This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Tom Petty and it certainly won’t be the last. I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting on his life, music, and what all of that means for me (or more importantly, has meant to me). I’ve been a Tom Petty fan my whole life it seems. In the same way that we tend to like the sports teams our parents like, I’ve always gravitated towards the music of my dad (this is also because there is no way I’m cheering for Nebraska). Growing up it was rock-n-roll in the car with my dad; it was the Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen, and of course Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We were inundated with Lynard Skynard and a swath of blues musicians on a regular basis in our little minivan.
Honestly, there wasn’t always a minivan consensus on what we were listening to. The respect and admiration for the Rolling Stones had not yet set in for my brothers and me. However, there was one band who would come on that always received a unanimous yes vote: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Free Fallin would come on, or Mary Jane’s Last Dance, or Here Comes My Girl, or You Wreck Me, or Learning to Fly, or any of the great Petty Songs… and content satisfaction reigned in our vehicle for those three and half minutes.
Tom Petty understood all of us in that minivan. This family of 6 who were living on a $800 a month Prison Guard salary from my dad. Living in state-provided housing (because there was no chance we could afford anything else), we were just the family living in Raiford, Florida outside of Gainesville – the hillbilly swamp – barely making it. The interesting thing is, I know we were poor, and I know things were difficult for our family, but I don’t think any of my brothers or me remember it. Or that we gave much thought to how our mom pinched pennies at the grocery store to feed us and pack our lunches for school, or all the night shifts my dad worked, or all the Christmas gifts they somehow made possible.
Maybe we didn’t notice because this is what life was like for literally everyone we knew. The late 80’s and early 90’s in Raiford, Florida weren’t booming economic times. It was the place for people who couldn’t afford anything else. You didn’t work at Florida State Penitentiary because you wanted to – you worked there because you dropped out of high-school, your dad left when you were 5, and you had 4 kids at 22 years of age. That’s the world my family inhabited. The pentecostal family church, the dirt track racing, rundown trailer life of Raiford, Florida. This was our world, our language, our ethos. Interestingly enough, it was also the world of Tom Petty (and several of the Heartbreakers too).
Tom Petty grew up in the hillbilly swamp of Florida, poor family, abusive dad, unsuccessful in school, reject, loser. I’ve never asked, but I’m willing to bet so much of his music resonated with my dad because he spoke the language of my dad’s life. He was tapped into some deeper reality that struck a chord with all of the rejects in North Florida.
I think all of those drop-outs, losers, dejected, poverty-stricken men and women of Raiford working long shifts, night shifts, too-many-kids-not-enough-money-people were wondering: Can we really break free from all the inflicted (and self-inflicted) turmoil of life? Can we ever make it out of here? Will I ever be something other than what I am? Will I ever be something for my family better than what my dad was? Will I always be this ________?
Enter Tom Petty.
What was so beautiful about his life and story is he comes in and answers with an emphatic, chord-reverberating “Yes!” to those questions. Music and the stage was his pulpit, and proclaiming a place for the losers and rejects was his sermon. It was gospel to us because it is the heart of the actual gospel as well. Whether he ever knew it or not, it meant that my mom and dad didn’t have to stay in Raiford, it meant they could buy and make a beautiful home in the mountains of East Tennessee and see their kids become something more than the prison guards of North Florida. It meant a house full of grandchildren who are showered with gifts every Christmas. It meant life could be something more.
Somewhere a switch has to flip, somewhere someone will have to say “I won’t back down,” or realize that all these hard things – all the waiting (that has correctly been assessed to be the hardest part of life) – means something, even for (and especially for!) the losers.
The reason I love Tom Petty so much is due to this soul-captivating theme behind his life and music: The losers and rejects have a place, and that place is to be more than they are told they can be. It is fascinating how someone as rejected as Tom Petty was in his youth, became one of the most accepting in his fame. That happens most often when losers find that they can be more, they don’t have to be defined by who they were, or who they were told to be. That’s what I think it means to be a Tom Petty fan – to know that is what drove most of who he was and how he lived. That Tom Petty was someone who had been to the dirt-floor-bottom of self and life and preached that it may seem “hopeless” to believe you could be more or make it out of “this old town,” but you really, really could be more.
Tom Petty was not unlike another man who came from a podunk town who made it a point to find the losers and rejected to welcome them to his table; to proclaim that they belonged, that they could be more, that they were loved. The reality is we’re always making statements of how we think the world should be and look, and I’m thankful that Tom Petty made the statements he made along with the music he made. I’m thankful that in Jesus there is a very real place at his table for Tom Petty and all the other rejects from all the small, poor towns in all the world. For Tom Petty, I hope you found whatever you were looking for. I believe you did.
For further fascinating viewing: Running Down a Dream on Netflix – Epic and wonderful documentary about the life and formation of The Heartbreakers.
For further fascinating reading: Petty, by Warren Zanes – Wonderful biography of the loser from North Florida who became something more.