Learning To Fly: Lessons through song | Liner Notes

Posted 5/12/21

I had a professor in college who said Tom Petty was the last thing America could agree on.

At the time, I knew the lanky, leather-clad blond was a typical rock musician that every dad could enjoy, …

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Learning To Fly: Lessons through song | Liner Notes

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I had a professor in college who said Tom Petty was the last thing America could agree on.

At the time, I knew the lanky, leather-clad blond was a typical rock musician that every dad could enjoy, but that was about it.

It wasn’t until I really listened to his music that I realized what my professor meant. There is very little that is polarizing about him. By technical standards, he’s a solid musician. His songs make for an easy listen with smooth and pleasant sounds. But it’s his lyrics that set him apart from the other rockers of his time.

His songwriting was direct and to the point, sung in a simple style that was effortlessly cool. A singer of cautionary tales, his words were tinged with a dark humor as he told the stories of how “Eddie waited till he finished high school/He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo” from the tune “Into The Great Wide Open”; or how the girl from an Indiana town “Had a good lookin’ mama who never was around/But she grew up tall and she grew up right/With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night” in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Messiah to the middle-class dreamer and mentor to the teenage loner, he was the poster child for a certain type of freedom and abandon that is synonymous with long stretches of highway, roadside attractions, and denim-on-denim – a rebel without a clue. 

It was through listening to his words that I found I had a lot to learn from Mr. Petty and, in turn, about myself.

A lot of his music may have been about lost loves or hot dates, but over the years I’ve taken on my own interpretations of his words to get me by.

When I hear his nasally voice belt out “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part,” he’s singing to me. The context of his song “The Waiting” may be about pining over a love, but for someone who is as impatient as I am, the anticipation of anything is difficult. When he sings “Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you,” I feel reassured, calm even, about the things that are out of my control.

A song that may very well be about drugs, my interpretation of “Learning To Fly” is simply a tune about life and overcoming its adversities.

To me, the lines “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” mean you can either let life overwhelm you or you can rise to the challenge, spread your metaphorical wings. Words like “Well, some say life will beat you down/Break your heart, steal your crown” ring true. Life isn’t a cake walk, so I’m learning to fly.

The lyrics of “Even the Losers” illustrate an old crush, but when Petty sings “Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes” I like to think I’m one of those losers. In my mind, he’s crooning to the underdog, serenading the down-and-outer. The singer assures “Even the losers keep a little bit of pride/They get lucky sometimes.” This reminds me to have faith in myself.

A hymn to soundtrack any struggle, “I Won’t Back Down” delivers a matter-of-fact message of empowerment. He calls to me: “Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out.” My ears know this song to be an anthem of resilience, helping me to navigate the rough patches. “In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around/But I’ll stand my ground/And I won’t back down.”

His songs have taught me and are still teaching me a lot about myself and the person I want to be.

Tom Petty may not have been the last thing America could agree on, but he will certainly live on in my mind – a teacher, a guru, forever masked in dark sunglasses like a dollar store Lone Ranger, effortlessly cool and endlessly wise.

This isn’t a love letter to Tom Petty. This is Liner Notes, a column to connect the community through song.

I’m working on a community-wide playlist and I need your input. I want to know about the songs that have taught you something, the songs that have gifted you words of wisdom or pieces of advice.

Email, call, or whatever – just talk music with me.

 

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