There was only a brief moment in my adolescence when I stayed current with the music of my own generation. Before my game attempts at being a fan of Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, and the rest of them, it was all Billy Joel, Elton John, and musicals. And after, I got really into the emeritus bluesmen and rock-and-roll guys. I remember hearing Eric Clapton’s version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” from the Bob Dylan tribute show and thinking, “he’s just making that up as he goes.” I was easily impressed then, coming off a childhood of heavily-produced studio music, but I stand by my admiration of that track. Shortly after that, I think, I saw B.B. King live at the old Oscar Mayer theater in Madison, and spent most of the show scraping my jaw off the floor while B.B. rattled off his standards for the ten-thousandth time.
Which is just to say that my real-time knowledge of rock-and-roll was roughly bounded by the Traveling Wilburys on one end, and the line-of-guitarists tribute celebrations on the other. These guys were doing some good work, still, in the process of curating their own standards and making sporadic bids at ongoing popular relevance, or at least tent-poling another big tour or another big tribute concert. You probably haven’t listened to Voodoo Lounge in a while, if you ever have, but there are some solid tracks on it. Even so, there’s no doubting, then or now, that burnishing their own legends is what it was mostly about.
The weird exception, in my limited and philistine experience, was Tom Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers. According to the internet, it was released on November 1, but I swear I remember listening to it in September, after the birthday party of a girl I really liked, in the car of my first friend to turn 16 and get his license. But memories will hobo around any timeline, and maybe this one just jumped a backward-moving car from the time when, at any rate, we listened to that album a lot. We drove around a lot, aimlessly as I remember it, or island-hopping from one kid’s house to another to Perkins or a movie. Being out, and being together, was the point.
Tom Petty was hardly our sole musical score for these suburban peregrinations. But he was a big part of it in those first weeks and months of moving definitively beyond the scope of home and parents. And it was a very good album. Like anyone else, I can sing the choruses of a half-dozen Tom Petty songs (that man could write a chorus). But the song that transports me back to that most cliched and routine experience of American adolescent freedom is “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Here’s this guy, about my dad’s age, singing about the thorns of incipient adulthood: Someone who don’t give a damn for you, loneliness, turning the radio loud, rolling a joint, heading down the road, having someplace you gotta go, or pretending to. And insisting, of course, that no one knows how it feels to be you.
Tom Petty had, it’s been pointed out, a genius for perfecting and elevating the lyrical and musical formulas of rock music. Hence, I think, all those choruses that stuck their landing and stayed put. But clichés are still clichés. One of our roving band of friends pointed out as we sang that chorus that, really, no one knows how it feels to be anyone else. At the time I probably resented her ability to puncture our dollar-store existential balloons like that. She was no doubt subject to the unstable compound of desire and scorn that cliques of smart-ish boys aim at girls. But if she didn’t do it, someone else would have. The awakening to your own singular, unmapped, and violent interior is followed, sooner or later, by the realization that everyone else has done the same. The songs about it have already been written. There’s a time for gazing on your own isolation and a time for pushing yourself into the world despite it, just as there’s a time for driving nowhere in particular and a time for actually having a place to go.
I don’t miss any of that. I wasn’t especially good at it, by any measure–neither virtuous nor charismatic, exuberant nor wise, successfully cruel nor notably kind. Some of us are just meant to push ahead into adulthood and its geometrically-increased stupidities and dangers. I will miss Tom, though, in the way I’ve missed all the Wilburys and Dylan tribute heroes who’ve gone on (Roy, George, Johnny, June, Lou, Richie, Booker, Duck, Danko, Levon, crazy-looking Johnny Winter, not that anyone’s keeping a morbid list). I don’t entirely agree with Ecclesiastes that youth and the dawn of life are vanity, but they are always second-hand. And these guys, who had every reason to know better, did a good job in lending theirs.