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The Waiting Is the Smartest Part: Finding Tom Petty Later in Life

When Tom Petty sang that “the waiting is the hardest part” on 1981’s Hard Promises, it wasn’t about a suburban kid’s impatience for adulthood. Not until somebody heard it that way, I mean. Better music critics than I have marveled at the way Petty’s best songs take years to weave themselves into your head and finally become about you. So now “The Waiting” does make me ache for the person I was and thought I would be—a kid waiting on his destiny.

Growing up, I was musical, but rock didn’t capture my rebellion. I sang Mendelssohn in concert choirs, practiced “Clair de Lune” on piano, and blasted Bach from the speakers of my parents’ Honda. The classic rock station, Q104.3, I considered threadbare nostalgia for dads (even though my own dad has always been more of a Motown guy). Once in a while, they’d play my favorite throwback: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” But I know I disliked — that I maybe even hated — hearing the shiny strum that heralded “Free Fallin’,” a song that never seemed to go anywhere. Even so, I had to credit the seductive simplicity of this three-chord droner. I don’t think I ever actually turned it off.

My life has been too easy. Or that’s what I always assumed: that there had been no struggle to give me shape. For a long time, that’s how Petty sounded — frictionless and effortless, like he was sleepwalking through it all. I knew the sensation of watching oneself from another place, letting the current take your body, yet I didn’t relate. And I didn’t understand, until around when I hit age 30, that I wasn’t exactly supposed to. For all that people identify with Petty’s protagonists, one of his best refrains is a startling rejoinder to those trespassing in his world: “You don’t know how it feels to be me.”

Only that, too, now strikes me as an invitation. I got obsessed with Petty right at the moment I realized I didn’t know much at all. The propulsive groove of “Learning to Fly” — the same sort of cascading, chiming guitar that fascinated and repelled in high school — finally clicked. Petty turned 40 the year before the single came out, and it marked a reunion with the Heartbreakers following his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. I read it as a map of my route out into the fog we call the future, where I’d see that I couldn’t just coast on the breeze forever. And for once I saw that underneath his casual cool, Petty bristled at good fortune, voicing a strange pain: It’s hard work staying lucky.

In darkest hours I listened to “It’ll All Work Out,” smiling at the bite of the title; it recounts lost love with Southern-glazed, fingerpicked twang, ruefully suggesting the heartbreak will leave both in a better state. I don’t live where “the water’s rising in the levee,” and I haven’t fallen for a woman “with eyes so blue they looked like weather,” but Petty’s details are a poetic convenience. They adorn a sound we cannot name, the sound he stuck to for decades without growing complacent or stale, as almost every rock star does. It’s undoubtedly an American sound, a prideful melancholy carried through each era and citizen. It is the sound of waiting for change while not expecting any.