The four strangers — Aviles and Knoll exchanged first names with each other at the start of our interview — had just finished jamming out Petty's hits on the steps of the Sherman Oaks Galleria with a few other musicians who had drifted into the slowly dissipating crowd.
On Thursday, Oct. 19, the Tom Petty Memorial Vampire Walk took place along Ventura Boulevard. What was intended to be an evening stroll for a handful of friends turned into a large gathering of Tom Petty fans that culminated in a spontaneous sing-along.
Mary Soracco, a jewelry artist who grew up in Northridge and now lives in Sunland, organized the walk and was inspired by the San Fernando Valley references in Petty's song "Free Fallin’" — specifically the lyric, "And all the vampires walking through the Valley/Move west down Ventura Boulevard."
"Growing up here, you feel a kinship to that whole song and feel a little bit special because of it," she says. Still, she only expected "10 or 15" people to join in the walk. In the end, the crowd grew so large that segments of it would have to cross the street in shifts when the walk signs blinked.
It's easy to see why people latched onto this event. Like Soracco, I grew up in Northridge and, since first hearing "Free Fallin’" at the end of the ’80s, felt a connection to the song that grew over time. About two years after the song's release, I became one of those vampires on Ventura Boulevard, dressed in black and hopping from one weirdo hangout to the next with my friends. Most of the old haunts are long gone now, but I thought of them when I saw an invite for the event pop up on my Facebook feed and decided that I had to go to the Vampire Walk.
It took more than social media to bring out this crowd, though. Unexpectedly, Soracco received a call from the Los Angeles Daily News, who ran a preview story on the event, and other outlets picked up on it. The Facebook invite swelled with responses and, by the time the crowd began gathering on Thursday evening, the press was there, too. When Soracco gave her opening remarks before the walk, she mentioned that this could become an annual event.
The mass of people included the goths that you might expect for a "vampire walk," mixed with folks decked out in Tom Petty shirts and children in Halloween outfits. There were capes and top hats, even some fangs. It all spoke to the influence of Petty himself, a singer whose work brought together generations, as he first broke out in the ’70s and moved through the MTV years, gaining fans and continuing to perform live until right before his death earlier this month. Now, on the evening before what would have been his 67th birthday, the fans were ready to walk in his honor.
It was the sort of night that makes you proud to be from Los Angeles. As the Dodgers were in Chicago making their way toward the World Series, this eclectic group of music lovers were paying tribute to someone who didn't just live in the area but sang about it.
Earlier in the evening, I met Erik Koral, also known as Erika Simone from Driving Is a Drag. "Tom Petty's songs are the only songs out there I feel truly capture what L.A. is all about," Koral says. "They all have a special feel. I can't be on Mulholland Drive or cruising through Reseda ... without humming Tom Petty."
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Later on, Emord would echo those sentiments, recalling how he would get excited as he heard the street names in "Free Fallin’" when he was a child. "That made him and his music a lot more real to me," he says, "that I was driving down the street in the Tom Petty song."
We headed north on Sepulveda, down a side street, and then back toward Ventura Boulevard. At the corner of Noble and Ventura, the musicians led the crowd in a sing-along of "Free Fallin’," prompting us to walk west on our return trip to the Galleria.
Folks sang and played music down the street as cars honked and onlookers pulled out their cellphones. Walkers talked about their memories of Petty, and some appeared to be broadcasting live on social media. By the time we landed back at our starting point, the crowd nearly overflowed through the entrance of the shopping center. The musicians played one Petty hit after the next — "American Girl," "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Breakdown" among them — as the crowd joined in song.
"It's a chance to express what we feel," says Knoll, the music therapist, about the sing-along, "[about] what Tom Petty has meant to our lives."