Learning to Fly

tom-petty-by-j-stoneThe loss of another legend.

By Phillip Ratliff

News of Tom Petty’s death came on one of the most painful days in the nation’s collective psyche— the same day we all woke to the terrifying, depressing news of the Las Vegas shooting. In the surreal aura that lingered over the afternoon of October 2, word of Petty’s death, as sad and unwelcome as it was, had a strangely palliative effect. The passing of an icon of rock music was somehow more comprehensible than the senseless mayhem unleashed on concertgoers on the Las Vegas strip. We’ve all practiced this before, I thought, with George Harrison, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, or any number of musical saints who inevitably leave us with just their music to conjure their sacred memory. But how does one process almost 60 people being mowed down at the pleasure of a soulless madman?

To borrow a term from liturgy, there are rubrics for how we mark the passing of a rock legend. Birminghamians dutifully executed this familiar script when we gathered around 106.9 FM’s afternoon tribute to the rock legend. Fans phoned in their stories about hearing him in concert and to request selections from Petty’s three-decade catalogue.

Listening to Petty’s sublime music in solidarity with his dedicated fanbase gave meaningful shape to the diffuse, dull ache I had been feeling all morning. I came to the afternoon ritual a more casual fan; admittedly. Petty’s music has often occupied my mind the way it occupies that of many others. I know his tunes and can stumble through the lyrics. I occasionally seek them out, but I am always glad when I come across them on classic rock stations. Yet somehow this unassuming rocker never penetrated my consciousness the way, say, Cash, or Jagger, or Bowie has.

It’s an odd personal omission. Petty’s music can be pugnacious and self-assertive, deeply introspective and searching, occasionally self-loathing. Tom Petty is there in his music, especially when one is willing to look for him. So, over the following week and a half, I listened to his catalogue—and I looked for him. Some thoughts about who Tom Petty was and why Tom Petty’s music stands apart from the music of his time—and from the man himself—became apparent as I listened with fresh ears and new purpose.

Petty’s earliest hits emerged in the late 1970s, while rock music was beginning to rebound from a period of studio album excess. Bands were rediscovering the unadorned vocals, simple chords, and driving rhythms of yesteryear. The lineups reverted to the simpler configurations of early rock, drums, guitars, maybe a Farfisa or Hammond organ.

The most noticeable projectile from this period of sonic whiplash was punk, but at the same time, more popular musical product was emerging, as well. Retro groups like Tommy Tutone and The J. Geils Band carried this sensibility into the Top 40. This music, lean and fast, easily played live and without a whole lot of technical wizardry. Early Petty guitar-driven hits like “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “Refugee” brought a mildly defiant pop rock sensibility and, frankly, a lot more artistry, to this scene.

As Petty matured, his lyrics became more focused on storytelling and interiority, and his musical textures became more ethereal and inventive. Undoubtedly the influence of Petty’s collaborator and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne explains this shift. Lynne is probably most known as the mind behind ELO, a band that self-consciously and without apology sought to build on the sonic universe The Beatles had constructed for Abbey Road. Strings and synth-effects vocals helped concoct this strange world in such ELO hits as “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Turn to Stone.”

Lynne and Petty achieved similar effects using the materials of the traditional rock line-up. A chorus of male singers give “Free Falling” its most luscious textures. “Learning to Fly” achieves comparable lushness with a chorded keyboard, 12-string guitar, and, eventually, counterpoint from a men’s chorus. They enshroud “Running Down a Dream” in a fog of low guitar riffs and whammy bar. It’s all juicy stuff.

The 12-string guitar makes a stately appearance in the ironic “Into the Great Wide Open.” This ironic tale of Eddie, a young man who moves to Hollywood to pursue a music career, offers no resolution, just an image of a man who had run out of options. It’s probably best understood as a companion to “Free Falling” and “Running Down a Dream”—all existentialist meditations by Petty’s unmoored narrative voices.

I asked a friend, Kevin, for his grand unified theory of Petty. He offered this pithy phrase: “Southern Man Moves West.” The phrase wields considerable explanatory power. Petty, the musical persona, was on a search for autonomy and self definition in a Looking Glass world. This bizarro world represents, in fact, the most absurd parts of our own. For a Floridian like Petty, “California” is a reasonable approximation of all that’s strange and grotesque in this world. 

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