I have no idea when I first heard a Tom Petty song. As far as I know, “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin Down a Dream” have been a part of my cultural lexicon since I first heard a radio. They’re omnipresent, the kind of pop songs played by radio sweethearts and bar bands everywhere. The radio loves them. Your local cover band loves them. Your mom (probably) loves them; mine does!
That’s because Tom Petty, the singer and the songwriter, knew how to write for America. He knew how to make a song just vague enough for any American listener, with just enough detail to make it uniquely relatable to any American listener. You didn’t have to travel to California to know what “Free Fallin’” meant to you, just like you never had to have a Southern accent for the song of the same name to make sense to you.
There was always a common ground somewhere in any of Tom Petty’s songs. Whether or not you were the punk or the country soul or the bluesman, you had a Tom Petty song you could probably wrap a memory around. That was the beauty to his music – he dealt with emotions that we all felt at some point in our life, and built them into pop hooks and riffs that both the softest ear and hardest rocker could love. Hell, his plainspoken drawl probably soundtracked some of those emotions.
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I remember moments where I’d dream about being a musician, something I’ve since reality-checked out of my system. I’d fiddle around for a bit and try my hand at a few songs, shake my head, and end one on one of the only two songs I ever felt comfortable with: “Even the Losers” or “The Waiting.”
“The Waiting” and “Even the Losers” are two of those songs that ground Petty’s pop savviness with his heartland ear, two beautiful songs that display some of Petty’s best writing chops. But I didn’t need a pop star’s voice to sing them, nor did I need to be a virtuoso to play them, because as beautiful as his music was, Tom Petty wasn’t a virtuoso. His drawl could never win an American Idol-like singing competition – something he himself admitted a few years ago.
Instead, he had a gorgeous soundtrack for a not-so-gorgeous real world, full of these gems that even a loser like me could play. For the kid who would always sell himself short and would always shake his head at even his most honest attempts, Tom Petty songs felt manageable. For me, they felt natural.
Since those days, I’ve largely put down a guitar and have begun looking for a future. That self-deprecating child became a self-deprecating college graduate, unsure of what to look for in life. Tom Petty’s music isn’t as present in my life as it used to be, but I still find wisdom whenever I spin Damn the Torpedoes. After all of these years, it’s still one of my Holy Bibles, where there’s still some room for the losers to win, where you don’t have to be a refugee.
And for all of that, I just want to say thank you.
Thank you so much, Mr. Petty.