The first time I heard Tom Petty’s voice was through a cassette player in my dad’s old grey Mercedes. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember we were driving with the sunroof open on a flat stretch of highway somewhere outside the city, where the landscape looked like the desert plains. The car had six slots for cassettes. This meant that only the most well-loved, well-listened bands had the privilege of traveling with us, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was one of them.
In addition to olive skin, crooked fingers, and a love of carne asada tacos, I seem to have inherited from my dad a lack of pitch. But any tone-deafness on his part was always overshadowed by his overwhelming enthusiasm for music, which he often expressed through dancing and singing loudly in the driver’s seat. I could always tell which songs he liked most because he would wave his forefinger back and forth to the beat.
I used to be embarrassed by my dad’s singing, especially in public. One of the first sentences I ever learned to say was, “Daddy, please don’t sing.”
“But daddies are supposed to embarrass their daughters,” he told me with pride. Like most of us, he didn’t sing to win competitions, he sang because he wasn’t afraid of not being perfect and because he felt the music in his bones.
My dad’s sing-a-long favorites included Santana, Grand Funk Railroad, Queen, Steve Miller Band, and other classic rock artists. He especially loved “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a song about a Mississippi River Boat. The song first appeared on the band’s second studio album, Bayou Country, a region where, years later, I would decide to move.
The reason I paid such careful attention to my father’s musical tastes was because it was an opportunity for me to understand him. For much of my childhood, and up until his death, my father was a shadowy figure in my life. He was always cheerful, ebullient even, in my presence, but he had a darkness that followed him. Later, when I learned that darkness was depression and addiction, it made sense why he would try hard to hide a part of himself from me. He suffered and recovered only to pass away from pancreatic cancer a year shy of his 50th birthday.
When I moved to Houston in 2013, it had been four years since his death. I moved to attend a particular university, which I only knew about because of my ongoing relationship with one of his closest friends, who lived in Austin. After his death, his friend drove the Mercedes from its home in San Jose, California, to Texas, listening to the same six cassettes the whole way there.
The car sat in the friend’s driveway for four years before I adopted it as my college car. It was more faded than I remembered, but it bore the same cigarette burns on the fabric roof and faulty windows. Inside, on the dashboard, my dad’s friend had placed a picture of him, which had also faded under the hot Texas sun.
I had the car for my first two years of school, and I drove it everywhere. In the tape slots, my dad’s friend had left a few country artists I hadn’t heard of, one Christmas sing-along, and one I knew very well: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits.
I listened to this tape almost constantly. I listened to it with the sunroof down, driving down Main Street late at night with my roommate, relieving our college angst through the lyrics of “I Won’t Back Down.” I listened to it with my soon-to-be first boyfriend in the backseat with his friends. “Hey, I love this,” he called out to me, and we turned up the volume, our voices carrying out into the humid night.
Tom Petty is one of those artists whose music resonates with young people — something about its restless, triumphant quality speaks to their sense of not belonging, of being untethered, or wanting to escape. I wonder if that’s what my father liked about the music. Just before his death, he had decided he wanted to move to Texas to start fresh. Though I never would have thought of it at the time, I wonder if by moving there I was somehow, subconsciously, trying to put myself in his shoes.
I belted Tom Petty until the car broke down on the highway in the spring of my sophomore year, and I had no more cassette player and no way to listen to the tapes. For a while, I forgot about them in the haze of graduation and trying to start my brand new adult life. Three years passed, and the news arrived of Tom Petty’s death, which fell just two days after the 9th anniversary of my dad’s passing. I began to listen to the band again like everyone else trying to remember a loved one in the wake of their absence.
This time, I gravitated especially toward “Free Fallin,’” which was one of the tracks on Greatest Hits—arguably Petty’s most recognizable song. On the surface, it seems to be about anonymous young men disappointing young women with their lack of direction and commitment: “And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her/ I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart.”
In interviews, Petty has said the song is not about a particular person but rather the characters he imagined on his drives down Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles. But the more I listened, the more I began to see my father as one of the “bad boys” referenced. My father grew up in Los Angeles, too, not long after Petty was born, and he easily could have listened to him on the same drives, as anxious to leave home and start his life somewhere else as Petty was.
My favorite lyric in the song is “There’s a freeway, running through the yard.” In Los Angeles, of course, this could be almost literally true. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s “There’s a freight train running through the middle of my head” in “I’m on Fire,” and I think the two artists share a lot of musical angst. The way they sing is not angry so much as mournful, as if they can’t escape a certain fate, or maybe simply the reality of their own minds.
In the wake of my father’s passing, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who he was as a person. By listening to the music he loved, I felt like I could be closer to understanding his experiences. What if the “vampires walking through the valley” and the “bad boys” in the shadows aren’t other people, but parts of ourselves we try to overcome?
I can’t pretend to understand my father completely, but when I’m driving and Tom Petty launches into the chorus of “Free Fallin,’” I can’t help but feel him there with me in the passenger seat, belting the music just as loudly and imperfectly as I am, but both of us secure in our connection to the music.
Toward the end of the song, there’s the lyric, “I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’/ Gonna leave this world for awhile,” and when I think about how souls depart this world, I imagine it sounds something like this.