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“On Tom Petty, Aging and Complication”

In 2008, I was with an old friend at my place readying for a simple game of Scrabble, and I wanted to choose the most regular, universal music (ok… “bland” would be a better term) possible — something that would occlude silence but not actually serve a FUNCTION of any kind. So I went with Greatest Hits, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The first song came on, “American Girl,” and god da** if that sucker didn’t just die. The singer didn’t sound into it, the phrasings were all boldly mundane, and the topic matter, obviously, was about as eccentric as Velveeta cheese. I put the CD back, put in probably Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight or something, and decided that I hated Tom Petty. Sometime in the next couple years I must have heard “Learning to Fly” again and completely rediscovered its glory.
“Learning to Fly,” as far as I can gather, stocked on the 1991 Heartbreakers session Into the Great Wide open, is a song written by Petty about the experience of touring behind his first ever solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever. Thematically, it bears similarities to Neil Young’s extravagant and heartbreaking ballad “Thrasher” — simply, travel and solitude (Young similarly employing the knack for including weed references in his songs). Is it BETTER than Neil Young? He** no. But you can’t play “Thrasher” on the radio — it’s way too depressing. “Learning to Fly” is an awesome radio song which oozes a palpable melancholy which is very real. It deals with getting older, of perceiving a great gamut of beauty and not being able to take part in that very beauty, per se, as if the muse were actually the victim of the rhetoric in “Free Fallin’” [1], rather than the inflictor.
I had a professor in college of “Rock Music in the ‘70s and ‘80s” who described Tom Petty as “just a regular dude,” this being in the complimentary sense. Within these most plangent two achievements, “Free Fallin’” and “Learning to Fly,” we witness a keen sensitivity. Even when ADMINISTERING the emotional pain or heartbreak, in life, something which certainly seems inevitable to an extent, he feels sick in his gut — so he smokes weed and writes some songs. It’s like he said, “There ain’t no easy way out” (I’m reminded also of Isaac Brock’s great quip in “Florida,” “I stood on my heart’s paunch thinking / Oh my God I’ll probly have to carry this whole load”.
Another thing I notice is that, along with how “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent” as Sherlock Holmes once said, where we get the best songs from Petty is where the lyrical topic matter complicates. Obviously, “Free Fallin’” is sort of just an absurd batch of sentiment, dealing with mood swings and counterintuitive compulsions, and while the banal “American Girl” tells a rote story of romance, the lyrics of “Learning to Fly” seem more or less to be composed of a stream of consciousness — random, unrelated imagery which, of course, is more akin to how life itself approaches our minds, within a given day.
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[1] It’s easy to forget, or just to never know in the first place, that (what I consider to be) Tom Petty’s best work, “Free Fallin’,” “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” all issued in freakish temporal accordance with grunge and Salt-N-Pepa.

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