A Petty Life
I started out all alone.
1980-something. I always know the voice. From the 8 track on top of my brother’s dresser, from a dirty radio in a grimy garage. Raw and heavy. Smooth in a gritty way, transversing from an achy croon to a yawning rage in the time it took to pop a top. Magical riffs. Loose but tight, sweet yet salty. A sound that feels like that ten second buzz between not enough and one too many. I’m babysitting my little brothers. I’m watching the video for Don’t Come Around Here No More, a key to room in parts unknown. I want in.
It is 1990. Maybe 1989. I get my own boom box with CD AND cassette player for Christmas. I can make mixes now. I’m going to live forever. With it I got two CDs — one was Full Moon Fever, so the other one doesn’t matter. Every song on Full Moon Fever is a gift, like a flower unfolding at midnight. I don’t skip any track; every note is true. I sing Free Fallin’ with a friend from the swim team. We annoy everybody at the pizza party. We crack ourselves up. From A Face in the Crowd to Yer So Bad. How did the same guy write Alright For Now and Zombie Zoo? He looks like some dude down at the Jiffy Lube. Just a grinder with a guitar. Tom Petty was a tie-dyed haystack, a cosmic barnyard sifting through leftover universes.
It’s 1993. Or maybe 1994. High school ends; I drift and smoke and 1995 melts into 1999. Mary Jane’s Last Dance. I work in warehouses. I wait tables. I work outside and start growing beards in the winter. I learn tools and unlearn women. I discover acid. I listen to Wildflowers for a straight calendar year. You don’t know how it feels in my cabin down below. I drop a pebble in a lake and figure out time one Saturday night. I forget it all before the next hit kicks in. It’s good to be King. I smoke cigarettes and hang out in coffee shops. I drive to Austin. I dabble in isms. Tempered wood grain and sweet sativa. You wreck me, but it’s only a broken heart. I’m paycheck to paycheck, sometimes two. It’s time to move on. I’m going to a higher place. I’m crawling back to you. Don’t fade on me.
Sometimes Johnny Cash drops an album from his Rick Rubin American Recordings sessions. Petty’s all over that. The Heartbreakers were Cash’s backing band for a lot of it. You can hear the echoes of familiar riffs, and sometimes Petty’s voice like an old true friend. Just players playing. That’s the only time they love you, I’ve heard.
The towers fall. I meet my wife. I go to grad school. I discover Highway Companion years later. Headed South. I’m a father making playlists for dancing with a toddler. And there’s Petty. Again. Always. Spiritual eons removed from teen aches, twenties angst, wandering roads that found me as much as I found them. My wilderness years are gone, paved over for a new suburb. I’m raising an American girl to American girl. Everything changed and then changed again.
You just figure they’re gonna be out there spinning meaning for us forever. We may not have the latest album or keep up with the most recent tour, but it feels better to know they’re still doing what they’ve always done. It comforts our displaced spirits and soothes our raggedy minds. The ground feels more solid when we know the Bowies, Princes, and Pettys are out there still walking it somewhere. But solid is a fleeting state and meaning is slippery. Our idols passing reminds us that we too can’t stay forever. It hits too close to home. I hope I come back in another place at another time and just live for the moment of a Tom Petty yawp on the edge of a blistering riff. In the meantime, I may just sow some wildflowers. Hopefully I’ll be around to watch them grow in the Spring.