CLEVELAND -- It was February 19, 2009, 11:49 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, during our nine-hour BracketBusters marathon chat. We have a lot of people sign in with names that aren't theirs, but we hadn't had any multi-platinum rock stars show up before.
[Comment From Tom Petty] Two questions. 1) What are your top 3 favorite songs of mine, all-time ... 2) If you had to start your college team with one player for one year would it be -- Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet or Jodie Meeks.
OK, so it wasn't really him. And I bumbled the question, something about having sold all my Petty CD's. So it wasn't my doing when all of a sudden, every other question was about Tom Petty. It came as a complete surprise -- people sending in links to YouTube videos, remembering concert experiences, and inserting TP lyric puns in their questions. We've known for years that Bally is a fan, sure, but was there really this much overlap between Mid-Majority readers and Petty fans? And c'mon, really, how?
I mean, Tom Petty isn't exactly a "mid-major guy." He often shows up at concerts with a guitar that has a giant orange and green University of Florida Gators logo. He never attended, but there are stories about how he used to mow the athletic fields for extra cash, growing up in Gainesville.
But looking over his life and career, Tom Petty's the kind of underdog who fought to earn everything he got. He's the son of an insurance salesman. He doesn't have the European features that most rock stars have; I was in Florida recently, and there are a whole lot of people who look like Tom Petty there. Tom quit high school and once filed for bankruptcy. When he became a rock star, his mansion burned down, and has had plenty of legal battles throughout his career. He certainly didn't innovate anything -- there were three chords, chiming guitars and rock songs about girls before there was a Tom Petty, and he built his career on the shoulders of giants. His slurred nasal vocals could never get him beyond the "ha-ha round" on the first week of "American Idol," but he rocked the Super Bowl and built a legendary career on his own terms anyway.
Also hidden in his life story are lessons about loyalty and friendship. Mr. Petty's Heartbreakers are a group of merry men who help him fulfill his vision, and most of them have been together on the same team for a quarter-century. He also remembers and helps his old friends; he reformed his old band Mudcrutch, with whom he moved from Gainesvlle to Los Angeles in the late 1960's, for an album and tour. His power in the marketplace is primarily derived from living up to his audience's expectations; he serves the fans before he serves the industry or popular convention, and he barely ever gives the impression that he's in it only for himself.
Tom's career has been pocked with misfires and questionable experiments, and there have been plenty of misses among the many hits. But that's because he's never been afraid to try out ideas in public, push himself, or just fail outright. There were the albums that didn't really work or hang together, critical and commercial failures like Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) or She's The One, and there are plenty of album tracks (like "Zombie Zoo") that make you cringe a little. But it's not like skipping songs in your shuffle is going to hurt Tom Petty's feelings.
Because most of Tom Petty's high-risk gambles have paid off. In 1979, he refused to be moved from one record company to another without his consent (upon ABC Records' sale to MCA), and when MCA threatened to raise the retail price of his fourth album from the industry-standard nine dolalrs to ten, he threatened to name it Eight Ninety Eight before MCA relented. That album turned out to be Hard Promises. Much later, he was one of the early pioneers of free MP3 distribution, back when nobody even knew what MP3 was. Here's a 256kbps copy of that song, just as crisp and crackling as the original... "Free Girl Now."
But the greatest Tom Petty songs have basic ingredients. One is a narrator in a fixed position in time (not necessarily in place; see "Runnin' Down a Dream.") The second ingredient is a destination. The songs themselves are about everything in between point A and point B, a road, the sky, a girl, a moment, Hollywood, fear, hesitation, faith, desire, anticipation, life itself. But in some cases, the narrator isn't even sure what that destination is -- just somewhere else that's better, where a second chance may lie.
They aren't exercises in writing obliquely, because most rebels don't have a clue and mysteries always need to be run down. All these songs -- like "Learning to Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open" and "Room at the Top" and "A Higher Place" -- were written in the past 30 years, after the 15 years Tom spent locating his true voice. This was the first one, form that Hard Promises LP that I once bought for nine bucks (plus tax).
These songs represent true and basic human experience, and they're what separate Tom Petty from the average rock hero who sings about partying and women. I don't remember a time when Tom Petty ever wrote a song that exploits the lowest common denominator (which is very difficult when your signature vocal style involves repeating "baby" a lot). But take this version of "Learning to Fly," for example, from the recently-released Live Anthology. It's tough for me to get through, but it's because it elicits the kind of "Breakdown" that has little to do with going ahead and giving it to me. I don't know if it's the crowd taking the chorus or Tom singing "gonna fly over my troubles, gonna fly over my worries" over it, but this is basically church.
I'm not trying to draw any parallels here between what Tom Petty does and what we are trying to accomplish in this space. This is a site about college basketball, one of the most corrupt sports in America, one in which its chroniclers would be blacklisted for life if they revealed even a tenth of the "real reasons" why things happen. We just try to use it as a metaphor, and pretend it's beautiful. I'll never have a hit single or play at the Super Bowl... mostly because that would require knowing what the score is.
Tom and I work in different mediums. While I only dabble in songwriting, I'm primarily a children's book illustrator. But Tom Petty is an inspiration to me, and to many of you, because of his resilience, defiance, daring and loyalty. TP taught me to be good to my fans, and engage them in down-to-earth discussion (he has a radio show!) -- I used to be really bad at that. When I'm told I'm being too strident and precious, I think about The Last DJ -- Tom had something he wanted to say about money and greed, and he knew that his true fans would understand where he was coming from. And whenever I experience one of the many setbacks and failures this site has gone through in the past six years, I remember the line from "Straight Into Darkness": The weak ones fall, the strong carry on. No matter what, we have to keep going.
I haven't gone nearly as far, obviously. I'm still waiting for my Hard Promises moment that will never come. Even if it arrives, I'll still be three decades away from performing the Epilogue at the Final Four. I will be in at least my seventies by then.
Tom Petty is so prevalent in our society -- 60 million albums sold and at least that many spins on terrestrial and satellite radio every year -- that his songs just show up everywhere. A lot of times, he's like a bird on your shoulder, a better conscience, or just an observer of the state of things, making remarks and comments about proceedings in the foreground. Sometimes, it's uncanny how Tom always says the right things.
Like last night. It was March 11, 2010, at 11:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, after a long 12 hours of MAC quarterfinals. It was a crazy day: a No. 7 seed beat the No. 2, and the top seed had been dumped by a No. 9. As I was driving back to my hotel south of the Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, I had to pull over to dispense with all the coffee I needed to get through the afternoon. Luckily for me, there was a late-night McDonald's.
And as I walked in to duck into the bathroom, there was Tom, singing to me over the speaker system.