I am a nostalgist at the best of times, and at the worst the combination of music, moment and memory turn me into a weeping ninny.
A fair chunk of Tom Petty’s oeuvre does that to me, “Free Falling” more than most. My teen years were passed in the San Fernando Valley, and the song brings the worst of those years back in a painful rush. I never said so aloud, but Petty for me was like that cool older brother I never had, the guy who made me feel like everything was going to be okay because I shouldn’t take it too seriously, anyway.
In “Free Falling,” I heard Tom telling me that, yeah, I had hurt people, that it was wrong, that it didn’t make be a “bad boy” for breaking a heart, but that my true struggle was going to be learning to live with the hurt I had caused without daring to try and rationalize, minimalize, or forget it. That’s what the bad boys did, and that was anything but cool.
Was that what he wrote the song to try and provoke? I don’t know. That’s what the song meant to me. I can only hope that my expropriation of his music for my own emotional purposes wouldn’t have bothered Tom.
I think about meeting him on some other level of being and asking him about it. I hear him saying “no, man, if I can sing and you can heal, I’ve done my job. Mission accomplished.”
The Rebbe once said “music is the pen of the soul.” Mine will always carry an autograph of Tom Petty.
Keep playin’, big brother. Lots of healing to be done where you’re going.
I see this as a grunge metal band made up of huge, hairy dudes dressed like they work in a diner, with white kitchen aprons, white hats, and t-shirts that say stuff like “No, I can’t cook that, but I can eat it.”
August 24, 1985 Huey Lewis and the News in Concert California State Fair Sacramento, California
I had become pretty close with the gang in my intensive Chinese class at Cal that summer. We were all about to go our separate ways, but we wanted one last chance to hang out together. We had one day: the day before I moved out of my sister’s apartment and Berkeley, and three days before I flew to China for the first time.
So we took a road trip from our various hovels in Berkeley up I-80 to the California State Fair in Sacramento, and we watched Huey Lewis and the News headline the Fair.
Huey and the guys were from Marin County, so it was the home boys playing to a home crowd at a time when the band was at its high point. Its albums were selling well, and “Power of Love” from the Back to the Future soundtrack was at the very top of the Billboard charts for what would be the first of two weeks.
In short, the stars aligned for all of us that day, and the concert was unforgettable. I have been to some incredible concerts before and since, but I have never seen a performance so perfectly tuned, so in tune with its audience, and so able to lift each of us out of our chairs and out of ourselves.
It was a transcendental moment, an exquisite musical interlude in what would turn out to be the pivotal year of my life.