From Tom Petty to Jesus

August 15, 2011

It all started in Middle School.  That’s when my musical identity first took shape.   Before then, I don’t remember ever loving music.  There were certain songs that shook me up a little bit, but nothing that unsettled my very foundations.  My musical interests consisted of whatever trends were spreading through elementary school, which would explain my cd collection: Mariah Carey, Ace of Base, the Bodyguard soundtrack and Kris Kross.

The big bang of my musical evolution began when I purchased Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” in 7th grade.   I had watched the video for “You don’t know how it feels” earlier that morning on VH1, the one where they distort the word “joint” so that it sounds like “nowng”.  I liked the song and decided I would buy the album.  This was no small feat in those days.  It took weeks, possibly a month or so, to accumulate enough money to purchase a cd.  If I made a mistake, if the album didn’t hold up, the blow would be devastating.

I bought the cd at the now defunct Phar-Mor.  In the ensuing weeks, it would be all I listened to.   For me, it opened up new realms of hearing and perceiving.  The feedback of the guitars. the lilting vocals, the backwoods lyrics; they stirred in me a strange feeling of nostalgia for a time and place I had never visited.  I felt as if Tom and his band would have been at home at my grandpa and grandma’s house in the late 1970s, hanging out with my uncles, drinking beer in the garage, playing music too loud.

For the next year, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were all I listened to.  To raise enough money to purchase their greatest hits, I spent an entire Saturday dressed as a giant Lucky the Leprechaun, walking around K-Mart, handing out coupons for Lucky Charms.  The weight of the massive head pressing on my shoulders was nearly unbearable.  The humility was excruciating.  But it was worth it in the end.

In 9th grade, the box set “Playback” was released, a six cd retrospective on the band.  To get me to play basketball my freshman year, my mom promised to buy me four cds at the end of the season.  I saved allowances, hoarded Christmas gift cards and endured an entire basketball season, all for the sake of the Heartbreakers.

You may scoff.  You may lecture me on the irrelevance of rock songs about girls; but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were torchbearers of traditional rock and roll, picking up where the Beatles and the Bryds had left off.  And besides, it was Tom Petty that eventually led me to Bob Dylan, and Bod Dylan who more or less led me to everything else.

Petty and Dylan were fellow Wilburys and tour mates.  For those reasons alone, I supposed he must hold some significance.  I naively waded into the Dylan pool through a library copy of his MTV Unplugged album, but quickly retreated back to my beloved Heartbreakers, as a scared child to his mother.  His voice was nasal and course.  It sounded broken or cracked.  Slightly traumatized, I gradually recovered and tried again when my dad rented Dylan’s Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 from the same library.   Now we were getting somewhere.

Here was a young man in full control of his unpolished voice.  Here was a kid almost, a revolutionary, rallying against corruption and greed and evil (I was a Dylan novice remember, and a freshman in high school, so it would be some time before I understood the complex relationship Dylan had to the late 1960s, as well as his bitter divorce from the era in the form of “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, “Bringing it all Back Home” and especially, “Highway 61 Revisited”).

The song from the bootleg series that probably resonated with me most was a short, simple sketch called “Man on the Street”.  The song consists of only 2 chords, G and E minor, but the story of a dead stranger on the side of the road whom everyone either ignores or coldly disregards stirred in my mind a desire to oppose hypocrisy of all kinds (plus, I’ve always been a sucker for a well placed minor chord).

Throughout high school, Dylan usurped Petty’s role as the preeminent musical influence in my life.   Where Petty had taught me how to sing, Dylan inspired me to pick up a guitar and write (though that would come much later).  And whereas Petty encompassed the entirety of my musical attention in his day, Dylan opened me up to the diversity of American music.   I journeyed across the lineage of artists and genres that had influenced Dylan in the formation of his identity; surreal folk ballads that had travelled from Scotland to the Untied States and that had been rewritten in the mountains of Appalachia; mournful blues laments that began on southern street corners and followed the length of the Mississippi upward; and, my favorite, magnetic gospel shouts that had set fire to the cotton fields of southern plantations and had rattled the walls of southern churches.

And not only that, but I discovered the wealth of influenced artists that Dylan had left in his wake.  He changed the rules of music forever.  We are all connected to his art in some way.

If you were to chart my musical evolution and compare it to other aspects of my teenage to adulthood development (say, using a line graph for example), you might find similar patterns of growth (with occasional back and sidesteps) in my spiritual evolution.  Though I’ve by no means reached adulthood in my faith, I feel like I’ve come a long way since my high school days.  The last ten years especially have been a time of progression, revelation, regression, deterioration, revaluation, and rebirth.

For most of those challenging years, I found little consolation in mainstream Christian music (to be fair, I’m not here to put down the metropolis that is CCM.  Many people have been replenished and nudged heavenward through the musicians working in that particular genre of music.  I want to tread lightly and hopefully not throw judgments upon fellow believers, or tear them down for having different musical standards than me).  It’s just that most of mainstream Christian music didn’t speak to me personally or set me aflame as the gospel I heard in old field recordings, or in the brimstone voice of Johnny Cash.  And the more I travelled the path that had started with Tom Petty and that had erupted with Bob Dylan, the more I discovered deeper and graver and profounder Christ-centered music.

The essays that will appear in this column in the ensuing months will be written so that I may pass on to others artists and albums that have illuminated my own faith walk.  Some will be obscure and nearly forgotten.  Some will be underground and worthy of attention.  Some will be washed in static.  Some will be washed in noise and feedback.  All, hopefully, will have been washed in the blood.

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