🟥 What Tom Petty taught me about songwriting and life
Petty understood America and that's why he could reach hipsters/hicks, north/south, and coastal elites/NASCAR rednecks alike. Also: Russia/Ukraine, cargo shorts, Buddhist politics, & dating habitats.
📰 This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby (comedian, writer, and the creator of Vooza). Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly.
To get Tom Petty, you really had to see him live. You had to be wedged in between teenagers and old fogies, smell the joint a few rows back, and feel an irresistible urge to stand up and sing along. The first time I saw him, back in the 90’s, “Even the Losers” is the song that hooked me. When thousands of us sang it together, it mutated from a breakup song into a rallying cry.
Baby even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes
-Even The Losers
That’s the thing about being a loser; when you’re joined together with thousands of other losers, you don’t feel like one anymore. You start to realize feeling like a loser is just something everyone goes through at some point. And that makes you feel a little more human.
The secret about Tom Petty is he wrote gospel songs. He wrote from the point of view of the losers, fuck ups, rebels, misfits, dropouts, and ones who only get a glimpse. But he understood most of us live for that glimpse, that occasional peek at the place where redemption lies.
Here’s a playlist with every song mentioned in this piece:
I kept seeing Tom Petty every few years after that first show. The last time was just a few weeks before he died. Each time it felt like I was checking in with an elder. I never really did this with any other musician in my life. I tended to grow out of bands I loved, especially the ones doing the whole cling-to-faded-youth thing.
But Petty never seemed to age. There was something timeless about him: From a young age, he seemed like a crotchety old man. And as an old man, he still twinkled with the mischievousness of a rebellious teen.
I remember seeing him for the first time on MTV as a kid in 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
Even as a kid, something about those lyrics resonated with me. Maybe it’s because I was a kid. Who hates waiting more than a child? When the hell am I gonna grow up? What’s next? Why can’t I have that cookie now?
And for a weird looking dude, TP sure did dominate MTV throughout the early days of MTV. He was Alice in Wonderland-ing on “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” giving off a Mad Max slot machine desert vibe in “You Got Lucky,” and escalator strumming on “Free Fallin’.”
Back then, I was in high school and ridiculously skinny. I couldn’t get above 120 pounds so I bought a weightlifting set (Joe Weider, baby!) and put it in our basement. In between protein shakes, I’d go down to that dank dungeon in an attempt to “bulk up” (i.e. look like a normal person). I’d listen to cassette tapes over and over on a crappy boombox while doing reps and the tape I played 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
Hilarious. Petty doesn’t get enough credit for being funny. Example: Drummer Steve Ferrone joined the band in 1994, yet even twenty years later Petty continued to introduce him during live shows as “the new guy.”
I went to college and Petty dropped off my radar for a while. He didn’t seem as cool and underground 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 from Chicago. 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 grew up in an Indiana town, just like the opening line of “Mary Jane's Last Dance.” And she was a good girl who loved her mama, just like the start of “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
Man, look at the picture he paints there. The economy is astounding; it seems like he’s barely said anything. And yet you already know everything about this girl.
That was his gift. He seemed like some simple, blue-collar everyman. He hid the layers and didn’t need you think he was smart. He used simple language to convey eternal themes. I once heard him explain why he didn’t give many interviews this way: “I don’t speak unless I have something to say.” That attitude shows in his lyrics.
Anyway, the girlfriend and I would venture out once in a while to do Texas stuff. We went to a rodeo, ate steak at a restaurant where you had to check your gun, danced at a honkytonk, and visited the Texas School Book Depository. But mostly we’d lounge around her apartment. She used to make this dish that was cream cheese, cocktail sauce, and canned shrimp that we’d eat with Ritz crackers. Sometimes I’d make a Stove Top stuffing recipe that used a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Gourmet, baby.
And we’d listen to music. Her collection was a lot of Lilith Fair/Sarah McLachlan stuff and I was a rocker so it was tough to find middle ground. That’s where the Heartbreakers came in. Tom Petty was everyone’s middle ground. So we played the band’s double disc Anthology over and over again. And we’d laugh, eat, and screw. Eventually, we broke up because I wasn’t ready for more and her clock was ticking. I was the bad boys standing in the shadows, she was the good girls home with broken hearts.
Meanwhile, I was living in Chicago. I 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 Petty live. So we went to an amphitheater outside Chicago. Petty hit the stage and right after “Even The Losers” came “You Got Lucky.” I had heard the song plenty of times. But it wasn’t until that night I really listened to it.
If you don’t feel complete
If I don’t take you all of the way
Then go, yeah, go,
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 and the narrator is pining, yet it’s not sad. He’s telling her to go, that she got lucky by even being with him at all. He’s broken and rebellious at the same time. That was the Petty P.O.V. Bend but don’t break.
In concert, 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 always melted in perfectly too. 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 rip too. They’d do obscure covers by The Ventures or Them and you could tell the band was having a blast. Petty guided you through the songs with so many “oh yeah”s, “whoa”s, “hey”s, and “yeah yeah”s. Dumb stuff, right? But those lyrical worms had a way of bypassing your thinking mind and getting right into a primitive area. Those “hey”s and “yeah”s from “American Girl” and “You Wreck Me” embed themselves deep in your brain stem.
The concert was revelatory for me. The next day, I started learning how to play every Petty hit. Those songs seemed like a songwriter instruction manual. I wanted to take them apart and put them back together again the way a kid who wants to learn electronics might take an old 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
“Even The Losers” opens up by describing a spring night when we sat on your roof, smoked cigs, and stared at the 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
There was real poetry to his internal rhyme schemes too.
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 those 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. The listener gets it. But then, 2/3rds of the way through, after that second chorus, there is an exit on the highway.
And you take that offramp for eight bars. The chords change, a new melody enters, and the cadence of the lyrics shifts. Take “Refugee.” The chords change, drummer Stan switches to the toms, Mike’s guitars switch from a chugging rhythm to ringing chords followed by a melodic riff, the whole thing ends with a Twist and Shout-esque yelp from Tom, and then it segues into a keyboard solo from Benmont. And the lyrics give context to the rest of the track:
Baby we ain't the first
I'm sure a lot of other lovers been burned
Right now this seems real to you, but it's
One of those things you gotta feel to be true
If the listener is the detective, the bridge is where the narrator introduces a new clue in the case. It’s where we learn what the song is really about. And just as that you get that lightbulb moment, you’re guided back to where you were for the final verse.
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 (or at least the closest thing the song has to a bridge):
Excuse me if I have some place in my mind
Where I go time to time
-It’s Good To Be King
Aha. This song’s not about a king, it’s about a loser who dreams of being a king. The bridge reveals the song is merely a dream sequence. Lesson: A good bridge is the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that brings the whole thing together.
And after a Petty bridge, it usually goes into a Mike Campbell solo that smacks you upside the head with a Chuck Berry meets Brian May vibe. Then, you sometimes coast on out with the chorus one last time. But often, TP comes back for a third verse, frequently stripped down in instrumentation. Now it’s spotlight time for Tom: Gather round the campfire and let ol’ Tom tell you the last chapter to this saga.
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
She’s a woman in love
But it's not me
-A Woman in Love
Every night, him and his girl lie in bed together and she looks up at him and tells him she’s lonely. Devastating.
There was a Halloween tradition in Chicago where bands would play a “tribute set” as one of their favorite bands. One year, our band decided to do Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I bought a hat like TP wore in that Alice in Wonderland video and we got to learning a bunch of Heartbreaker tracks. We had to lower the key of all his songs so I could do the vocals (his voice is surprisingly high). Our set list: “You Wreck Me,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “You Got Lucky,” and “American Girl.”
And phew, the crowd looooved it. It was a wakeup call. Our band wrote decent songs, but this felt like a reveal on what it feels like to play songs that are truly great. They flowed as if they’d been handed down from the mountaintop.
That’s when I also started to pay attention to the backbone of the Heartbreakers, that driving rhythm section. Petty songs use drums like a piston; they don’t stray and there aren’t lots of fancy fills or rhythmic shifts. The band exists in a world of straight lines. That’s why those songs are so great to listen to while driving. Those rumble strips you’re driving over might as well be another percussion instrument.
There’s a reason Cameron Crowe has Jerry Maguire sing along to Tom Petty while driving. That’s where you’re supposed to listen to Tom Petty. It’s all over his lyrics: We hear the cars roll by out on 441 and there’s a freeway running through the yard and there’s something good waiting down this road.
And it’s baked into the rhythms too. Next time you’re on a highway, crank “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” It’s a song about driving that feels like driving.
I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waiting down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine
-Runnin’ Down a Dream
The same week we did our Heartbreakers tribute set, I met a new gal while out in Chicago. She was next to the bar, sorta dancing but more swaying, with her arms outstretched over her head and a big grin on her face. That’s why I wanted to talk to her. She was mostly blowing me off until I happened to mention the Tom Petty thing. She loved Tom Petty too! So that’s how it began. A year later, we moved in together. She was also a small town girl (Rhode Island this time) trying to find her way in the big city, just like a character in a TP song. She liked to sing so I played “The Best of Everything” for her because I love the way Tom drawls, “Cause sometimes she used to sing.”
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 dark and evocative, like a Raymond Carver story. And man, “I hope you found whatever you were looking for” is some grownup business.
Around then, Petty announced another tour. This time, he wouldn’t play the hits. Instead, the band was going to play small rooms and mostly do covers of ’50s and ’60s R&B chestnuts. The gal and I went to see them at The Vic, a small theater in Chicago. It was cool to see the band in such an intimate venue and you knew they were losing money doing small rooms simply because they wanted to play covers they loved. They were trading money for joy and it showed.
Eventually, she and I broke up too. Verse chorus verse, ya know? After that, my band broke up too. I eventually did some shows as solo act in 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.” Losing those two back to back was a tough blow for me. In many ways, they’d been the points on the horizon that I was trying to sail toward.
Cut to years later. I’ve moved to New York City, stopped doing music, and began telling jokes. I’m with a new gal (sensing a pattern?) and she’s coming to see Petty with me too. We sat in the balcony at the Beacon Theater and we saw some old couple getting shown to their seats right in front of us. The dude slipped the usher a bill in a suave fashion, a handshake tip like Henry Hill does in Goodfellas at the Copa. My girlfriend told me that sorta move was the kind of thing that turned her on. That probably should have been a sign for me; a few months later she dumped me.
In retrospect, Petty and my romantic relationships are tied up in each other because he was one of the few connections that endured from my youth. He was by my side my whole adult life.
And as I’ve grown up, the meaning of some of those songs have shifted. For example, 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 needing a break from a world that’s too much to handle, like someone hooked on drugs (as Petty occasionally was) might.
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
Even as radio and the rest of the industry started to pass him by, Petty kept driving down the same road, putting out new albums and touring. In interviews, he talked about how he thought his band was incredible and that when you have a band that good, you’ve got to take them on the road or else you’ll lose ’em. If you’re with a gal who’s fine, you gotta keep taking her out to 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 who had never seen Petty live. So we got stoned, climbed into our seats, and watched them play their hits as the sun set on the Queens night. Euvin commented on how the whole show felt like a jukebox and how you don’t realize how much Tom Petty has accompanied your life, his songs akin to American Christmas carols.
Every Petty show ended back at the beginning, with his first hit: “American Girl.” It’s a song about America that was recorded on the day of the bicentennial: July 4, 1976. Cosmic, eh? It begins with that chiming riff The Strokes ripped off and the whole song keeps climbing from there with “oh yeah”s and “alright”s that are now embedded in our collective unconscious. Even the backing vocals — “make it last all night” — feel like honey drizzled on an already delicious dessert.
Listen to that opening verse about a girl raised on promises. Petty wrote so well about women, inhabiting the p.o.v. of (or describing) female characters in a way that most male songwriters can’t/won’t. The second verse of “American Girl” is the one that really kills me though. I actually performed it once as a monologue in an acting class. I just feel like I’m right there on that balcony with this girl 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
That moment of desperation. The isolation of 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 just a mirage. God, it’s so painful when something that’s so close is still so far out of reach. Whoa. Yeah. Wait, is he talking about a lover or is he talking about the whole damn American dream? So close and still so far out of reach.
Petty understood 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 not one of his most popular tracks, 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
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.” Petty was a master of that kind of reduction.
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
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
That’s what I mean about being a master of the middle eight. Here, 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
We’ve all got our own way of praying. Great line. And we keep running into another theme that permeated Petty lyrics: Dreaming. I never would of dreamed her heart was so wicked…running down a dream that never would come to me…for just a minute there I was dreaming…can I help it if I still dream time to time?…don't it feel like something from a dream?
If you want the Tom Petty thesis statement, my vote’s for “Refugee.” If Bruce Springsteen’s eternal theme was escape and David Bowie’s was isolation, Petty’s was defiance. And “Refugee” sums that up perfectly. It’s the opposite of a love letter, it’s a kick in the ass. It’s about how we all suffer and 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! Don’t revel in your abandon! This is the Petty ethos. Yeah, you’ve been screwed over, but it’s how you respond that matters. It’s giving the finger to the man, it’s defying authority, it’s that scene in True Romance where Dennis Hopper rants about Sicilians and spits in Christopher Walken’s face.
Petty was always in a fight with either his abusive dad, record companies who wanted to raise prices, concert promoters who gouged fans, radio stations that wouldn’t play the new stuff, women who had done him wrong, addiction, or god knows what else. But he stood his ground and, well, y’know.
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
Things fall apart and the world isn’t fair. That’s life. But still: You have to put up a fight. And when you do, Tom Petty will have your back. He’ll have a song that nails that moment and gives you something to sing along with. And for just one moment, everything will be alright.
After he passed, that gal I lived with in Chicago sent me an email: “In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have given you a 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 kids. I thought of a couple Petty lyrics: I’m glad she found what she was looking for. And also: It never goes away, but it all works out.
It'll all work out eventually
Maybe better off with him than here with me
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
This piece was originally published after Tom Petty’s death in 2017. Loved this recent doc about the making of Wildflowers (below) so decided to resurface it.
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The host asked a guy in the crowd what his background was and he said “Belgian, Irish, white.” And then I got onstage…
Upcoming tour dates:
This weekend (Mar 18-19), I’ll be in Hartford at City Steam Brewery (tickets).
🇺🇦 What's the difference between American billionaires and Russian oligarchs? Oligarchs keep their money in America.
🇺🇦 Gas isn't $4.43 per gallon. It's $4.43 per gallon plus the $715 billion defense budget it takes to keep it at $4.43 per gallon.
🇺🇦 "They’re not yelling 'boo!' They’re screaming, 'Puuuuuuuuutin.'"
-Russian state media right now
🇺🇦 We all wanna despise Russia right now but remember: It's apparently the only place that will pay a living wage to female basketball players.
🇺🇦 When the truth sounds like a twisted Yakov Smirnoff joke: In Russia, the President picks the billionaires. In America, the billionaires pick the President.
🇺🇦 I would say we need a Manhattan Project to come up with a solution to our energy woes but we already had a Manhattan Project that came up with nuclear which is the solution to our energy woes.
🟥 How did I blackout? I was at SXSW and played a drinking game where you have to do a shot every time someone says NFT.
🟥 Me: My body's so mixed up!
Crowd: How mixed up is it?
Me: It's so mixed up that I have lazy leg syndrome, a restless eye, and the desire to bring back a joke structure popularized on 80's game shows.
🟥 Women mock dudes with cargo shorts yet also carry purses – which are basically CARGO BAGS. That’s like kangaroos making fun of birds for needing nests.
🟥 I’m bad with names but I don't wanna seem like a jerk so there's a lot of "buddy" "chief" "brother" "man" etc going on in my greetings...
"Good to see you, chief!"
"You've been dating me for the past three years."
"Good point, um, pal."
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