Free Fallin’: Saluting Tom Petty Through His Greatest Song
I didn’t have much exposure to classic rock as a kid. I listened to the contemporary radio stations, always paying attention to the newest hits. Of course, these were the Lite FM stations, so there wasn’t much in the way of OutKast and for a while I was convinced KT Tunstall was the biggest name in music. But it was always fun to hear old favorites and catch a glimpse of what was popular.
There was one throwback song they played constantly, always a treat on the Friday trips to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. You couldn’t mistake it for any other song; the moment I heard those opening guitar strums, I was transported. It felt like the highway, as if it was specifically designed for road trips. It was, of course, Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
What was it about this song that made it stick out so much in my mind? It wasn’t the lyrics, although in hindsight, they’re some of Petty’s best. The story of broken hearts, a boy having let down the idyllic American girl and trying to win her back. Indeed, this song is almost comically Americana, name-dropping cities like Reseda and painting a tongue-in-cheek vision of a girl obsessed with the stereotypes of middle America: horses, Jesus, Elvis, America itself. Yet there’s still a truthfulness to these lyrics that keeps them from being over-the-top. The tune isn’t loud and boisterous, grounded by Petty’s acoustic guitar. Boisterous was never Petty’s style. He got his reputation as an all-American songwriter by being sincere, but also waggling his eyebrows at how sincere he was.
It’s subtler than a lot of classic rock, but there’s always that huge, unstoppable chorus. What does it mean to “free fall”? Maybe it’s that constant worry that all our lives are going to turn out like the Good Girl and the Bad Boy: directionless, both carrying on with the hollowness left in our hearts from the other one’s absence. This is part of what makes “Free Fallin’” a giant among rock songs: it takes Petty’s gift for evocativeness, what we often call “too real,” and cranks it as high as humanly possible. No matter where you are or what you do, at some point you’ve probably felt like the characters in this song. But you always sing along, because it’s a universal experience. Plus, there’s that lingering hope in the end that the Bad Boy will try his luck with the Good Girl again.
"I’m gonna free fall, out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile."
I wish he hadn’t so soon. Thanks for everything, Tom Petty.