“I’ll be your bleeding heart.
I’ll be your crying fool.
Don’t let this go too far.
Don’t let it get to you.”
I grew up hearing Tom Petty on my local classic rock station. Like most classic rock stations, they only played the biggest of big hits. I remember feeling like Tom Petty was closer to .38 Special than Paul Simon. As we know, 16-year-old boys are extremely acute thinkers, who possess a deep well of understanding, maturity, emotional literacy, and spiritual veracity. But in this one specific case, it turns out that my 16-year-old self was immature enough to understand just how good Tom Petty truly was.
As my high school days came to an end and we were days away from heading off to college, Colter Longshore and I had just gotten done eating some BBQ and “Free Falling” came on the radio. Feelings of sentimentality, my first taste of nostalgia, and the bitter-sweet moments before leaving home for the first time took over, and Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers came through the raggedy speakers of Colter’s ‘88 GMC Jimmy. The tune had to compete with the Flowmaster exhaust, the buzz of off-road tires, and an Alabama summer necessitating open windows, but it hit. After all the countless times hearing “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, “Refugee”, “The Waiting”, “American Girl”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “Wildflowers”, “I Won’t Back Down”, and “Honeybee” (damn he had some hits), this time I got it. I knew who he was and what the whole thing was about. From that moment forward, I spent countless hours making up for lost time. Digging into everything Tom Petty has ever been a part of, from Mudcrutch to King of the Hill.
It’s difficult for a band/artist to have one hit and maintain a career for ten years, but four decades with multiple hits in every one — that’s nearly impossible. Whether with the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, Solo, or a cartoon voice over, Petty stayed putting out hits. Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings, Tom Petty is objectively one of the most successful songwriters/performers of all time.
I can’t exactly explain what it is about Petty that feels so good to me. I know, I know, I’m the writer here. It’s kinda my job to put those feelings to the page, but for some reason, I find myself not really wanting to. I want to talk about it, but it feels wrong to try to explain it. There’s an honesty and friendly approachability to Petty and his work that I don’t care to understand — I just believe in it. The songs make you believe there is an innate, blanket, capital “T” Truth that surrounded the guy and everything he touched. That Truth is felt when the church-esq, call-and-answer part hits from the 2006 live recording from Bonaroo of “Learning to fly.” I don’t think everything he did was great. After a 40-year career that’s impossible, but even the stinkers are endearing and sincere. Songs like “It’s Rainin’ Again” and “Zombie Zoo” are goofy at best. They’re repetitive and not overly clever, but who really cares? They still feel like they were sung through smiling lips — and that works for me.
I guess I see myself in so many of his tunes (reckon most of us probably do). There’s something about looking too deeply into them that feels akin to trying to scientifically prove one’s love for another person. Petty’s soaring pop hits and more contemplative deep cuts, like the first cool day after a long, hot summer, demand to simply be felt.
“Free Fallin” really starts to hit its stride when sung poorly on a front porch by your uncle and his shitty acoustic guitar. You’re freshly 16, and you and the buddies have been riding around in someone’s mom’s 1994 Accord all night. It’s late on a Tuesday, but “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” comes on the radio, and without thinking, you understand that this particular moment is why this song was written. Y’all know finishing it means y’all gonna be late. An unspoken consensus is reached and you turn the radio all the way up. “It’s Good to be King” demands your attention when that guitar solo hits. No power in Heaven or Earth can stop your face from scrunching up from the sheer tastiness of it. “Southern Accents” fully crystallizes into its final and most perfect form when attempting the risky game of emotional Russian Roulette, giving up completely to the tidal pull of nostalgia. You try to only dip your toes in, but get violently pulled out to sea. You start driving through your home town that you’ve been away from for too long. And even though everything, including you, has changed, you still get the slightest feeling that you’re home.
Tom Petty had a way of using simple melodies, rhythms, textures, lyrics, singing, guitar playing, and yes his goofy, North-Florida accent to bury himself throughout the small moments in life that might otherwise have been forgotten. I wish I had the chance to tell him how much he meant to a guy he never met. It’s been almost three years now and I’m still sad that he’s gone and I never got to thank him.
Better late than never, I guess. Thanks, Tom. You gave us more than you know.
“You know I thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment everything was alright? If for just one moment in time everything was alright. I wanna give you that moment.’” – Tom Petty