Everything you ever need to know about love is in Tom Petty’s music. It’s the sound of late-night adolescence, of expected lovers coming together during unexpected times, of infinite midnight drives through moonlit American roads, of heartbroken truths simmering over love-torn pastorals, and the Polaroids keep coming. Ever since his Heartbreakers dropped “Breakdown” in 1977, he’s been the Southern hunk for everyone in a funk, a shoulder not to lean on, but to follow. With that crooked smile and those faded jackets of his, Petty came into rock ‘n’ roll as an enviable slacker, the cool kid down the hall who was much more interested in talking about relationships than pulling pranks down by the lake. He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he passed it around for everyone to see, like a communal game of show and tell, and that’s what made his music so damn approachable.
Having grown up in South Florida, I’ve always been fascinated by Petty. “American Girl”, “Refugee”, “Learning to Fly”, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were all FM staples in my family, starting with my father’s car stereo. moving into my bedroom, and later with my own wheels. It wasn’t just the hooks and riffs that captivated me, it was the way he could capture those moments you cherish immediately after they happen. Not just your first kiss, but the stroll leading to that first kiss. Not just the first time you said “I love you,” but where you were when you knew you could say it and mean it. Not just the first time you drove, but the first time you felt the thrill of driving with someone that gave you that thrill. Again, the stuff you don’t even think about until you’re sitting there in those very spots hours, days, months, or years later. That’s the stuff you want to relive again and again.
Those intimate snapshots are all over Petty’s catalogue, especially his early work: the holy trinity of 1977’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, and, of course, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes. Those records not only informed my youth as a Florida boy, but gave me the soundtrack to a life I never knew could exist. Much like The Beatles or Elvis Presley with my baby boomer parents, songs like “Here Comes My Girl”, “The Wild One, Forever”, and “Listen to Her Heart” opened my eyes and ears to the laws of attraction, the dangers of obsession, and the patience of love. The fact that Petty was also a Florida boy wasn’t lost on me, and hearing him pine over Mike Campbell’s spiraling guitar lines or Benmont Tench’s balmy organ slowly felt as if these stories were happening in my own backyard, and if I thought hard enough, I could see them.
Growing up, the music only got better, namely because I was finally living it in person. What’s perhaps most fascinating about Petty’s music is the way his stories never feel too embellished. You look at an act like Coldplay, who turns every bruise and brush with love into a Disney movie, and on a long enough timeline, you start to realize it’s all horseshit. Yes, love can be epic, but it’s very rarely out of this world. Petty’s ability to keep love grounded without taking away its impact is perhaps why his music has been so universal over the years. Look, much to my chagrin, I didn’t grow up in the ’70s, but I could hear the lyrics to “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” or “Restless” and relate to everything that he’s saying. These are simple stories with complex feelings, and that’s traditionally how love goes down for everyone. If only more songwriters were so honest and direct.
In hindsight, it wasn’t until I was around his neck of the woods that his music took on a whole new light. Studying at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida and playing gigs in and around Gainesville, Florida, I really relished seeing all the country roads and small town hangouts that certainly informed his music. Coming from Miami, aka the urban sprawl of the South, you don’t really get to pay attention to those Southern seasons, when the weather shifts just enough that the sun takes on a new personality. And really, that personality prompts all sorts of feelings from its people, so when you’re dragging yourself around in a small town lifestyle, you tend to pay more attention to things like the purple shades of an autumn sunset or the way blades of grass turn to little golden daggers when the heat mixes with the cool spring air.
Now, whenever I hear songs like “You Tell Me”, “Magnolia”, or even “Hometown Blues”, there’s a sense of place in my mind that even further humanizes the stories. It was something I realized in the 500+ mile drive between Miami and Tallahassee over the years, and something that really hit home when I finally saw Petty in the flesh for the first time at his rousing 2006 hometown show in Gainesville. At the time, he was supporting his solo album, Highway Companion, and while dozens of fans were proudly blasting “Saving Grace” or “Flirting with Time” as they pre-gamed in the parking lot, most of the crowd was treating it like the return of their homecoming king. And watching them, I could see all of his stories come to life — the high school lovers, the grown-up rebels, the would-be outcasts, and the forever slackers — and it wasn’t just humbling but comforting.
Even now, Petty’s never left my rotation. There’s a framed cover of Damn the Torpedoes watching from above in my home office and albums like Full Moon Fever are just never put back on the shelf, sworn to a life of leaning on my cabinet for weekly spins. In a way, it’s a little silly, especially since so many of the songs of his I adore are about falling in love for what feels like the first time, but what can I say, maybe I’m a little partial to those feelings. Or maybe, and here’s something we often hate to admit, maybe those feelings never leave us. Maybe we’re all just hoping to keep learning. Maybe we’re all just hoping the lessons never end. Maybe we’re all just stuck in the parking lot, hoping to catch that magic again. Look, I can only speak for myself, but I’ll never get tired of singing along to “Here Comes My Girl”, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t smile like a goddamn idiot every time I do. Because like the song suggests, it feels so good, so free, and so right … and I ain’t never gonna change my mind about it.
Be seeing you around, Tom.