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Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream

I've always liked Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

A few nights ago I stumbled across Tom belting out one of his many hits on the IFC channel. Though I was about to hit the rack, I decided to watch for a bit. Four hours later I'd just finished watching the best musical documentary since This Is Spinal Tap. It's called Runnin' Down a Dream, it's directed by Peter Bogdanovich (Last Picture Show, Mask), and it opened a floodgate of nostalgia for me; not to mention cementing my respect for Tom Petty as a true artist and a major deity in Rock's pantheon.

The genius of Petty is that anyone who was in their late teens or twenties sometime between 1975-2000 feels like they uniquely own his music. Think back to the summer of your youth: when July lasted a year; hanging with your friends was everything; finding a crisp bleached ten dollar bill in the pocket of your blue jeans after the wash was cause for riotous celebration.

You're behind the wheel of an American car with bench seats and a cracked vinyl interior, there's a fine-limbed beauty smiling without guile in the passenger seat; the radio is blaring a song of defiance and longing, the sky is crystal blue, the highway is long, the wind blowing through your windows smells of fresh cut grass; there's a little Jack mixed into the Big Gulp balanced precariously between your thighs; while your knees steer, one hand beats a rhythm onto the outside of your door, your other tracing silk and tanned caramel. You're just out of your senior year football practice/college finals/your first job. The destination is irrelevant and the moment is what matters. You don't know what an obligation is. You have everything.

Who is playing on that radio?

Tom Petty.

And if not, it should be.

You think youre gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
Keep thinkin that mind is gonna change
But I know everything is okay

Shes gonna listen to her heart
Its gonna tell her what to do
She might need a lot of loving
But she dont need you

You want me to think that Im being used
You want her to think its over
You cant see it doesnt matter what you do
Buddy, you dont even know her.

There's more simple genius in those lines in evoking a place, time, and feeling than a haiku. The stakes are clear, the line in the sand is drawn, and there's the sincere belief of a naive but self-aware youth that good will win out in a world run by money, bullshit, and doubletalk.

Bogdanovich wisely eschews the use of a narrator, preferring to allow the band and its music tell the tale. Petty's ascendancy and three decade popularity was maintained during a time when popular culture was careening between some of the most insipidly self-conscious music ever created (disco, New Wave, 80s hair bands); short attention spans and fad ruled the day. Several notable legends either fell off the map completely or transformed themselves shamefully to mirror the times.

Not Petty. Throughout it all, Petty and his band managed the nearly impossible trick of growing musically while never really changing. He was always relevant to each generation's youth - whether it's Listen To Her Heart or Free Fallin'. Sure, they had great hooks and his songs have a consistent echo, but there was always a substance there, a solid core and conviction that few bands possess. This is what we stand for and while you chase down the latest fad, we'll still be here for you to come back to, carrying the banner for what's real, smirking at your trangression against good taste.

The key to Petty's music is its utter sincerity; the genius of Tom Petty the songwriter and performer is achieving range in utter simplicity. It's true Americana. There's no hint of the schlock and self-conscious branding that characterizes, say, everything on Country Music Television. His messages are universal. It's not about clever. The Heartbreakers were never self-indulgent and they were never an accursed jam band, a scourge more evil than any pop triviality. Tom is all about evoking a time, place, and attitude, relaying simple truths and gently prodding us - usually implicitly - that we can all do a little better. He stands for General Good Without A Cause. And that's a non-cause that I can rally behind.

If you're a Petty fan, check it out. If you're not, it may make you one.