Tom Petty & My Favorite Songs About Writing

I can’t claim any proper Tom Petty fan identity. I’m not particularly good at music fandom of any kind; I have very little to offer in the way of musical knowledge or intellectual capital on the subject. But I liked Tom Petty, always liked his voice, no matter its context or deployment—with the caveat that I’ve only ever been a casual listener, one most connected with the local radio stations of my 90s childhood that specialized in the “Best Hits of Today and Yesterday,” a very safe and mainstream rock-and-pop cocktail mixed of three decades of one-hit wonders and the acts that kept turning up Top-40 tunes from the seventies into the oughts.

Tom Petty, with and without the Heartbreakers, was one of those artists whose music appeared and appealed in all of those years. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” struck me in the brief heart of my MTV-watching days, the high school years that felt like the height of music video art (which I say because I haven’t watched more than a handful of music videos since, and everything seems better and more meaningful in hindsight’s nostalgic glow), but “Free Fallin'” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” rolled across the dial at least weekly. All three of those songs are on an ugly yellow and purple cassette somewhere in my garage, collected with everything else I taped directly from the radio, all of the songs without their opening chords because of the delay in moving from recognition to the dual click of play and record, the lunge across my bed or away from the Super Nintendo controller.

Two of Petty’s songs have become, in more recent years, important to me as a writer: “The Waiting,” from 1981’s Hard Promises, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” from 1989’s Full Moon Fever. I don’t have those tracks burned into those older memories. I don’t know why; they don’t seem notably different from—and are in no way lesser than—those other songs that got played all of the time. That was one of Tom Petty’s great appeals: all of the songs that I’d heard were good. I don’t know all of them, of course, but everything I’ve heard has felt good, familiar, like Tom Petty. Maybe it’s his unmistakable voice. I don’t have that many artists to which I gravitate, but I always knew when it was his voice, the same way I think about Vin Scully and Harry Kalas, who never performed music to my knowledge but who provided so much of a life’s soundtrack all the same.

But back to those two tracks: if there’s one thing any writer understands, it’s the waiting. On my drive to campus this morning, I listened to it three times in a row—because now I’ve finally bought it, both of those albums, a thing I’d meant to do for years and have only done now.

The song, obviously, is not about staring agonizingly at Submittable or an e-mail inbox or Duotrope, but it’s very much about love, and surely anything about writing is also about love, its sweet-sour bite. It’s about uncertainty and excitement and hope in the wake of past failures, and isn’t that everything about sending off a new piece of work?

And to even get to that place of sending out work, the heart of the making, is running down that dream. I’m hip-deep in a rewrite of a novel that has required that necessary hyphen: not simply to revise, but to re-envision. The process is a constant pursuit; a text I thought I knew has made itself again into a mystery. That, I think, is a good thing. To return to Frost’s adage from “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the work is finding ways to surprise me again, which means I can have more reasonable expectation that a reader might feel the same, taking pleasure in an act of discovery.

Now that Tom Petty’s gone, I find myself doing a thing I seldom do, which is listening to whole albums in order, to try to better understand what I didn’t appreciate soon enough. I keep drifting out of the songs themselves and coming back to his voice, the bare fact of it, not exceptional in the ways in which one might think of singers, but comfortable in its nasal pinches and dropped consonants, the everyday ease of it. Hello and goodbye, Mr. Petty, always wearing some peculiar hat over his yellow hair and Mad Hatter face that are my specific remembrances of him. I’m thankful for this company while I’m trying to run down my own particular dream.

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