Tom Petty unexpectedly passed away at age 66 on Monday, October 2nd, after experiencing cardiac arrest. Gerry Lopez reflects on the singer’s legacy and breaks down two of his most iconic songs.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ debut album came out in 1976, but it seems like Tom was kind of always around, as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s because he internalized and projected the very idea of rock and roll to such an extent. His music always felt earnest and without pretension. Although his personal life was anything but easy, for the most part his music never wallowed in his specific troubles, allowing us to partake in a relatable degree of angst. You could put on a Tom Petty song, any song, and imagine a long highway in front of you to forget your troubles on as you sing along. If rock and roll is an expression of freedom—whether having it or longing for it—Petty was a master. Even his weariest lyrics were somehow comforting and reassuring. His songs told stories about outcasts and rebels, but ultimately, the point was always that we’re all just humans. In the end, his lyrics are paintings of America, warts and all.
To me, two songs capture this more than any others. The first is “American Girl.” It’s a pretty compact song that takes place in a moment on the surface, but encompasses a lifetime within the character’s thoughts. The image of the female lead of the song’s story staring out at the cars on State Road 441 in Florida, dreaming of something bigger, is up there with some of the most iconic scenes of rock and roll yearning. “And for one desperate moment there/He crept back in her memory/God it’s so painful/Something that’s so close/And still so far out of reach.”
The second song, “Free Fallin'” could in some ways be a prequel to “American Girl,” telling the story from the other side. “It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda/There’s a freeway, runnin’ through the yard/And I’m a bad boy, cause I don’t even miss her/I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart.” Where “American Girl” yearns for something more in the aftermath of a broken heart, “Free Fallin'” regrets what is left behind in favor of going after that dream.
Petty understood that the romanticism of the freeways he often wrote about comes with a price. And in that tension is where he found his very specific poetry. There are hundreds of other songs worth mentioning, but these two, played together offer a concrete glimpse into the elements that made Tom Petty so great. His voice and point of view will be missed.
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