Out of the numerous shitty months we’ve had thus far in 2017, October is well on its way to being the shittiest of the year. What happened in Las Vegas is horrifying, but this isn’t the place nor am I the person to tackle the issue. (Ta-Nehisi Coates? You there?) I’m far more qualified to talk about October’s other major bummer: the passing of Tom Petty.
For most people my age, Tom Petty was a legacy rock act you didn’t need to seek out because his music was so ubiquitous, sort of like seeing Coors Light stashed in the cooler at your neighbor’s backyard barbecue—it’s always around and you enjoy it on occasion. The Beatles have a similar status, but while the Fab Four tend to foster wild devotion, Petty instead had legions of people who maybe didn’t love all of his records but loved at least one of his songs.
I first recognized the excellence of Tom Petty’s songwriting when I was seventeen or so. My sister was in involved in her college’s equestrian team, and a prospective student had sent Allison a video of her horseback riding chops set to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” For some reason I watched this shameless self-promotion over Allison’s shoulder, probably to see if the rider in question was attractive. The video had been edited so Petty sang the line, “Loves horses, and her boyfriend too,” right as the rider and horse landed a jump in slow motion.
I said something like, “That’s a bit of an obvious song choice.”
To which Allison said, “But she loves horses before her boyfriend. That’s important.”
That moment has stuck with me every time I’ve sat down to write anything. The details matter, especially in what order they arrive, and few songwriters understood that as well as Tom Petty. In that one line he said far more about this “she” than maybe the whole rest of the song put together. It’s those details that give listeners and readers a world to inhabit, characters they’ll never meet but who feel intimately known. Tom Petty could’ve only written “Free Fallin’” and I still think he’d be one of the greatest songwriters America ever produced. The lines “All the vampires walking through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard” offer the kind of immortality no heart attack will ever take away.
Part of Tom Petty’s charm for me was that he was so goddamn good without being particularly attractive. His voice was just whiny enough to remind you of Bob Dylan, but his songcraft was so impeccable he was equally loved by critics and the little kid sitting in the back of the minivan.
My favorite Tom Petty song is probably “Learning To Fly.” Like most of his work, at first blush it sounds so familiar you’re half convinced it’s a cover of something much older. More than any musician I can think of, Tom Petty’s songs sounded classic from the first listen. Plus, the instrumental break at 2:54 always makes me feel like I can fly, or at least levitate, which is more than I could ever ask for from a piece of music.
Hang in there, folks. Maybe the rest of October will be totally dope.
Until next month,