Listen to this track by Heartbreaker honcho and first-time solo artist Tom Petty. It’s “Free Fallin'”, a smash hit song as taken from his first solo record, 1989’s Full Moon Fever. The song was the first single from that album, and remains today as his most enduring hit song.
The album was recorded around the same time as Petty’s involvement with the Travelling Wilburys, a “supergroup” that was more of an happily accidental situation that brought Petty together with some of his musical heroes, and by association revealing just what many people knew all along; that Petty himself had achieved hero status himself. Besides impressive results on the charts and with heavy rotation on the radio, one of the many things that came out of that situation was his relationship with Jeff Lynne, former ELO creative head and a producer with a signature style. The two began writing together. “Free Fallin'” is arguably their best result.
In some ways, this gambit in creating a solo album was a tough move for Petty, who’s backing band The Heartbreakers had been his comrades in arms for such a long time by then. Purportedly, others in the band were disdainful of the project, possibly fearing that their association with Petty was nearing its end. Still, a few Heartbreakers appear on the album including lead guitarist Mike Campbell (who plays on this song), bassist Howie Epstein, and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Ironically, instead of being a dramatic departure from his life fronting his old band, there’s something about this song that hearkens back to Petty’s earliest days with the Heartbreakers.
To me, this song is like an alternate take on Petty’s “American Girl”. The heroine at the center of that song lives in a small town, driven to discover a wider world. By the second verse, she’s alone on her balcony watching the cars go by out on 441 remembering a someone from her past. “Free Fallin'” parallels that earlier song of Petty’s, with the narrator describing his life living in Reseda with the freeway running through the yard, remembering someone in his past as if the two central figures are reflections of each other. Here on “Free Fallin'”, it’s like it’s the girl who’s left behind at home, loving her momma, Jesus, and her boyfriend, too. All of the things she loves is enough for her. On “Free Fallin'”, we find the bad boy remembering her, and who perhaps doesn’t want to settle for what’s in front of him as the good girl he’s left behind does. He’s broken her heart, leaving to go to live in Los Angeles, maybe to seek fame as Petty himself once did with his heart-breaking compatriots in the early 1970s.
L.A. is practically a character in this song, with its road anatomy sketched out in a classic Chuck Berry style, speaking of heroes. It’s certainly a reflection of its inhabitants and their perceived spiritual states, based on Petty’s observations of the area at the time as a Los Angeles resident himself. For such an anthemic song, it’s a deceptively simple one for beginner guitarists all over the world who’ve just discovered the D-major chord to play. It’s also pretty lonely one, too. “Free Fallin'” is a song about what it’s like to run away from something while at the same time finding oneself with nothing to run towards. It appeals to a certain state of despondency that many people face in a world where we are as mobile as humanity has ever been, yet with so few places to go to ultimately find ourselves.
This is a snapshot of someone with a past contemplating his present landscape, but with no immediate future in front of him to offer him any hope or sense of control over his own destiny. His “I’m going to free fall out into nothing, I’m going to leave this world for a while” has always been quietly disturbing in its open-endedness, suggesting the story of so many who come to the city to get away from their past as much as to find fame and fortune, only to find that a change in geography has brought them no peace.
To think that this song was written over a two-day period, and the result of just hacking around seems barely possible given its quality. More than that, it’s a testament to the natural talent Petty had for crafting a song like that holds so much value on so many levels. One one level, this song is irresistible sonically. It is, in fact, the perfect song to drive to, which is practically a rock ‘n’ roll litmus test. The same could be said of so many of his songs, of course. But this one is in a class by itself. On another level, and as discussed above, “Free Fallin'” is so appreciated because it connects so simply to common themes of loneliness, alienation, and even despair without drawing away from its impact as an accessible hit single that is so infused with pure joy.
How did he do that?
“Free Fallin'” is a testament to Tom Petty’s talent and his magnitude as a writer of hit singles that also promise the listener more than just the hook, as if that weren’t enough. Underneath all that, there’s a very human story unlocked by our imaginations and deeply understood on emotional levels even as we turn up the volume and sing along.
On October 2 of this year, Tom Petty had a heart attack and died in hospital, leaving behind legions of fans and peers to mourn him.
To review his impressive and enduring back catalogue as a premier-level rock songwriter and performer, hurry on over to tompetty.com.