What Tom Petty Taught Me About Songwriting and Life

He wrote gospel songs about defiance, love, and life as an outcast

Matt Ruby
Matt Ruby
Oct 3, 2017 · 18 min read

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To get Tom Petty, you really had to see him live. You had to smell the joint a few rows back. You had to be wedged in with teenagers and old fogies. You had to stand up and sing along.

“Even the Losers” is the one that hooked me the first time I saw him years ago. The song mutated into something else when thousands of us sang it together.

Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes
-Even The Losers

None of us felt like losers. We just felt human. Before it was a breakup song. Now it was a rallying cry.

See, the secret about Tom Petty is that he wrote gospel songs. He wrote from the point of view of the losers. The fuck ups. The rebels. The misfits. The dropouts. The ones who only get a glimpse. But he got that that’s what we live for, that glimpse. That is where redemption lies.

I kept seeing Tom Petty every few years after that. The last time was just a few weeks before he died. Each time it felt like I was checking in with him. I don’t do this with any other musician. I usually let ’em go. Especially the old ones doing the whole cling-to-faded-youth thing. But Petty never seemed to age. He was timeless. He somehow seemed like a crotchety old man and a rebellious teen at the same time. And it felt like he was that way from the moment he emerged.

I remember seeing him for the first time on MTV. It was the video for The Waiting.

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
-The Waiting

Even as a kid, something about the lyrics resonated with me. Maybe it’s because I was a kid. Who hates waiting more than a child? It really is the hardest part. Give me that cookie now.

And for a weird looking dude, TP sure did dominate MTV throughout that decade. Alice in Wonderlanding on Don’t Come Around Here No More.

Stop walking down my street
Don’t come around here no more
Who did you expect to meet?
Don’t come around here no more
-Don’t Come Around Here No More

The Mad Max jukebox on You Got Lucky. Escalator strumming on Free Fallin’. Like so many, I grew up to him. I was ridiculously skinny in high school. 120 lbs dripping wet. I bought a weightlifting set (Joe Weider, baby!) and put it in our basement. I’d go down there all the time in an attempt to “bulk up” to normal. And I’d listen to music on a crappy boombox while doing my reps. And the tape I played the most was Full Moon Fever.

My sister got lucky, married a yuppie
Took him for all he was worth
Now she’s a swinger dating a singer
I can’t decide which is worse
-Yer So Bad

He doesn’t get enough credit for being funny. Example: Drummer Steve Ferrone joined the band in 1994. Yet even in 2017, Petty would always introduce him during live shows as “the new guy.”

After that, I went to college. Not my peak Petty years. He didn’t seem as cool as the Velvets or Spiritualized or the UK/indie stuff I was getting into then. But a few years later I was visiting a girlfriend who had moved to Texas. We were trying to keep it going long distance. Our deal was to see each other once a month. So every other month I’d travel to Fort Worth to visit her. She was a midwestern sweetheart. Kinda like that first verse in Free Fallin’…

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ‘bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too
-Free Fallin’

Man, look at the picture he paints there. So simple. The economy of it. It seems like he has barely said anything. And yet you know everything about this girl.

That was his gift. He seemed like some simple, blue-collar everyman. Yet there were layers there. He used simple language to convey eternal themes. I once heard him explain why he didn’t give many interviews by saying, “I don’t speak unless I have something to say.” That shows in his lyrics.

Anyway, the gf and I would venture out once in a while to do Texas stuff. We’d go to a rodeo, eat a steak, see a honkytonk, visit the Texas School Book Depository. But mostly we’d lounge around her apartment. She made this dish that was cream cheese, cocktail sauce, and canned shrimp and we’d eat it with Ritz crackers. She grew up in Indiana and that’s fine dining there (most midwestern recipes from that era involved a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup).

She grew up in an Indiana town
Had a good lookin’ momma who never was around
But she grew up tall and she grew up right
With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night
-Mary Jane’s Last Dance

Her music collection was a lot of Lilith Fair/Sarah McLachlan stuff so we often settled on the Tom Petty Anthology. That double CD. Over and over we played it. And we’d laugh and eat and screw and those songs began to seep into my head in a deeper way.

Eventually, we broke up. I wasn’t ready. Petty knew how it feels.

And all the bad boys, are standing in the shadows
All the good girls, are home with broken hearts
-Free Fallin’

I was a musician living in Chicago back then. Played guitar and sang in a band called Plastics Hi-Fi. We put out a few albums and toured around the midwest. I remember our drummer, Rich, coercing me into seeing Tom Petty live. So we went to an amphitheater outside Chicago. Petty hit the stage and that’s when it clicked.

I had heard You Got Lucky plenty of times. But it wasn’t until that night that I really heard it.

If you don’t feel complete
If i don’t take you all of the way
Then go, yeah, go,
But remember
Good love is hard to find
Good love is hard to find
You got lucky, babe
You got lucky, babe
When I found you
-You Got Lucky

It’s a breakup song. He’s pining. But it’s not sad. It’s defiant. He tells her to go, that she got lucky. Broken and defiant at the same time. That was the Petty p.o.v. Bend but don’t break.

Live you realized how how good, subtle, and classy his band was too. Every Axl needs his Slash and Petty had his in Mike Campbell. So many simple yet unforgettable intro riffs — American Girl, Listen To Her Heart, Breakdown. And melodic solos — listen to the blistering outro on Runnin’ Down A Dream or the slide solo on I Won’t Back Down. He had a Harrisonesque way of playing just a few notes but always the right ones.

And Benmont Tench’s keyboards melt in perfectly. Check the piano flourishes on the choruses of Here Comes My Girl or the Hammond organ that launches Refugee or the synth intro to You Got Lucky.

It was like having two of the best session players in the world as your sidemen. Live, they’d really let it rip too. They’d do obscure covers by The Ventures or Them. You could tell the band was having a blast.

Petty was the show though. Zoom in on those “oh yeah”s and the “whoa”s and the “hey”s and the “yeah yeah”s he’d always throw into songs. Dumb stuff, right? But those worms get ya, man. You may not know most of the lyrics, but you always know those “hey”s and “yeah”s. The ones from American Girl and You Wreck Me embed themselves somewhere deep in your brain stem.

The whole thing was revelatory. The next day, I borrowed a Petty songbook from Rich and downloaded guitar tabs from the web. I learned every Petty hit. I wanted to take those songs apart and put them back together again the same way some kid who wants to learn electronics might take an alarm clock apart and put it back together.

I studied how his opening lines always hooked ya.

You think you’re gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
You keep thinkin’ that her mind is gonna change
But I know everything is okay
-Listen To Her Heart

Look at how Even The Losers opens up: On a spring night, we sat on your roof, smoke cigs, and I showed you stars. Don’t tell me you just forgot about all that.

Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof
Yeah we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Babe, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me
-Even The Losers

I marveled at how he needed just a few brushstrokes to paint a vivid picture.

She wore faded jeans and soft black leather
She had eyes so blue they looked like weather
When she needed me I wasn’t around
That’s the way it goes, it’ll all work out
-It’ll All Work Out

I noticed the poetry of his internal rhyme schemes.

She picked me up in the mornin’, and she paid all my tickets
Then she screamed in the car
Left me out in the thicket
Well I never would of dreamed
That her heart was so wicked
Yeah but I keep comin’ back
Cause it’s so hard to kick it, hey, hey, hey
I was born a rebel, down in Dixie
On a Sunday morning
Yeah with one foot in the grave
And one foot on the pedal, I was born a rebel

How the hell did he get away with rhyming tickets, thicket, wicked, and kick it!?

And he taught me how to write a bridge. He was a master of middle eights. I’d been writing songs for a while but I never really “got” bridges. TP helped me realize the real purpose of a bridge. You’ve set up a pattern. You’ve established your hook and your verse and your chorus. We get it.

But then, 2/3rds of the way through, after that second chorus, there is an exit on the highway. And you take it for eight bars. The chords change. A new melody enters. The rhythm of the lyrics changes. The narrator introduces a new clue in the case. That’s when you learn what the song is really about. And before you know it, you’re guided back into the last verse. A good middle eight is like a story within a story.

Here’s a verse in It’s Good To Be King…

It’s good to be king and have your own world
It helps to make friends, it’s good to meet girls
A sweet little queen who can’t run away
It’s good to be king, whatever it pays
-It’s Good To Be King

…but here’s the bridge:

Excuse me if I have some place in my mind
Where I go time to time

Aha. This song’s not about a king, it’s about a loser who dreams of being a king. The rest of the song is a dream sequence and the bridge is the reality. That’s what a good bridge should be: the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that brings the whole thing together.

And after the bridge, it usually goes into a Mike Campbell solo that smacks you upside the head. Then, sometimes, you’ll coast on out with the chorus again.

But often, TP comes back for a third verse. It’s usually stripped down. The band simplifies the arrangement and plays less. It’s spotlight time for Tom. He’s going to tell you the last chapter. Pull up a seat and gather round the campfire. One of my fave examples is on A Woman In Love.

Time after time, night after night
She would look up at me
And say she was lonely
I don’t understand the world today
I don’t understand what she needed
I gave her everything she threw it all away
On nothin’
She’s a woman in love
-A Woman in Love

Every night they lie in bed together and she looks up at him and tells him she’s lonely. Devastating. I’ve spent my life being attracted to emotionally unavailable women. Dude, I feel ya.

There was a Halloween tradition in Chicago where bands would play a “tribute set” as one of their favorite bands. Our band decided to do Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I bought a hat like TP wore in that Alice in Wonderland video. We had to lower the key of all his songs so I could do the vocals (his voice is surprisingly high). We played You Wreck Me, I Won’t Back Down, Runnin’ Down a Dream, You Got Lucky, and American Girl. And the crowd looooved it.

It was a wakeup call. Our band wrote decent songs. But nothing like this. It wasn’t just that people recognized the songs. It was that the songs were so damn good. They flowed as if they’d been handed down at the mountaintop.

Rehearsing those songs is when I started to pay attention to the backbone of the Heartbreakers, that driving rhythm section. The drums in TP songs are like a piston. They don’t stray. There aren’t lots of fancy fills or rhythmic shifts. Tom Petty exists in a world of straight lines. That’s why his songs are so great to listen to while driving. Those rumble strips might as well be another percussion instrument.

Next time you’re on a highway, crank Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s a song about driving that feels like driving. It’s made for your car. There’s a reason Cameron Crowe has Jerry Maguire sing along to Petty while driving. That’s where you’re supposed to listen to Tom Petty.

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine
-Runnin’ Down a Dream

The week before our faux Tom Petty set I met a new gal. It was at a cheesy bar. She was dancing with her arms outstretched over her head and she had this huge grin on her face. That’s why I wanted to talk to her. I mentioned the show and her eyes lit up. She loved Tom Petty too! That’s how it began. A year later we moved in together. She was also a small town girl who felt like a character in a TP song. I played The Best of Everything for her.

She probably works in a restaurant
That’s what her mama did
But I don’t know if she ever really coulda put up with that
Or maybe she sings in a nightclub
’Cause sometimes she used to sing
But I don’t know if it ever amounted to anything
But listen honey, wherever you are tonight
I wish you the best of everything in the world
And I hope you found, whatever you were looking for
-The Best Of Everything

That track always felt like a Raymond Carver story to me. Dark and evocative. And man, “I hope you found whatever you were looking for” is some kinda line. That’s grownup shit.

Around then, Petty announced another tour. This time, he wouldn’t play the hits. Instead, the band was going to play small rooms and just do covers of ’50s and ’60s rock chestnuts. Some Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley but mostly artists I never heard of. They played The Vic in Chicago. I took the gf and we had a blast. It was cool to see him in such an intimate venue. You knew they were playing these songs and doing this tour because they wanted to play songs they loved. If it meant playing tiny theaters instead of arenas, so be it. They were trading money for joy.

Eventually, the gal and I broke up. Verse chorus verse, ya know? But we still talk once in a while. Sometimes she mentions “Honey Bee” to me. That’s her favorite Petty track.

She like to call me king bee
She like to buzz ‘round my tree
I call her honey bee
I’m a man in a trance
I’m a boy in short pants
When I see my honey bee
-Honey Bee

I think it’s kinda a throwaway tune but I enjoyed how much she loved it. Personally, if I want cheesy Tom, I’ll go for Here Comes My Girl.

But when she puts her arms around me
I can somehow rise above it
Yeah, man when I got that little girl standin’ right by my side
You know, I can tell the whole wide world “shove it!” Hey!
Here comes my girl, here comes my girl
Yeah, and she looks so right; she is all I need tonight
-Here Comes My Girl

Even cheesy Tom ain’t that cheesy though. There are few clichés in Tom Petty’s world. He had a topnotch bullshit detector.

After that, my band broke up too. Later, I did a few shows as solo act. Acoustic singer/songwriter mode. At the first one, I did covers of Petty’s “It’s Good To Be King” and Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” Sucks to lose ’em both so close to each other. They’ve been the points on the horizon that I try to sail toward.

Cut to years later. I’ve moved to New York City. Now I’m with a new gf (sensing a pattern?) and she’s getting the “come see Tom Petty with me” treatment too. We sat in the balcony at the Beacon Theater. I remember some old couple getting shown to their seats in front of us. The dude slipped the usher a bill in a suave fashion, that handshake tip thing. My gf told me it was the kind of thing that turned her on. That probably shoulda been a sign for me. A few months later she dumped me.

Met another gal soon after. On our first date, I asked her who her favorite musician was and she replied, “Tom Petty.” Immediately my brain lit up. We didn’t make it either. But it was a good run.

And I guess that’s the thing about TP for me too. It’s not just the music. He’s been there for all my relationships. Most things I loved as a kid I’ve since moved past. But I never grew out of Petty. He’s been by my side for my whole life. And as I’ve grown up, the meaning of some of those songs have shifted over time.

I wanna glide down, over Mulholland
I wanna write her, name in the sky
I wanna free fall, out into nothin’
Gonna leave this, world for awhile
-Free Fallin’

I used to think Free Fallin’ was about being wild — about breaking her heart and not even missing her. But now it seems lonelier — about falling into nothing and leaving the world for awhile.

All the while, TP kept going. Making new albums and always touring. Why? I heard him discuss it in interviews. He talked about how he thought his band was incredible. And how when you have a band that good, you’ve got to take them on the road. Otherwise you’ll lose ’em. If you’ve got a gal who’s fine, take her to the dance.

Fast forward to July, 2017. I’m at Forest Hills stadium for Petty’s 40th anniversary tour. No girl this time. I’m with my buddies Steve and Euvin. They are both music heads but had never seen Petty live. So we get stoned and climb into our seats. And the sun sets and Petty and co. play their hits.

It was my buddy Euvin’s first time seeing him live. He commented on how the whole show felt like a jukebox, how you don’t realize how much Tom Petty has permeated your life, how his songs were like Christmas carols.

It ended the way every Petty show ends, at the beginning.

A song about America that was recorded on the day of the bicentennial: July 4, 1976. Cosmic, eh? It begins with that riff that The Strokes ripped off. The whole song keeps climbing from there. Those “oh yeah”s and “alright”s are embedded in our collective unconscious. Even the backing vocals — “make it last all night” — are irresistible.

Listen to that opening verse. It’s worth noting how well TP wrote about women. How he’d inhabit the p.o.v. of female characters or describe them in his songs in a way that most male songwriters never get.

The second verse of American Girl is the one that kills me though. I once took an acting class and performed it as a monologue. I just feel like I’m right there on that balcony with her every time I hear it.

It was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
She could the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ in the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach
-American Girl

That moment of desperation. On a balcony. That feeling when you tell yourself not to think about the one who got away, but you just can’t help it. We all have that ex who creeps back into our minds. And it feels like they’re right there with us. But it’s a mirage. And that is what hurts the most. When something is so close and still so far out of reach. Whoa. Yeah. Wait, is he talking about an ex or is he talking about the whole damn American dream? So close and still so far out of reach.

Petty got America. He could reach hipsters and hicks. North and south. Coastal elites and NASCAR rednecks. We all got it. I’m a Jew from New York but he could write a song about southern accents that still managed to choke me up. It’s a track you might not know but it’s one of his best.

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done, with a southern accent
Where I come from
-Southern Accents

He doesn’t care if you think he’s dumb. That burnout who left high school and can’t follow the rules…maybe he knows something you don’t.

I once saw this bathroom graffiti magic markered on a hostel bathroom wall in Switzerland: “An academic takes simple ideas and makes them complicated. An artist takes complicated ideas and makes them simple.” Whenever I think of it, I also think of Tom Petty.

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta’s
Just a motel room to me
Think I might go work Orlando
If them orange groves don’t freeze
I got my own way of workin’
But everything is run, with a southern accent
Where I come from
-Southern Accents

Again, so few details but so much story. Orange groves and drunk tanks. Seems straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story. And then the bridge.

For just a minute there I was dreaming
For just a minute it was all so real
For just a minute she was standing there, with me
-Southern Accents

That’s what I mean about being a master of the middle eight. The woman he once loved (his mom? an ex?) is back by his side. Or at least it feels that way. And then the last verse…

There’s a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And kneels down over by the window
And says a prayer for me
Got my own way of prayin’
But everyone’s begun
With a southern accent
Where I come from
-Southern Accents

We’ve all got our own way of praying. For us rock fans, it’s just rock ’n roll. It’s religion for those of us who don’t believe in organized religion.

But if you want the Tom Petty thesis statement, I think you go to Refugee.

It’s a song about defiance. It’s the opposite of a love letter. It’s a kick in the ass. It’s about how we all suffer. How we all get kicked around. And then we face a choice: Whatcha gonna do about it?

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Who knows maybe you were kidnapped tied up,
Taken away and held for ransom
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me, baby
Everybody has to fight to be free, you see
You don’t have to live like a refugee

You’ve got to fight to be free. You don’t have to take it lying down. Don’t revel in your abandon. This is the Petty ethos. It’s that Sicilian scene in True Romance where Dennis Hopper spits in Christopher Walken’s face. It’s giving the finger to the man. It’s defying authority. For TP, it was fighting an abusive dad and record companies that gouge fans and concert promoters that charge too much for tickets and radio stations that don’t play the new stuff and women who done him wrong and heroin addiction.

But we all have our own version. We all get pushed around. The real test is in how we respond.

Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down
-I Won’t Back Down

You have to put up a fight. YOU HAVE TO PUT UP A FIGHT. Things fall apart. The world isn’t fair. That’s life. You have to put up a fight. And when you do, Tom Petty will have your back. He’ll sing a song for you. And for just one moment, everything will be alright.

As for me, I’m pushing through. Gonna miss him though. Rich sent me a message: “‘Somewhere somehow somebody must’ve kicked you around some.’ Damn.” Rich gets it.

And the gal I lived with in Chicago sent me an email: “In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have given you second thought that fateful night if it wasn’t for the fact your band was covering Tom Petty songs at your next show! It was a magical night and Mr. Petty was the matchmaker.” She ended the note by inviting me to come meet her two girls.

And the most recent ex texted right after the news broke: “Fuck. Are you ok? Do you want me to come over?” We’ll see what happens. As Tom once sang, it’ll all work out eventually.

Now the wind is high and the rain is heavy
And the water’s rising in the levee
Still I think of her when the sun goes down
It never goes away, but it all works out
-It’ll All Work Out

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Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby.

Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby. I’m a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. Learn more at mattrubycomedy.com.

Matt Ruby

Written by

Matt Ruby

Comedian/writer. I just want all the right things to be in the wrong place.

Sandpaper Suit

This is the comedy blog of Matt Ruby. I’m a standup comedian and the creator of Vooza, a video comic strip about the tech world. Learn more at mattrubycomedy.com.

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