On Monday, October 2nd, 2017, it was officially announced that singer Tom Petty has passed away. When his passing was officially announced, I felt the same way I did about Prince’s passing. Tom Petty was another artist that got me through some of the roughest times of my life. There was something fascinating about his music that inspired my 80s fandom ever higher. I would like to recall several of his songs, and their impact on my life and writing.
My first introduction to Petty’s music actually came through “Weird” Al Yankovic. I heard his song “Stop Draggin’ My Car Around” in the early 90s, and I laughed, but I didn’t know that the song was a spoof. My mom was reluctant to let me watch MTV, but she didn’t have any problems with VH1. Because of that, on one of their 80s music programs, I saw the music video for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” by Stevie Nicks, who dueted on the song with Petty. The song had a real attitude to it, and I thought it was catchy.
Although I enjoy love songs, anti-love songs can be good, too, and Petty was good at writing those. I was so impacted by this song that I performed it at a karaoke evening with Stacey, the woman who ran the evenings. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Nicks’ vocals were the primary focus and Petty didn’t have that many vocal solos. It was a great song, though, and it opened the gateway to more of Petty’s work.
When it came to VH1, they often featured Tom Petty on there, whether it was his music videos, live concerts or interviews with him. On another one of their 80s programs, I saw the music video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. Another brilliant anti-love song, it also had one of the most creative videos of the 80s.
Quite a few people have expressed puzzlement at 80s music videos, wondering what the visuals had to do with the lyrics. This was one of the videos that puzzled those who viewed it, but to me, it’s an understandable thing. When you think about Alice In Wonderland, you notice that Alice was unwelcome in many parts of Wonderland, her logical thinking running contrary to the illogical world of Wonderland. For me, I find myself thinking of the Disney animated version, which climaxes with the Red Queen screaming “OFF WITH HER HEAD”, and everybody in Wonderland, including the friends she made, chasing her madly. Petty’s video takes the idea of “OFF WITH HER HEAD” to a conclusion with twisted logic, but logic nonetheless. Would the denizens of Wonderland have actually eaten her in other versions of the story? Scary stuff, but it does make you think.
In 2000, I saw Fast Times At Ridgemont High for the first time, and was impressed by not only the movie, but its’ soundtrack as well. As I was entering senior year in a special education program, my high school experiences were far different than those of the students at this fictional school. The 1977 song “American Girl” provided the perfect introduction to the school year for those fictional students, and really for the movie in general.
I think it might have worked differently if “American Girl” and The Go-Gos’ “We Got The Beat” had their placement switched in the movie. The women of the movie drive the story. From the major characters of Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) to the smaller characters of Cindy (Kelli Maroney) and Lisa (Amanda Wyss), the ladies of the Ridgemont High universe are the driving force behind it, and “American Girl” could be used to describe all of them. That’s not to say I don’t like “We Got The Beat”. I very much do like it. I just think “American Girl” says more about the movie’s characters than “We Got The Beat”.
Since 2000 was when I got my first paying job, I was spending my money on all the 80s material i could, and one of the many items I purchased was Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever. The song that stuck with me the most was “I Won’t Back Down”. I took the wrong message from it in my young and unstable period, though. I was very rigid in the opinions I held, and viewed the world in a black-and-white way. Whether it was pop culture, politics or personal matters, I was mind-blind and thinking that things had to be a certain way, a place for everything and everything in its’ place.
Growing older, seeing a therapist and getting on the right mix of medications allowed me the opportunity to view the world in its’ many shades of gray, and made me realize that there’s a difference between not backing down and simply being stubborn. Not backing down, to me, means that you’re passionate about something. Being stubborn, to me, is being so wrapped up in that passion that you’re not giving a damn what others think, and that’s no way to live life. I’m glad that I was able to learn that difference, and I have Tom Petty to thank for that.
Finally, I come to a Tom Petty song that’s not a 70s or 80s track, and was not done with The Heartbreakers. It’s the song “I Forgive It All”, performed with his first band Mudcrutch in 2016. The music video was a haunting one, featuring Anthony Hopkins wandering through L.A, as well as one of the most heartbreaking uses of a classic cartoon I’ve ever seen. The cartoon in question is the Fleischer Brothers classic Somewhere In Dreamland, which I can see as an extension of Hopkins’ character’s childhood.
Forgiveness is something that’s easy to do in some cases, but hard to do in others. I know that’s certainly true of what I’ve experienced in my family life. For example, in 2013, I had a heated argument with my cousin’s husband when I walked in at Christmas dinner on him and my brother having a discussion about Duck Dynasty. As one of the members of the Robertson family had made some gay-bashing comments, I mentioned that, in my opinion, people who make cruel remarks about the LGBT community are trying to compensate for their own feelings. I mean, think of all the LGBT-bashing politicians who end up being what they bash. Anyway, my cousin-in-law said to me, in response to that, “You’re gay”. I’ve often mentioned dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but did I mention that my cousin-in-law is a special education teacher? You would think he would understand that people on the autism spectrum often have difficulties understanding things like humor, irony, teasing and sarcasm. He must have forgotten, though, and we had a heated argument the day after Christmas that climaxed with me screaming “FUCK YOU!” and slamming the phone down, leading my cousin, the teacher’s wife, to call my brother and give him a “the reason you suck speech” about me. Since I routinely enjoy porn with trans women, I can’t really say that I’m straight, and that’s where my objection to the word “gay” being used as an epithet comes from.
What does this have to do with the song’s theme of forgiveness? I wrote my cousins a letter explaining why I reacted how I did, and although it took several months for them to get back to me, I was told that they forgave me. In spite of that, though, they haven’t really talked to me since Christmas of 2014. I want to say that I believe that they have forgiven it all, but I don’t know. I’m not always easy to get along with, but I try and improve myself everyday.
That’s what I think the overriding theme of Tom Petty’s music is…Life, and the struggles and triumphs it brings. I think that’s why Petty’s music appealed to so many people. We all have our struggles in life, and occasionally, we have our moments of victory, too. That’s why Tom Petty’s music stood out, and will continue to stand out for years to come.
R.I.P Tom Petty.
What are your favorite songs by Tom Petty, and did you ever see him in concert?