Tom Petty’s America Is The One We Want To Believe In
The rock star sang the gospel of carefree living — a message this country desperately needs to hear.
Before Tom Petty saddled up next to Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, and before he towered over the Billboard charts for more than two decades, and before I climbed the seemingly endless steps of a sold-out arena to watch him play just this past June, and before his first band, Mudcrutch, made their name playing dives in Gainesville, Florida, and perhaps even before he realized what he was capable of with a guitar in his hands, Tom Petty worked briefly as a gravedigger in Florida. It was a job to pay the bills and maybe meant nothing more than that to Petty, but I am fascinated by that work and the people who make a home for the once-living. I knew someone who once also dug graves in small-town Ohio, and he told me he would create stories to go along with the holes he made in the land. If you are lucky, of course, you don’t personally know the dead you are digging in the name of. You might, then, create a life, or a small world for them. It seems like dark and heavy work — the kind that may make it impossible to leave behind once it’s done. It also seems like ideal work for a writer — the kind that builds an imagination for years to come. Then again, to Tom Petty, it could have just been a paycheck.
Still, what I cannot shake about Petty today, and what I haven’t ever been able to shake, is how he was able to populate the worlds inside of his songs. When I was unfamiliar with Los Angeles, Tom Petty sang “Century City,” and even in its lyrical vagueness, I wanted to be in Century City with the modern men and modern girls. I wanted to revel in Petty’s brand of Americana, which stressed forgetting worries over all else. The gospel of carefree living, where geography was fluid — a set of images or a feeling instead of a strict, distinct landscape. Tom Petty knew what all great writers know: If you can tap into the right emotions, you can make everywhere feel like anywhere. And you can make a stranger feel like everyone’s best friend. Urban legend says “American Girl” is about a suicide in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, but Petty wrote it hanging out of a window in Los Angeles, listening to the sounds of living. But I imagine that Petty knew what he was doing with narrative, mentioning the longing, the “she,” standing alone on her balcony, the use of “was” to signify the American Girl being distant, or now absent. I say all of this to say that Tom Petty understood writing like a poet understands writing, and I loved him for that. It is hard to write for both an audience and your own ambitions. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" was about drugs until I saw myself in the Indiana Boys at the end of the first verse, and until I saw myself in the summer creeping in, and until I saw myself in the birds hovering over Market Square. I’m saying that Tom Petty knew to give every movement a body. Every character is a fully realized idea, greater than a cheap metaphor.
Tom Petty had hit singles in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and did it without ever truly bowing to the times. He just wrote and played good songs. He just wrote about America the way it felt to him, and tried to convey that feeling to everyone else.
In June of this year, reeling from the conclusion of a long-festering heartbreak, I went to see Tom Petty play an arena show in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I was generally too sad to leave the house, and I am also averse to arena shows, but I still went. I had no idea Tom Petty was going to die, of course. Chris Cornell had died the day before he was set to play an arena in Columbus. I wasn’t going to go to that, and I felt somehow guilty when the news of his death arrived. Perhaps driven by this and my desire to feel something other than sadness, I pulled myself towards a sold-out arena and climbed a hundred steps to watch Tom Petty play.
Tom Petty knew what all great writers know: If you can tap into the right emotions, you can make everywhere feel like anywhere.
This was only my second time seeing Petty live, the first being in 2007, when he played solo, touring the album Highway Companion. He was great, but to see him play with the Heartbreakers early this summer was a real joy. By this year, the core of the Heartbreakers — Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, and keyboardist Benmont Tench — had been together since the band’s inception in 1975. Petty, despite being the clear star of the show, seemed to widen the stage and make room for not just the band, but everyone in the arena. That, too, is hard work: to take thousands of people and make them feel at home. There is, of course, a feeling of forced community that exists in the literal shoulder-rubbing that exists in punk basements or even small outdoor shows. And while arena shows often feel, to me, like drowning, a Petty arena show felt like an opportunity to spend time with several friends. He told jokes about Columbus that felt genuine; he told too-long stories about how old he was but did it without pining for the past. Beyond that, he played fierce, long guitar solos, extending each memorable song past its original stopping point. There was magic in this, pulling the stars down one by one and hanging each of them in the otherwise dark arena with his bare hands.
It's cliché, I know, but there is something about the way “Free Fallin’” arrives in the body and then exits through the mouth. There’s the infamous scene in the movie Jerry Maguire, where Jerry is driving in his car while “Free Fallin’” comes on the radio. He begins by gently beating his hands on the steering wheel and mumbling a lyric or two. But when the chorus arrives he belts out every word, trembling with joy until he’s almost delirious.
I had this same uncontrollable urge in June, when I found my head thrown back and my mouth open, the words sprinting out before I even knew they were there. And with them, all of the sadness I arrived with dissolved in the air. This is the magic of The Song That Everyone Knows. If an artist is lucky, they have one or two. Tom Petty gave us too many to count.
The gravediggers will be busy tonight, perhaps tomorrow too. There will be a new stretch of earth dug up for the newly departed, lost to a country in love with its violence. I can’t mention losing Tom Petty without mentioning all of those who were murdered in Las Vegas on Sunday night. We’ve lost lovers of music again, and I feel a specific pain. When the news was unclear — when Petty was pronounced dead and then not — I found myself selfishly hoping that he’d somehow pull through, even though I knew enough to know that he likely wouldn’t. How much tragedy can stretch itself across a day. We never stop learning our limits. When terrorists target places where people are enjoying music, it dares music to be an escape in times of fear and anger. It dares music to mean something greater to the people who go out to enjoy it in hopes of capturing a brief and magical moment before they return to the rigor of living.
I don’t know any of the people lost in Las Vegas, but I do hope they are all buried with the best stories, and the best memories, even if all of the memories aren’t real. Tom Petty dug graves in Gainesville while writing songs on a guitar and waiting for his band’s big break. When his band’s big break came, Tom Petty sang about freedom, in all of the unclear but hopeful ways rock singers sing about freedom. Highways and not looking back. Dancing underneath moonlight. A small town that you don’t love until you leave it. Men and women and cars and the idea of falling in love, even when it seemed impossible. What a tapestry to leave behind. What a full grave to allow yourself when your time comes.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, writer, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first essay collection, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in November.