Tom Petty made me think of the “emancipated minor,” an underage teen legally separated from his parents, becoming free to engage in adult activities that would otherwise require parental permission. The teen becomes a legal adult, free to sign contracts, enroll in trade school, rent an apartment, and is solely responsible for the future that awaits him. There were a few of these feral minors around when I worked the carnival circuit in the ’70s during the dread days of summer. I was a college student working midway games for a long shaggy dog story I’d narrate to the end of my days. In the meantime, I had classes and my parents’ condo to go back to when it was my time to go. They, however, were suddenly adults responsible for their own direction, solely at the mercy of their wits, the wisdom of their rash decisions, and the kindness of others who gave a good goddamn.
They liked hard guitar rock, good marijuana, and a job that paid them a living wage for a solid eight hours of work. And there was that wonderful sense that the world had a moral map, simply drawn, with little gray between the extremes of light and dark. There is the Right Thing and then there is being a Total Dick. No compromise is the game: young hearts, not so much idealistic, as much as expecting everyone to be playing by the same rule book.
There was no backing down from this—you followed your path; you moved toward your dreams; and you cut ties to the people, places, and things that fettered a young soul’s determination to create and live a life that made sense. Following suit, the emotional life was the sort that took a heartache and converted it into a worldview, a philosophy of hurt articulated in simple sentences and short, clipped rhymes.
A broken heart, being fired, a flat tire on the turnpike between Sandusky and Stockton, buying a used Van Halen CD and discovering it’s a Shaggs record instead—all these abutments and let downs and sorry-ass slaps in the face were savored, inspected, kept fresh in memory while one fell into a hard reticence to speak of one’s pain. A code formed, the choruses were bellowed while pounding the dashboard between drags of Marlboro 100s, a car full of young men, and the occasional carnie chick circulating through the twist-and-shout knots and narrow passage of the Grapevine making their way to the last of the Still Spots before The Season was over, smoke, open beer cans, 8-track tapes, and scratched CDs: “Stop draggin’ my heart around,” “You don’t have to feel like a refugee…,” I am free fallin’, and I won’t back down, so fuck off and get out of the way because this life is too short to wait in line….
Tom Petty did not wait in line. He got it done. Grounded, responsive, principled from experience, always aware of who pays his bills. This man worked, he felt, he got it done, and then left us, headed into the great wide open. Perhaps we will see his likes again, but ya know, the waiting is the hardest part. So get it done, pick up a guitar, play your harmonica, son. Tom Petty wrote songs about standing your ground, being true to the good things within yourself, of being helpful when help was needed, of admitting when he was wrong and taking responsibility for the results of his decisions, he was a man who refused to be a doormat and would tell you to your face, in terms plain-spoken and truthful. Petty was everything the essential spirit of rock ‘n’ roll should be and occasionally still is, a kind of realistic worldview that was neither abstract philosophy nor stale bromides reinforcing a crucifying relativism, but rather a way of seeing precisely what’s at stake, what’s involved in the dramas, transactions, and passions of our time on Earth, and intuitively knowing the best course to take. His were the songs of the trials, tribulations of a life he’s fully engaged in.
His rock ‘n’ roll was simple, predicated on anthem-like choruses and simple, assertive, thrashing guitar riffs, and a honed back beat. Tom Petty’s voice relayed his plain-spoken lyrics with a sound that was an emotional storm working itself out, the hurt and the anguish, the acceptance, and the courage and strength to continue to the next day—with the realization that life goes on and that he’s in it and that he has a life that is truly his own, beholden to no authority other than his own consul and the people and values he holds dear. Tom Petty was, I think, everything I had hoped Bob Seger would become: the working journeyman rocker with the common man’s experience expressed brilliantly, movingly, in the terse, unadorned cadence of the best rock ‘n’ roll. Seger, though, caught Springsteen fever and gravitated to bigger arrangements, strained melodrama, and grandiosity dressed in a work shirt. Petty never forgot he was a rocker, never forgot what made rock ‘n’ roll such a powerful medium of self-realization. He wrote about what he knew, what he had done, and what he learned. It was a conversation with his fans he never stopped having.