41. Tom Petty - Free Fallin'

If you play the first five harmonic guitar strums of "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty to anyone who has some basic knowledge of recent popular music (the last twenty years or so), I would bet most people would be able to name that tune.  Hell, my wife got it on the first strum alone.  It's that memorable and recognizable.  Even the first time I heard it, "Free Fallin'" had that feel of an old standard that I'd known for years.  There's just something about those acoustic guitars playing those chord progressions that give you a warm, comfortable feeling that great music provides.

There's such a clean and crisp guitar sound that it sounds like you're sitting in the studio with them.  The song was produced by Jeff Lynne, formerly the singer and songwriter from ELO, who went on to an accomplished producing career.  Jeff, Tom and Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell recorded the simple yet lush guitars together in the studio to give it that live feel, but with studio quality.  The bass line is as minimalist as they come, and the drums are restrained to the point of being something a ten year-old could play, but they're both there to serve the song, not their own egos.

And although many people complain that Tom Petty has an almost Dylanesque whine to his voice, I'd have to disagree.  His nasal mumbling (and I mean that in a good way) serves most of his songs well, and especially does so for "Free Fallin'."  There's a casual nature in which he drawls out the opening line "She's a good girl, loves her mama" that tells you that this is a man who both calls his own mother "mama" and also recognizes someone else who does, too.  The rest of the lyrics of the fist verse paint a picture of a devoted, if somewhat naive girl.

Loves Jesus and America too
She's a good girl, crazy 'bout Elvis

Loves horses and her boyfriend too

Tom paints a rosy picture of a young woman at the cusp of adulthood who is the type to fall deeply in love.  It's the beginning of a fairy tale.  But it doesn't end like one.  Instead of having a boyfriend that is as devoted as she is, this girl gets one that's like so many throughout history - a boyfriend who doesn't know what he's got and then just pisses it away because he's bored or she won't put out.  He casts her aside and moves on, never looking back at the wake of emotional destruction that he leaves behind.

It's a long day, livin' in Reseda
There's a freeway, runnin' through the yard
and I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her
I'm a bad boy for breakin' her heart

He spends some time with the other vampires down on Ventura Boulevard, having fun and laughing at the girls who once counted on them.  But the fun times fade and he realizes his mistake.  He's lost the one good thing he had and he knows he'll never get her back.

I wanna glide down, over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I wanna free fall out into nothin'
Gonna leave this, world for awhile

So the freedom that he was looking for came at a price and then he realized that he didn't really want it anyway.  Lots of us guys have been in this position and realize our mistakes far too late.  The girls have moved on to more mature relationships and we're stuck with the other losers, getting drunk and lamenting about how awesome it is not to be tied down to anyone.  And then we go home.  Alone.  

The funny thing is about the song is Tom Petty's feelings about it.  In a 2006 Esquire interview, he said, "Free Fallin' is a very good song. Maybe it would be one of my favorites if it hadn't become this huge anthem. But I'm grateful that people like it."  So it seems his attitude toward the song matches its subject matter to a certain degree.  Maybe one day he'll come to realize that it should be one of his favorites, regardless of whether it's become this huge anthem or not.  It's like me and The Clash, not listening to them because it was cool.  But don't worry, Tom.  It's one of my favorites, and I don't care that it's a huge anthem.  It's great anyway.

(FunFact #318:  I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, so the lyrical content of "Free Fallin'" definitely speaks to me.  Just to prove how much of a geek I am, I'll break down the locations that Tom Petty uses in his video which prove to be authentic to the lyrics.  The video starts at the Westside Pavillion mall on Pico (it's not in the San Fernando Valley, but is just over the hill from it on the West Side, hence the name).  The house where they have the party definitely is in the San Fernando Valley (the orange trees were the giveaway), then more of the mall before they go to Casa De Cadillac on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, with the defunct Future Dogs across the street.  When they get to the skateboarding half-pipe, that's just off of Mulholland Boulevard, which separates the Valley from the West Side.  Go ahead, Jennifer, and roll your eyes.  You married a dork.)

(Fun Fact #211:  My younger brother Todd actually lived this song, to a certain degree.  Same as me, he grew up in The Valley and dated a girl from Reseda who loved her mama and Jesus (not so much with the horses and Elvis, though.  She was more into punk and new wave music and hated horses, or rather ponies, due to a childhood incident that went rather poorly).  She became pretty clingy and needy and Todd had had enough.  He broke up with her, didn't miss her, but did break her heart.  To top it all off, he even went so far as to sing, "I'm free!  Free of Donna!" after they broke up.  I don't, however, think he ever really thought that he made a mistake and regrets it all that much, so that's where the similarities seem to end.)
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