Running Down A Dream: How To Paint With Words, Melody, And Sound
“Me and Del were singin, little Runaway.”
Tom Petty possessed a supernatural ability to make us feel and associate everyday situations in ways that supercede the differences between people. Regardless of our socioeconomic status, we have all driven down the open highway with our lives in front of us. We have all felt a sense of the infinitely possible. Throughout a 40+ year career, Tom Petty never lost his inner child, and with every album and every song, he helped us all get in touch with our own. His music lets us feel frivolous and deep love, high school crushes, first dances, awkward dates, road trips, summer flings, first kisses, heartache, heartbreak, loss, and everything in between. When we sit down to think about life, all we can do is smile—I believe Tom captured those moments in song.
The quote above is from Tom Petty’s timeless classic, “Running Down A Dream.” This line always struck me as odd. It turns out the line, “Me and Del were singin, little Runaway,” is a reference to the Del Shannon hit “Runaway,” which was released in 1961. This was the same year that an eleven-year-old Tom Petty met Elvis Presley on the set of his movie Follow That Dream. In interviews, Tom cites this encounter as the moment his own dream came into focus. Tom captured this pivotal and inspiring experience in song by painting a picture of himself driving with the top rolled down while singing along with the radio. The song he happens to be singing reminds him of his eleven-year-old self and reaffirms him of the path he is on. Tom is describing the feeling of the great wide open, of glorious possibility, of dreams larger than life.
Songs are very much a fabric of our existence. They are storage bins or files, so to speak, that allow us to attach memories to them for safekeeping. Great songwriters know that the exact right combination of chords, melody, and lyrics can perfectly capture and freeze a moment in time, a feeling, or an experience forever. If successful, they will have provided the world a gift in the form of a tool used for remembering or encouraging. If we think about songs as gifts or tools, we become closer to understanding the importance of music and art in our culture. How many times have we put on a song just so we can recall a memory or a feeling? How many times have we sought music for comfort or to express something words alone can not? How many conflicts have songs avoided? How many hearts have been healed? The answer is countless.
Tom Petty often described writing as a lonely occupation. He would sit in a room alone for hours, sometimes days, waiting for the songs to come. Like fishing, he would have to leave the line in the water until he got a bite. Some days would be fruitful, and others frustrating. In either case, the waiting was the hardest part. Tom would catch as many little fish as he could until the big one came, and then it would take everything he had to pull it into the boat. The moral of this analogy is that Tom spent time, tremendous amounts, dedicated to perfecting his craft. He honed that craft so that when opportunity struck, he had the tools to receive it. We can be sure that Tom Petty wrote plenty of songs in those hours alone that the world will never hear, patiently waiting and perfecting only the best. When the time came to record, it is this process that ensured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers delivered genuine quality on every single record. Few artists can say the same.
There are not too many genuine masters out there crafting timeless works of art in the form of song. Tom Petty was a rare breed. We should be grateful for his service, and we should look to his process and consistency for inspiration. The best way to study is to listen and learn, passively and actively, taking note of the simplicity and the honesty. Tom’s integrity may have been his strongest attribute. I wish happy and prosperous fishing to everyone on their journey.