Some Thoughts on Tom Petty, RIP

 

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.

Coming down,

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.

Why Precision in Language is Important

 

The way in which we use language on an everyday basis, though not the sexiest topic, is worth some serious attention, particularly today, when it seems as though our collective vocabulary is shrinking at a particularly alarming rate.

Why should anybody care about this?

Being imprecise with language is insidious. It’s something people don’t normally spend time thinking about, and yet it has a negative cognitive effect which, on a large scale, causes very real problems that we, as a people, tend to overlook.

What do I mean by being imprecise?

Well, for an easy example, watch Donald Trump speak in any interview.

We transmute thought into language and deliver our thoughts to the world with language. It’s one thing to have an elegantly simple, yet profound thought, which you express in simple terms. In fact, there’s real beauty in this. It is entirely another thing, however, to have a thought you perfunctorily or sloppily articulate in a way that does not accurately convey the thought or, perhaps worse, conveys a different thought, or an array of different thoughts you had no intention of conveying.

This seems like splitting hairs, I know. But this kind of imprecision, collectively, does some real damage.

There are four problems I see with this, three of which are societal and extremely relevant in our current cultural milieu.

1. Flattening of Meaning

Being imprecise with language flattens meaning.

What does this mean?

This means that an imprecision can take an immensely complex situation, or a nuanced, valuable thought, and flatten it into something reductive (potentially dangerously reductive), something oversimplified, or something that is simply no longer an accurate representation.

This also leads to ignorance. When exceptionally convoluted situations are described and couched in imprecise, oversimplified terms, we remain ignorant of very real complexity, complexity which is, in fact, the reality.

For example, describing a foreign policy situation in a particular region of the world as simply “very good” or “very bad” essentially means nothing. There are a variety of different ways to articulate a complicated foreign policy situation which would, with varying degrees of success, convey the challenges, the successes, the failures, the outlook, the strategy, etc. But simply saying it’s very good or very bad robs the listener, the person to whom the words are directed, of meaningful information. Done intentionally, this is downright scary.

2. Shrinking of the Cultural Lexicon

When we’re frequently imprecise and lazy with the words we use, it becomes habit. When it becomes habit we are effectively shrinking the vocabulary with which we can convey what we think. When we limit the way we can convey thoughts in this way we limit our thoughts themselves. And this, carried out collectively, is cultural regression.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

A shrinking of the cultural lexicon, of the words we use to convey meaning, results in bigger and bigger hurdles to accessing the real, accurate, precise articulation of complex thoughts and complex situations, which, in turn, create bigger and bigger hurdles to any understanding of these same complex thoughts and situations.

This, in the aggregate, makes us dumber as a country. Which is not good.

3. Less Clarity of Thought

Words are the vehicles we use to convey our thoughts. While speaking imprecisely could, admittedly (on occasion), simply be the result of a lack of time or interest, it can also (more frequently) be the result of an incomplete thought.

Notice when you tend to use imprecise, practically meaningless language. It’s usually when you haven’t thought about something enough to have formulated something more precise, something more meaningful. You speak without precision when your thoughts haven’t been worked on enough to require precision.

Striving to speak precisely forces us to slow our brains down to actually complete thoughts, to chisel and sharpen them, so that an accurate verbalization requires precision.

4. Boring Writing

This is more of an annoyance than a major societal harm, though, again, on a large enough scale this will also have negative cultural effects.

Imprecise writing is boring to read. Simple as that.

Takeaways:

Take the time to formulate your thoughts. Use precise language to accurately convey those thoughts. And try to avoid using “very good” as a descriptor if you can help it.