The Soundtrack of my Summer of 1989

It was a summer of Tom Petty

It was a high school bachelor’s summer of staring at unobtainable girls and trying not to drown in Lake Erie (those are both different stories).

This story starts out more along the lines of…

I didn’t have a car when I turned 16.

Hell, I didn’t even have a license. I had to rely on my mother and friends to get around. My best friend, Scott, had a car. And a cassette player in the car. And neither of us had girlfriends at the time, so we ended up spending a decent amount of time with each other that summer.

That is a cover I’ve looked at for a long, long time.

We listened to a lot of his music when we would drive. We agreed on quite a few performers — the Doors, INXS, U2 — but in the summer of 1989, the tape that was the soundtrack for driving through metro Detroit and southeastern Ontario was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever.

I was about six months from discovering Brent Bambury’s Brave New Waves and David Wisdom’s Night Lines on a static-y late night CBC Stereo signal from Windsor and London and being exposed to a great deal I hadn’t heard yet. At this point, I was still regularly listening to mostly classic rock. Between that and always having been a fan of the Beatles, I got into the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 (George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty). Full Moon Fever felt like a continuation of that (you’ll see why if you look at the contributors on it and the two Wilburys albums… and perhaps that’s the real reason why their second album was titled Vol. 3). And since Scott enjoyed Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it wasn’t a surprise when we both enjoyed Full Moon Fever.

I’d be shocked if Scott doesn’t still have his cassette copy stashed somewhere. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the tape is long gone after snapping or tearing after hundreds of times being auto-reversed.

But I digress.

“Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were three we played the most. The fun he and the others were having on the album was almost palpable and it was definitely contagious. “Free Fallin’,” in particular.

Something about it sort of encapsulated the feelings of Gen Xers in high school to me. Especially the third verse:

I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothing
Gonna leave this world for a while

I’m not sure if Petty was making a comment about his kids or what he was observing or had observed or what he felt as a teen (the video makes a lot of effort to try and connect three post-WWII time periods and find similarities between the teen girl in each, but I’ve never found the video to fit the song that well), but I found that song to be emblematic of what a teenager at the end of the 1980s was feeling and trying to come to grips with. As a generation, I would definitely say the Gen Xers were in a sort of free fall at that time — we were unsure of what was going to happen in the next year (let alone the next decade). It felt like we were all close to paralyzed with indecision and hope and uncertainity and ennui to all eventually be revealed as promise as the World Wide Web came into fruition and we realized what could happen (shame it’s all been wasted on becoming a massive channel that’s only about selling each other products and ideologies). “Free Fallin’,” to me, summed up where we were before all of that.

(One day I do want to explore those vampires in the valley heading west on Ventura Boulevard… but that’s another story.)

Tom Petty isn’t one of the first artists I discovered. He isn’t my favorite (he probably isn’t even in my top twenty). In the end, when we heard of Tom Petty’s passing yesterday it wasn’t the punch to my gut that David Bowie or Kurt Cobain or even Chris Cornell’s was. I was saddened, but not shocked or surprised or dismayed at the loss the world has suffered (and that isn’t to take away from those who do feel that). But…

But for a few short months in 1989, those lines summed it all up for me and helped me make sense of what I was going through. That’s priceless. For that alone, I wish him a good, well-deserved rest.