365 Days of Album Recommendations – Oct 2 (Special Tom Petty Edition)

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – Damn The Torpedoes


From virtually as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lyricist. I was obsessed with song lyrics.

I remember a long car drive with my parents. I believe it was from Wichita, Kansas, to East Lansing, Michigan. Over 900 miles. I was in the back seat by myself, with a battery-powered one of these:

Tape Recorder

and a cassette copy of “Damn the Torpedoes,” which had just been released.

I sat in the back of the car, and I played “Refugee” over and over and over. I’d play it forward a little bit, for just one line of the song, then I’d hit the rewind button to go back again. I wouldn’t even hit stop first, even though I knew you were supposed to. The cassette would make that horrible backwards music sound every time, and it was horrible, but it helped me find the right spot to get back to. Then I’d play it forward again, writing furiously as the song played, trying to get the line down just exactly right:

We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it

I’d go line by line, battling  with Petty’s drawl, the layers of sound, his peculiar phrasing, trying to work out words that were new to me when placed in these orders and rhythms:

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there and revel in your abandon

Revel in your abandon! I wasn’t even in my teen years yet; I’d never heard words like that, sung like that, with meaning and import like that. The lyrics held mysteries within them, drama, pathos, stories I was still too young to understand, but could already feel. Like all great pop songs, what was implied or left unsaid was sometimes bigger than the actual words:

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Who knows maybe you were kidnapped
Tied up taken away and held for ransom

This was dangerous poetry, and I was obsessed.

Over and over, mile after mile, line after line, page after page, I worked through that song, trying to get it just right. There was no internet back then. If the lyrics didn’t come with the record, you were left to your own devices. That was fine by me. I wanted to learn it myself, directly.

Honey, it don’t really matter to me
Everybody’s had to fight to be free

Much later in life, I would hear the story of how Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby so he could understand and feel what it was like to write a book like that. I understood what he meant, and why he did it. I had written “Refugee” a thousand times.


Update: Tom Petty has passed on. Deep bows.

“Right now it seems real to you, but it’s
One of those things you gotta feel to be true”


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