His Middle Name was Earl

It’s 1983 and I want my MTV. 

Unfortunately, we don’t even have Cable yet so I’m waiting in the soft glow of the television in my family’s living room, counting down the minutes until Friday Night Videos comes on. Finally I’m rewarded with the neon FNV logo and the first music videos of the era.

A desolate, deserted highway crosses the screen. A bell tolls, a rattlesnake purrs and a skinny blond man with a wry smile emerges from a strange spaceship-car-thing wearing a dusty velvet top hat. He and his companion find a boom box and press play. A synthesizer begins to play, and the first few notes of You Got Lucky ring through the desert:

You better watch what you say
You better watch what you do to me
Don’t get carried away
Girl, if you can do better than me
Go, yeah, go
But remember

Good love is hard to find
Good love is hard to find
You got lucky, babe
You got lucky, babe
When i found you

- You Got Lucky, 1982

I’m hooked. 

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My favorite keychain.

Thus began my love of Tom Petty that has lasted more than 30 years. The music and lyrics that he wrote (solo, with the Heartbreakers and with the Wilburys) are burned into my brain so deeply that I can’t remember which were hits or which weren’t and it doesn’t even matter. I just sing along. But when they make the movie of my life, Tom Petty’s music will be the soundtrack. He has rescued me and encouraged me and spoken to and healed my heart like no other musician in my lifetime.

I am in a some sort of a fight with my adolescent girlfriends in Junior High. I hate them with the sobbing-until-you-ugly-cry passion that only 14-year-old girls possess. I lie face down on my bed and play this anthem on repeat at a speaker-shaking volume until my father comes and bangs on my door, begging me to stop. 

Don’t come around here no more
Don’t come around here no more
Whatever you’re looking for
Hey, don’t come around here no more

- Don’t Come Around Here No More, 1985

I’m at our family’s lake house in Indiana with my cousins. My oldest cousin, Jay, has just gotten his driver’s license which means we all get to pile into my uncle’s Saab and drive into a nearby tiny town to pick up pizza. Without the parents. It’s summertime and we are so young and so happy. American Girl blasts from the stereo and we laugh and laugh. We are free.

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
Yeah, and if she had to die
Tryin’ she had one little promise
She was gonna keep

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

American Girl, 1976

I’m a senior in High School, soon to be off to college far away from home. Everyone thinks I’m so brave and confident but I’m secretly terrified. I drive around at night with the windows down in my 1971 Monte Carlo, playing the cassette of Full Moon Fever until it melts on the dashboard. Then I buy it again and played that tape to exhaustion, too. This song makes me feel like I can do anything, even though I’m only 18 and freaking out. 

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’

Yeah runnin’ down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
Runnin’ down a dream

- Runnin’ Down a Dream, 1989

I’m away at college. It’s a dreary winter afternoon. I’ve caught a cold because this Florida girl had no idea how to dress for a winter in Evanston. I’m sitting on my twin bed, wiping my snotty, raw nose and feeling the chill of the leaky ancient windows of my dorm room while ignoring the open textbook that I will need to have read for class in the morning. I’m so homesick I want to throw up. Tom is there for me.

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young ‘uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done, with a southern accent
Where I come from

- Southern Accents, 1985

I’m unhappily married and living in a place that I despise. Each day I become a little more desperate and convinced that if I stay much longer I will surely crumble. Then one day, something breaks and in a fugue state I grab armfuls of my belongings and pile them into my hatchback along with a cat carrier containing my feline companion, Monkey. I drive away without leaving a note, without saying goodbye, never to return again. I drive up Lake Shore drive, headed back to home to Chicago where I belong. Wildflowers blasts from the CD player. 

It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going

Broken skyline, movin’ through the airport
She’s an honest defector
Conscientious objector
Now her own protector

Broken skyline, which way to love land
Which way to something better
Which way to forgiveness
Which way do I go

- It’s Time to Move On, 1994

I have taken up running. I can run for miles and miles and my runs are punctuated by Mr. Petty’s tunes. One of my favorite tracks reminds me that the happiness I’ve found in a new, healthy relationship was worth all the tribulations I went through to find it. And keep it. 

Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now
Don’t it feel like something from a dream
Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this
Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again
We know better than to try and pretend
Baby no one could have ever told me ‘bout this
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

The Waiting, 1981

Every night I put my sons to bed, and most nights they want a song. I have zero musical talent but that doesn’t seem to matter. I smooth their hair and tuck in their covers around them. And I sing them my favorite lullaby, soft and low, with silent apologies for my tuneless rendition. 

Goodnight baby, sleep tight my love
May God watch over you from above
Tomorrow I’m workin’ what would I do
I’d be lost and lonely if not for you

So close your eyes
We’re alright for nowI’ve spent my life travelin’
Spent my life free
I could not repay all you’ve done for me

So sleep tight baby
Unfurrow your brow
And know I love you
We’re alright for now
We’re alright for now

- Alright for Now, 1989

I was fortunate enough to see Tom Petty in concert live several times and I will keep unashamedly singing along with him at the top of my lungs with the windows open. This American Girl thanks you for a lifetime of music which always seemed to find me when I needed it most. 

I Got Lucky when I Found You.