When the news first broke that Tom Petty was gravely ill, I knew where I wanted to be: on the highway, blaring his songs on the stereo. As far as I am concerned, there is no better driving soundtrack than Petty’s 1993 Greatest Hits, which starts with “American Girl” and then blasts its way through more than a dozen of his songs, putting you about 80 miles closer to wherever you want to be by its end.
Oh, the particular hell of being stuck in traffic when “American Girl” comes on! It’s a song whose jangly guitar line and mounting drumbeat demand not just movement, but acceleration. And once accelerating, you are off, cruising through the propulsive “I Need to Know,” the moody “Refugee,” the plaintive “The Waiting,” anthemic “Free Fallin’,” and more, never having to skip a chorus or stop, fueled up on Tom Petty, heading somewhere.
Listening to Tom Petty in the car, to an assortment of songs of different moods and clarion guitar lines, is to be alone in the most comforting way possible. You are free, unseen, un-self-conscious, and maybe off-key, but also in company. The company of Petty’s voice, the music you know so well, and everyone else out there who would be ecstatically singing along to Tom Petty, too, if only they happened to be on the road.
Tom Petty is such good driving music that though he is from Florida, and wrote an entire album about the South, he seems like California. In America, California isn’t just the apotheosis of car culture, it is also the place that you are always driving to. There’s no traffic in the myth of California, however much there is in the real thing, and you zip around with the window down, and the sun on your face, and the wind in your hair, screaming along to a song you know by heart, even when you fudge the lyrics. In this myth, that song could almost always be Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” perhaps his most famous, set amidst the freeways of Los Angeles, a song sung at top volume because it is about floating away.
There’s a memorable scene in Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise’s Jerry sings along alone in his car to “Free Fallin,’” as one is wont to do. It’s right after a triumphant meeting, and Jerry just wants to express his joy, his excitement, but the radio keeps disappointing him—until “Free Fallin’” comes on.
Immediately, Jerry knows what to do: hammer on the steering wheel and put his head back and wail. (It’s no coincidence that Jerry Maguire is not the only movie that features a character shouting along to Tom Petty while turning the steering wheel into a percussion instrument.) “Free Fallin’” is a song that makes everyone feel like they are, if only momentarily, starring in a movie of their own life. Even when we sing it alone, we’re still singing it together.