When I heard that Tom Petty died, my initial reaction was alarm. Frankly, I was worried about my father, who loved Petty’s music dearly, and for whom, generationally speaking, Petty was a peer. Now I obviously knew that my father was not going to be debilitated, or even heartbroken, by the news. But I also know there’s something uniquely poignant when an artist whose work has accompanied you consistently, whose career arc, temporally, has tracked your own arc of adult life, passes away. It’s a sobering reminder that the end of the road is closer than the beginning.
But then I started thinking about my own relationship with Petty’s music. Some of the first songs I remember hearing in my life are Tom Petty songs. My father would take me to basketball games, playing the Full Moon Fever album constantly. I remember one of the only times I was allowed to use the word “hell,” as a first-grader, was when singing the lyrics, “you can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
And for a while, the music primarily just conjured happy memories with my father and the rest of my family, memories of childhood car rides and paternal advice-giving.
Eventually, though, as a result of my own accumulated life experience, Tom Petty’s music became more than just my father’s music. It became my music, too. It’s hard to tell when or why this happened, but I think it began during an undergraduate break-up, when “Don’t Come Around Here No More” became epiphanic. It distilled every thought I had into one line. And I listened to it over and over and over again.
I began to listen to “Time to Move On” any time I made a dramatic change in my life. If I graduated college or graduate school. If I moved away. If I left something behind. It propelled me forward in the directions I knew I needed to go.
It’s hard to put your finger on the brilliance of Tom Petty, but I think it’s about his ability to distill an entire world of emotion into a simple, unadorned line. Almost like a mantra.
People often say that Hemingway packed more meaning into fewer words than almost all other writers.
Tom Petty is cut from the same cloth.
We don’t think of him the way we think of Bob Dylan, as a poetic explorer who blew our minds with virtuosic lyrical performances, nor do we think of him the way we think of Bruce Springsteen, as a sort of rock ’n’ roll John Steinbeck. He was not an avant-garde chameleon like David Bowie, nor was he a limitlessly talented provocateur like Prince. He was not the apotheosis of cool like Lou Reed.
His genius was something different.
Steven Hyden wrote a great article about Petty in 2014 for Grantland, in which he describes the magic of Tom Petty as his “ability to write really simple songs that seem OK the first time you hear them and incredible after the 100th time.” And I think this is pretty spot on.
In that same vein, my best friend and I used to joke that Petty was the most truthful songwriter of all time. Everything he said seemed patently, enduringly true. There was not a hint of dissemblance or falsity or manipulation in any song Petty every wrote. He gave it to you straight. Every time.
“Learning to Fly” is one of my all-time favorite Tom Petty songs. Much like the film, The Great Escape, it’s one of those simple, yet astonishing metaphors for life. The chorus is classic Petty. Simple and straightforward. But so deeply true you feel it in your nerve endings:
“I’m learning to fly,
But I ain’t got wings.
Is the hardest thing.”
The human condition is exactly that. It’s like learning to fly without wings. Learning to find meaning despite impermanence. Coming down, giving up your illusions, embracing this impermanence, is the hardest thing. These are lessons we learn, unlearn, and re-learn throughout our lives.
In the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Petty starts the chorus by singing “let’s get to the point.” And that’s the quintessential thing about Tom Petty. He always got straight to the point. His whole oeuvre is straight to the point, and we listen to him, turn to him, and rely on him when we want someone to get straight to the point, when, heartbroken, we just want to tell a former lover, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” when we look a difficult situation in the face and say we “Won’t Back Down,” when, knocked on our backs, we want to believe that “Even the Losers” get lucky sometimes, or when we just want to forget about everything else in the world because, hey, “Here Comes My Girl.”
Rest in peace, Tom. Thanks for the music.