Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Running Down a Dream

I had Tom Petty wrong for a long time. With the early Tom Petty records, what I mostly heard and liked was a certain kind of hooky rock party music (with the groove in "Don't Do Me Like That" introduced into evidence as exhibit A), and guitar-driven FM radio hits with anthemic choruses (let's go ahead and call the opening riff of "Breakdown" and the chorus of "Refugee" exhibits B And C. I was right that that's mostly what he was doing, and doing very well, at that time, and I'd have said I was a fan. But not a huge fan, just yeah, I like him. For sure. Good stuff. But I was WAY wrong on his range and his depth as a writer.

I didn't even realize until well into college how much the album cuts from Damn the Torpedoes, which came out while I was still in high school, had been seeping into my deep consciousness. Was it from the radio, as deeper album cuts started to get airplay? Whatever the reason, I was playing that album--back when we used to play albums--a lot more a few years after it came out than I ever did when it was first popular. It sank in. By then, early 80s songs like "The Waiting" started me noticing and admiring the man's writing. And I liked "You Got Lucky." Still, Damn the Torpedoes was the main jam.  "Louisiana Rain," became one of my go-to songs, a card up my sleeve, for a certain kind of slightly-unexpected-but-always-glad-to-hear-it moment that would show up about halfway through side A, if I was making a mix tape. And "Here Comes My Girl" was a jukebox staple in my Chapel Hill years, and I began to notice how cool the band dynamic was on that one, how rough the sound is when Tom is talking through the verses about life as struggle, but then how pretty, how smooth and uplifting the guitar arpeggios and Tom's vocals are when it moves to the chorus, how the music matches the lyrical theme, that love can lift us out of struggle for a time, and can make us strong enough to step back into that struggle for another day. It's one of Tom's best vocal performances, pretty much showing off the whole sonic and emotional range of what his voice can do, and the band rises to the occasion as well as I can imagine. So, yeah, early Petty hits, and especially the Damn the Torpedoes, I was an early casual fan with a slowly-emerging sense that, oh, this guy, and This Band, are maybe something special.

When Southern Accents hit, I loved it, the yearning title track, the wtf sitar and Lewis Carroll-based video for "Don't Come Around Here No More," and, in my not-really-very-humble opinion, Tom's most under-rated song: "Dogs on the Run."

And then later, I liked his work with the Wilburies a lot, loved the Dylan backup band phase, and appreciated the Jeff Lynn-produced stuff, especially instant favorite "Running Down a Dream."

The takeaway here is that my fandom of Tom Petty started lukewarm--yeah, he's good, at about the level of a bunch of other good stuff--then warmed up to much more enthusiastic fandom--oh, yeah, I *really* like that band, great stuff!

Wildflowers came out in the mid-90s, but it was years later that I got stuck on it, listened a zillion times--every song excellent, and like five of them are all time faves of mine--and by then Tom was in my top ten, moving past Neil Young, even nudging his way up there with the Beatles

And he has just stayed in rotation all these years. Never got tired of it. Always more good stuff coming out. Always cool songs I forgot about, ready to be rediscovered.

"Here Comes My Girl" was Tonie's and my first dance as a married couple. "You Wreck Me" was the first song we listened to--first line "Tonight we ride, right or wrong"--on an amazing road trip we went on, just the two of us. We saw Tom play a show with one of my longtime favorites, Jackson Browne, and we then spent a week in the mountains of NC. That trip was definitely a game-changer for our relationship. Tom's "Have love, Will Travel" became a big song in our bubble.
And happenstance matters with music. When we sat up with our dying cat Ringo, on the night he passed on, the song "Wildflowers" was playing on the playlist when the last moment came. One time when I was crazy-stressed, hoping for a job offer, seriously worrying about the future, "the Waiting" came on the radio, like a hand on my shoulder saying, damn, man, try to be at least SLIGHTLY cool, okay? And a zillion things like that.

And the writer becomes your friend, who's been there with you for Some  Stuff. That's a lot of why it brings a tear to the eye when we are all singing along on "Learning to Fly" ... because we all started out on a dirty road, for god knows where, guess we'll know, when we get there, and there's that connection ... that for all of us, this band and these songs kept us company for that.

And what songs! The depth is amazing; so many great songs, even ones that are relatively unknown. 

Check out "Square One," from Highway Companion--as good a song as you'll find about rebuilding after hard stuff happens in your life (about which, btw, it has or it will, or both), about coming out of that scorched earth and taking a breath, looking ahead again. Check out "Fault Lines," from Hypnotic Eye-- a Yardbirds-sounding 60s groove with vivid lyrics about how we are all of us kinda patched together, not as whole as we want to appear, and what a balancing act life can sometimes be. And sure, plenty of lighter fare, but I like the writers who can talk in real (meaning layered) ways about life's ups and downs.

So, anyhow, tonight I'll go see Tom, going with one of my best friends, along with my youngest son and one of his best friends, and we'll holler and clap and sing along, gonna be be working on that mystery, going wherever it leads.