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Concerning Hidden Realities and Human Destiny

Learning to Fly: Tom Petty, Mystic

John Carswell | Friday, October 06, 2017

Well some say life will beat you down / Break your heart, steal your crown...

-- "Learning to Fly", Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

What a week! I had originally planned something else for today, but the Spirit, as they say, has moved me...

press PLAY cuz you should listen while you read

Concerning Las Vegas...doesn't it seem like such horrors are becoming all too commonplace? Yes or yes? Indeed, it seems like we're increasingly incapable of dealing with tragedies like these in a meaningful way. Once upon a time, September 11, 2001 had the effect of uniting the US, and even the world, at least for a few weeks. Now, when tragedy strikes, the scapegoating begins almost immediately. The impulse to seek root causes in the interest of preventing future tragedies is good and right, but it's also easily used by the power-hungry and unscrupulous for their wicked schemes. Still, I digress...let's talk about music.

Even as we were coming to grips with the horrific realities we saw in Las Vegas, there came another bit of bad news on Monday: Tom Petty, classic rock icon, had died suddenly. Now I would be a poser if I claimed I was the world's biggest Tom Petty fan. After all, I only saw him live once, in the late 90's, though I would have loved to see him again. Yeah, Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open were two of my first cassettes (thank you Columbia House!!!), yet still, I'd lost track of his artistic output following Wildflowers (which, BTW, scientists have proven is one of the greatest albums EVAR).

Learning to Fly

However, I've been listening to a lot of Tom Petty this week, and it's revealed a bit to me about his particular genius. It's weird...I'd always thought of Petty as just a damn good songwriter with a knack for hooky roots rock, but what I've realized in going back and listening to him in the light of his passing was the subtle melancholy and mysticism that set him apart from the crowd. You can hear it in the musically upbeat "American Girl", towards the end: "God it's so painful when something that's so close / Is still so far out of reach..." Just say those words to yourself, without singing them. That's the existential sigh, the universal longing that I always find in my favorite artists, the hidden heart yearning for a lasting joy beyond the walls of this world. That Petty intones them just as his jangly classic musically crashes "like waves on the beach" is Exhibit A in the case for the spiritual power of a great song: you can feel your own soul fall "out into nothing." Call it by another name if you will - that's a prayer, and as someone wise once said, he who sings prays twice.

And then there's "Learning to Fly", the opening track of the mystically-titled Into the Great Wide Open. Petty was most potent in simplicity and directness (see "I Won't Back Down"), and the chorus here bears that out: "I'm learning to fly / But I ain't got wings / Coming down is the hardest thing." It's a song about humanity as a whole and every individual human too...we know that we were made for far more than the pain and suffering of this life. We were born to soar! So where are our wings, and how do we get them? Yet it's the verses that really get me here: the second portends the apocalyptic: "The good ol' days may not return / And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn"; the third sums it all up: "life beats you down / breaks your heart and steals your crown". And that is, essentially, the song's final word, where, I'm sorry to say, "what goes up, must come down." Incidentally, it was two years ago this month that I suddenly lost my brother, the same brother who introduced me to Tom Petty way back in the good ol' days. This song reminds me for so many reasons of him, and really, of everyone I know.

Now don't even get me started on "Mary Jane's Last Dance" ("Take me as I come 'cause I can't stay long") or "Free-Fallin'" ("I wanna write her name in the sky") or "Wildflowers" ("You belong somewhere you feel free..."). I wish I could write about these but time presses on without consideration for you or me or our desires. The world is a heartbreaking place, and the shadow surrounds us. Like a tyrant, the echoing ache of a thousand tragedies continually demands our attention. Yet I'm convinced of the power of art - and especially music - to begin to rescue us from these things, to carry us beyond this dread and this darkness into the shining dream of eternal day. Lord knows it's been my escape more than once. To that end, I'll always be grateful for the music of Tom Petty, that wonderful, melancholy mystic. RIP good sir. I hope to shake your hand one day in the great wide open.

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Hi - I'm John. Welcome to TrueMyths, where I explore music, Christianity, literature, and culture. I'm co-host of The Tolkien Road podcast, and am the author of Tolkien's Requiem. You can learn more about TrueMyths here.

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