Hey y’all, I have a guest writer #onhere again this week, and it’s Susannah Young, who was previously on this here Tumblr writing about Harry Nilsson last October. I had an unwritten law about wanting to have my e-friends only contribute once here, but I knew that when I bought a Tom Petty record Susannah would write an incredible piece on it, and on Petty in general. And she did. Someone needs to hire her to write essays about Tom Petty as a job.
Listen up, naysayers, non-dads, people who have never tasted Mountain Dew: Tom Petty is one of the greatest songwriters in human history. If you think otherwise, I promise I’ll try to respect you as a person but I will never truly trust your opinions from this point forward.
Tom Petty is the kind of Florida Man who might brag about how one time he poked a sleeping alligator with his toe but you know he’s lying because he still eats dinner with his mama every Sunday.
Tom Petty is your uncle at your graduation party getting sorta drunk and spouting nuggets of wisdom that absolutely floored you at the time but later you saw everything he said printed on the inside of a greeting card at Dollar Tree.
Tom Petty didn’t front when the Strokes admitted to ripping off “American Girl” to write “Last Nite” because he doesn’t need to snatch your trust fund cash to feel secure about his place in the rock pantheon. Tom Petty can write circles around all of you, forever and ever amen.
And the characteristics that comprise Tom Petty’s brand of low-key genius are, fittingly, nothing crazy. They’re the same set of skills that make ALL great writers great writers: the discipline to write concisely, the ability to make the few words you choose paint complete — and completely evocative — pictures.
Consider “Free Fallin’”’s bridge, the point in the song where Petty dives headlong into his inability to love a #basic lady (you like horses AND America? wow, tell me more) the way she deserves to be loved: “I wanna glide down/ Over Mullholland/ I wanna write her/ Name in the sky.” Such a concise, expressive and immediately relatable way to convey exactly how it feels to be stupidly in love with no proper way to show it. See, even using other words to describe that bridge sounds dumb. I mean, what would you rather hear from the person who loves you? “I am stupidly in love and have no proper way to show it?” Or a passionate plea to scrawl your name in 50 ft. letters above the city?
Even when Petty’s lyrics get simple to the point of sounding generic or reductive, he has a knack for using music to snare the sentiment and lift it to a higher plane. My favorite Petty song, “Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid),” is a great example: too-simplistic language reduces the object of his unrequited love to a series of kinda boring/played out Hard To Get Lady tropes: She likes to keep him guessing! She’s got him on defense! She’s a little bit of mystery!, etc. The arrangement ACTUALLY lends the song — and by proxy, the song’s subject — complexity. It has loud-soft dynamics that DO keep you guessing; the bassline snakes through the background, content to be noticed or ignored; guitars peal like church bells to break the tension. It’s bare bones and intricate at the same time. It’s the perfect complement to an ode to a flighty heartbreaker. It’s perfect.
Tom Petty’s ability to find the shortest route between Point A and Point B also lends him the extremely #rare gift of waxing nostalgic without sounding disingenuous, emotionally manipulative, or muddying the water with too many specifics and details. The latter always feels especially out of place in songs that look backwards. We rarely have the presence of mind to mine the moments of our life for significance as they’re happening to us; thus, memories of our past experiences tend to be rendered using broader brushstrokes. So while part of the ache you feel in moments of reflection stems from the knowledge that you’ll never again be in that exact same place feeling the exact same way, a lot of that ache comes from knowing there are aspects of even your most cherished memories that you’ll one day forget. That there’s nothing you can do halt the process of loosening your grip on your past. That a little detail about you and your history slips away with each passing minute.
The way Tom Petty writes about nostalgia captures all of that, all of what it actually feels like to yearn for the past: hazy impressions punctuated with moments of real clarity, a blend of recollection, reflection and a desire for reinvention. “Even the Losers” is maybe the best example of Tom Petty’s ability to write memories the way they appear in your mind’s eye: enough detail to paint a complete picture if you rely on your imagination to fill in the gaps that exist between when you lit that cigarette, when you looked up at the stars, when you parked your car on that overpass.
Which brings me to my last point: that great art always make you feel unstuck in time as you’re experiencing it. When I hear Tom Petty, I’m never fully present. In my mind, I’m listening to these songs the same way I first heard them: winding through the mountains in my dad’s ancient 5-speed Accord that gained but never lost its wet dog smell, Full Moon Fever in the cassette deck, it’s sunny and hot and humid and I’m listening and hoping one day I have lived life in such a way that I have a similar backlog of experience and memories to reflect upon, and that I’m one day gifted enough with words to share my experiences with people in a way that makes them care.
Susannah Young is probably listening to Tom Petty and drinking a Dew with your dad right now. She’s on Twitter—@susannahyoung