Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a slogan they reminded themselves of when they were writing songs in the late seventies, an era when bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were writing heavy melodic songs with long guitar solos.
“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
That’s why they have so many hits. That’s why everyone can name a Tom Petty song, and you might ask 15 people to name one before you hear the same song twice.
But why someone is famous or successful at something isn’t always the same reason they connect with individual people. Humming a Tom Petty chorus to yourself is probably the most purely American thing I can think of. I’ve done it driving on highways. I’ve done it while scrubbing tables at the bar where I used to serve tables. I’ve done it setting up chairs at the food truck park I used to manage. I’ve done it walking to the library or coffee shop. I’ve annoyed girlfriends or dates humming whichever one was stuck in my head.
You probably have too. On the subway, during the commercial of a TV show, at the mall, or on a plane. Those songs feel like they are authentically about America in an uncontrived way that only Chuck Berry could claim to have achieved, and they feel universally relatable in that sense.
Still, universal appeal isn’t the purpose of art, and what was happening in between Tom Petty’s choruses was never boring.
There’s a song on Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s 2010 album “Mojo” titled “No Reason to Cry.” For the past seven years, I’ve listened to it dozens of times when I’ve been sad. The chorus matches the simplicity of the title:
“There’s no reason to cry.
There’s no reason to cry.
We all want to hear someone say “there’s no reason to cry” when we have to get through something. We all know what it’s like to be free falling, to have a crush on an American girl (or boy), to run down a dream, or to want to tell someone they don’t know what it’s like to be us.
That’s why so many people like Tom Petty songs. But the reason only a few less people love Tom Petty songs is because of the words in-between.
In “No Reason to Cry” Petty sings:
“So overtake me my sweet lover.
Let me kiss your honey lips.
Could be the only thing that’s real,
could be when you get sad your memory slips.”
It means something, but I’m not sure what. Maybe it meant almost nothing to him. But I think about that last line all the time. The memories we have access to are at the mercy of the mood we’re in when we’re trying to access them. And that’s temporary. Again, that’s an interpretation coming from someone who has listened to that song plenty of times in a specific mood. But that line means something. Whether it meant something to him or something to me, it never won’t mean something powerful.
Petty lyrics are full of those same moments that apply to you in a way you had never been able to articulate. Maybe they applied to him in that exact same way, or maybe pulling out these little gems for us was his greatest skill. How can you hear him sing “she was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line in my face” and not think back at past relationships with a little bit more clarity? Or when he sings “God bless this land, God bless this whiskey, can’t trust love, it’s far too risky. If she marries into money she’s still gonna miss me” there’s no way that doesn’t mean something to you, whoever you might be and where ever you might live.
These are just so many lines tucked into verses of Petty songs, and if they’re not for you, they’re for someone. Just keep listening and you’ll find your line from your verse. Maybe it’s just “I’ll be the boy in the corduroy pants. You’ll be the girl at the high school dance.” Maybe it’s “I woke up in-between memory and a dream.” Or “I’ll be king when dogs get wings.”
I started listening to Tom Petty when I was in high school. I’ve listened to every album at least twenty times and my favorite ones hundreds of times. I saw him in concert when I was 21. It felt like he was singing every one of my favorite lines from my favorite verses with extra emphasis. It felt like that for everyone, I’m sure, for nearly every line he sang.
I’m 28 now and the only thing I’ve done with my life is aimlessly write things. That doesn’t feel particularly noble because it’s not in service of any specific goal. It’s all sporadic and I imagine the writing often sounds pretty unsure of itself. The only constant has been that something kept getting written, every day.
Petty wasn’t trying to write the next great rock song. But anyone who enjoys writing can really only hope to achieve what he managed to always do with the lyrics in his verses. It’d be nice if something I write really hits home for someone or just makes sense to him or her in a way he or she never thought about. And if it doesn’t then maybe the next one will, or a piece of it will, anyways. When a writer’s in cruise control, he’ll write for all of his readers. When he needs motivation, he’ll write for one.
Petty’s choruses were for all of us. His verses were for me. Or you.
The words “there’s no reason to cry” can only mean so much to us, even if we all want to hear it. Sometimes there are reasons to cry, for all of us. But every Tom Petty song has more to offer to each of us than it has to offer to all of us.