and how it sent me into the great wide open

Art in progress by Gail Younts

July 28, 2010: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Madison Square Garden.

It was a Wednesday. I was playing in a band, released a new solo record and working a sales job for the man in New York City. On Thursday, the 29th, I had perhaps my biggest day of the year in that sales job where I was to complete a graded demonstration to my boss and then deliver an unrelated client presentation where if they signed, I’d meet my 2010 goal. If they did not, I was dead in the water. I had grown to hate this job, but I was so stubborn in what I was looking to do that I essentially fastened myself to it like a mouse on sticky pad — still alive, but kicking frantically to break loose.

The previous month, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their 12th studio album, Mojo — the same week I had a release show for my record. Somehow, they beat me in album sales. I had an epiphany as I finished that solo record that I entitled, The Reins. It was — that I was not a dial for dollars, prototypical sales guy. I was a creative-type and I needed to design and follow a path in that world. I struggled mightily with how. I knew I hadn’t found it yet, and maybe it was not even in New York City. I was grasping at straws and in doing this I opened myself up to any and all music that was being put out. Maybe something would guide the way?

I picked up Mojo, loaded it into my iPod (remember those things!) and hit shuffle. Suddenly, I was greeted by a ballad. This subtle ripple of vulnerability, entitled “Something Good Coming”. It started with Petty gliding right into…

“I’m watching the water
Watching the coast
Suddenly I know
What I want the most
And I want to tell you
Still I hold back
I need some time
Get my life on track”

There it was. The music I was looking for. It’s inexplicable, but opening this song with “I’m watching the water” made all the difference in the world.

When Tom Petty and Heartbreakers were coming to New York City on the 28th of July, I did not buy tickets in part due to my work obligations the next day, and also because I could not find anyone who was interested in going with me. That Wednesday morning, as I tied my tie with my shirt buttoned to the top,(I had gotten reprimanded numerous times for leaving it undone) and threw on my suit jacket, I knew I had to go to the show. If nothing more it would serve as a two hour break from myself — basically, a therapeutic opportunity to refresh via music I had been injecting on repeat.

I bought a ticket off Cragslist minutes before the show started. It took much longer than anticipated, so without time to go home first, I went into MSG with the same suit on, just redesigned to “my way” — tie crumbled into a ball and stuffed in my pocket, shirt completely disheveled and sleeves rolled up past my elbows. Forget everything else, I’m going to this show and I’ll go by myself, I thought. It was my version of a walk in the park or taking a stool at the local pub.

My single ticket was actually a great seat in the 100’s, but for some reason, I walked around the venue the entire night. I suppose I wanted to experience the music and atmosphere from every angle so I’d find a little dark corner in the tunnel or against a rail in the walkways and would stay there until I was ushered away. Mojo taught me a little bit about myself. But this show taught me a lot about Tom Petty.

Tom Petty Madison Square Garden. July 28, 2010. Photo by Greg Allen/Getty

Learning to Fly:

I was blown away with how smooth Petty sounded. Right off the record. I also noticed, Petty had a unique ability in his songwriting to have one tempo sustain the entire song. Though many contain a hook-filled chorus, it’s usually without exploding distortion or a distinct up-and-down. Each song is one melodic wave from start to finish. Dave Grohl has often credited this style as a major influence on one of the Foo Fighters’ biggest hits, “Learn to Fly”. Aside from the similarity in name, it follows the same foundation. By the way, remember when Grohl was offered the Tom Petty and Heartbreakers drum gig? He turned it down. Worked out OK for him.


This show was a classic example of… “Oh yeah, I forgot about this song. I love this song! This is a Petty song too?” It’s a catalog filled with hits for the masses. The songs are so good and memorable that it’s easy to lose sight of how great a lyricist Petty was. He perfectly wove storytelling into encouragement into confidence. This goes for his solo material too. For example, “Saving Grace” … “and it’s hard to say who you are these days, but you run on anyway.” Or — the second song of the night at MSG, which happened to be one that I was covering every time I played out live, “You Don’t Know How it Feels” — just a simple song of understanding.

“You take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.”

Highway Companion:

What really blew me away about Petty was how musically self-aware he was. It translated perfectly on stage as a genuine artist playing honest and relate-able songs. “The Waiting”, “Highway Companion”, “Into The Great Wide Open”, “Something in the Air”, “Free Fallin”. That’s exactly it. How many people have purposely blown past their exit just to keep driving the open road instead of going home because Tom Petty was on the radio? Is there a road trip playlist that does not have a Petty song on it? Doubtful.

Tom Petty music is just synonymous with a good time.

“There ain’t no easy way out. Hey, I will stand my ground and I won’t back down”

Won’t Back Down:

Two years prior in 2008, Petty and co. were part of one of the greatest experiences of my life. My father and I went to Super Bowl XLII. We’re die-hard New York Giants fans. In early 2007, my father suggested we go to the next Super Bowl as a father/son trip before I got married. We had never done anything like this before. Little did we know that our favorite team would defy all odds and make it to the big show. It was David against Goliath in the undefeated Patriots. Rocky Balboa against Ivan Drago. The game of course, turned out to be the thrill of a lifetime. With tensions high, and a halftime score of 7–3, a heart-shaped stage was rolled out. “American Girl” erupted and from that point on, for the next 20 minutes everyone forgot about football. We waived hearts in the air (how fitting for a game filled with heart), and sang along to every word in the four song set that ended with “Runnin’ Down a Dream” — exactly what was happening before us.

Super Bowl XLII

Into the Great Wide Open:

My biggest takeaway from seeing Petty live is still what I love the most about his music. His songs can accompany all of life’s emotions. Regardless of meaning, subject matter, fact or fiction, they are versatile enough to make any occasion a happy time. Even if you’re in the midst of turmoil and at a show by yourself, it’s a soundtrack to anyone’s life. That’s how he left us. That’s what he left us. Petty was all about freedom. Encouraging freedom, enabling freedom and fighting for freedom. He practiced what he preached.

That Wednesday night, I left the show after “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” It was the first song of the encore, and knowing only “American Girl” was left, I wanted to ride out on the song that closed the Super Bowl set. It was the perfect send-off message. I threw open the Garden doors and stepped right into the great wide open.

I believed what Tom Petty had to say then and I forever will. Four months later, I got out of the corporate sales gig and into a more “suitable” creative universe. The same way Petty left me feeling like the Giants had the heart to win, his music continues to provide reasoning behind starting something like Artist Waves…

“Runnin’ down a dream, that never would come to me. Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads.

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~ follow Jeff Gorra | twitter @JeffGorra |