Alongsideyour78s is about making generational connections through music. The focus is often on introducing Boomers to new music and asking for an open ear and open mind. Millennials, I have found, need no such encouragement. Most are quite willing to accept and enjoy a song that’s been around for 50 years as easily as one that just showed up on his or her favorite streaming service’s “new release” category.
I know this full well, yet it still amazes me when I see it in action.
Today, I present a post written by my Millennial son, on one of Classic Rock’s biggest icons, Tom Petty.
Tom Petty, The Patron Saint of Road Trip Music
Making it through October 2, 2017 was already difficult enough. It began with waking up learning that while I slept there was a new “worst case of domestic gun violence in American history,” a record now broken for the what I believe is the third time in my life (an event that has become so tragically commonplace I can’t keep track).
It became that much rougher when, in the middle of the day, I learned Tom Petty had been found unconscious at his home from cardiac arrest. Though he had not died then as was originally reported, by the end of the day the result was the same: Tom Petty passed in the hospital, reportedly surrounded by friends, family, and bandmates.
Tom Petty: the Heartbreaker, the Traveling Wilbury, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer – dead at 66.
This one stings. I admit up front Tom Petty is not listed as number one in any of my own made up music categories. He doesn’t have an entry in my Top 5 Songs of All Time. None of his albums come to mind when someone asks me for my Desert Island Records. I checked, and it’s a good distance down my Most Played Auto-Playlist before Petty comes up.
But Tom Petty is undeniably the Patron Saint of Road Trip Music. Certainly my Patron Saint of Road Trip Music.
Petty’s Full Moon Fever is the first music I ever recognized as an album. Sure there were other bands I heard first: The Beatles of course, some R.E.M., Paul Simon, and even The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for some reason. But the first time I recognized “these songs go together” was from riding around in my dad’s 1995 Geo Prism, listening to Full Moon Fever. I would have been around 5 or 6 years old, when even a quick run to Crest or a drive to church was a whole trip. I learned the album always opened with “Free Fallin’,” which made way for “Won’t Back Down.” Track five was always “Running Down a Dream” and the album always closed with the fantastically ridiculous “Zombie Zoo” – these are the songs I think of when I remember driving around town as a kid.
By the time I hit high school and was burning my own CD’s, it was a given that if the playlist was for a road trip Petty was on it at least once. During my sophomore year, Petty released a single that seemed to fully acknowledge his road trip readiness called “Saving Grace” (on an album called Highway Companion, no less) that made it into several playlists during that time.
In college I told a professor I had to miss his class because I had scored two free tickets to Tom Petty in Dallas, and wanted my work in advance. He told me he’d cancel the class if I took him along for the ride. He was being completely serious. I took a friend instead. We listened to Petty (this time on our iPods) on the way down, and perhaps inspired by Petty’s enduring optimism, discussed the ways we would surely save the world.
And I know I’m not the only one who connects Petty with road trips. When I was in grad school my advisor, a Native American man, shared with the class a heart wrenching story from when he was our age. He told us how he went to Florida to visit his girlfriend’s family. Her family sent him home immediately after he arrived because of his race. He had put together a cassette of Tom Petty’s music (since Petty was from Florida) and listened to this all the way back to Oklahoma.
But I don’t think it’s only these highly specific, anecdotal stories that make him the Patron Saint of Road Trip Music. Hollywood seems to think so too, the strongest example being Cameron Crowe, a man whose movies’ strongest trait is often Crowe’s ability to match a song to the mood of the scene. In Jerry Macguire, who is it that Tom Cruise’s titular character finally celebrates to as he hits the highway? Tom Petty and “Free Fallin’.” Or you could look at Crowe’s schmaltzy but sincere Elizabethtown, his love letter to road trips and the playlists we make for them. Petty is the only artist to be featured twice, with “It’ll All Work Out” and “Square One.” Say what you want about Crowe, but movies don’t become cultural touchstones without tapping into something broadly relatable or familiar.
So then, what is it about these two that match up so perfectly? First let’s analyze road trips. Road trips, at their core, are about the journey from a zone of comfort and familiarity to the unknown in search of something better. For most of us, most of the time, that desire is no more than just an escape from the tedium of everyday life. At 16 our call to adventure is to prove we’re immortal, that we’ll be young forever. At 22 that call has altered to a belief that we can save the world. Then at 27 that we can still stave off the world’s cynicism. I’m not there yet, but I’m assuming that at 35 and up we want to show the world we’re not done yet. This kind of journey is as much of an abstract feeling or statement as it a trip.
Now the question becomes, why Tom Petty? There is no shortage of songs that the capture what that elusive feeling. Perhaps because Tom Petty wrote all his music to reflect his own life values and experience. Here is a man who dropped out of high school at 17 and made his own pilgrimage from Florida to California, in part to escape a horrific cycle of domestic abuse by his father. The band with which he moved to California (Mudcrutch) promptly broke up, becoming the catalyst for Petty to assemble his Heartbreakers. Over time his first marriage and family began to collapse as his wife became verbally abusive and paranoid due to her untreated mental health issues. Eventually a depressed Petty left his family. Plagued by the guilt of this and his traumatic past, his drug usage became dangerous, to the point he became addicted to heroin. But again, Petty ultimately sought help to combat his demons and restored his relationship with his second wife and his two daughters from his first marriage.
Tom Petty’s whole life was this kind of road trip. From Florida to California, through a lifetime of struggle, to hell and back, all with a stubborn, enduring optimism. And this is exactly what Petty tapped into. Petty put into his soul’s journey into his music, and they came out in the form of songs with themes larger than life; more feeling than could be described in words.
He lived out the melancholy he sings about in his music, but he also lived out the hope of a better future. He left his abusive home. He fixed the relationships he could and abandoned the unhealthy ones. He allowed himself to get help for his demons. He got better. He refused to be defined by his lowest moments; he recognized the reality of these situations and focused on his belief that things can and would be better.
Petty, and by extension his listeners, identify as losers who still get lucky sometimes, American girls who will keep their promises if they have to die trying, bad boys who are free fallin’ away from this world for a while. This is why road trips and Tom Petty songs are perfect soulmates. Their spirit of adventure and a better unknown are a collective desire we all share.
Next week I’m driving to Albuquerque with some friends. I’ll start creating my road trip playlist for it pretty soon, and I have a feeling there will be more Tom Petty on it than usual.
After all, he is the Patron Saint of Road Trip Music.