Tom Petty reminded me always of the emancipated minor one hears about , a teen who is under eighteen who essentially has found a legal way to divorce his (or her) and gain the right to decide the course of their future. 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 mean time, 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 the 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 good hourly wage for a solid eight hours of work. And there was that wonderful sense that the world has a moral map, simply drawn, with little grey 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, 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 heart ache and converted it into a world view, 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 occasional carnie chick circulating through the twist and shout knots and narrow passage of the Grape Vine making their way to the last of the Still Spots before The Season was over, smoke, open beer cans, eight track tapes and scratched CDs , "Stop Draggin My Heart Around", "I 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 , y'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 door mat and would tell you to your face, in terms plain spoken and truthful, stop dragging his heart around. Petty was everything the essential spirit of rock and roll should be and occasionally still is, a kind of realistic world view 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 and roll was simple, predicated on anthem like choruses and simple , assertive, thrashing guitar riffs and a honed backbeat, Tom Petty’s voice spoke his plain spoken lyrics with a sound that was an emotional storm working itself out, the hurt and anguish ,the acceptance and the courage and strength to continue to the next day, that realization that life goes on and that he’s in 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 Sager would become the working journeyman rocker with the common man’s experience expressed brilliantly, movingly, in the terse, unadorned cadence of the best rock and roll. Seger, though, caught Springsteen fever, gravitated to bigger arrangements, strained melodrama, grandiosity dressed in a work shirt. Petty never forgot he was a rocker, never forgot what made rock and roll such a powerful medium of self-realization. He wrote about what he knew, what he had done, what he learned, if he learned anything. It was a conversation with his fans he never stopped having.