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Tom Petty, Pimp C and the True Meaning of ‘Free Fallin’

I was at a bar in the Bay Area on Monday night when, at closing time—a few hours after Tom Petty’s death had been confirmed following a day of conjecture—my friend closed out his DJ set with Pimp C’s “I’m Free,” before interrupting it to play the classic from which it borrows its hook: “Free Fallin’.” A bar-wide singalong didn’t erupt, but as I sat facing the DJ booth, watching a new friend roll a joint, I cried big tears of romantic grief, thinking about all the times I turned to Petty songs as channels for my own existential dreaminess and malaise. I love the stories he told and the references we share, especially the way he used L.A. and the San Fernando Valley (my lifelong stomping grounds) as complex characters in his simple dramas.

I went to high school in Reseda and a freeway basically ran through my yard. (I grew up right off Exit 69 on the 405.) I still know a lot of vampires living in the Valley, and think gliding down over Mulholland is one of the best ways to enjoy a sunrise or sunset.

“Did you ever watch that skydiving porn?” the guy across from me asked.

I was thinking about how I should’ve taken my mom to see Petty at the Hollywood Bowl the week before, like we’d planned for months, and about how there’s really never a time for pause in this fragile-ass world. So it took a minute for what this guy was saying to register.

When we met a couple nights before, he had told me about this couple who fucked in the air before landing gracefully on their feet. Now, he’d pulled it up for me and was waiting for me to watch it with him.

“The song made me think of it,” he said. “‘I’m free, free fallin’,’ you know?”

That chorus is what became Pimp C’s hook on “I’m Free,” a song I’d forgotten about until that night.

Petty had just died at 66. Pimp C, one-half of the legendary Texan rap group UGK, aka the Underground Kingz, had died at 33 almost a decade before. UGK collaborated with and inspired artists like Outkast (“Int’l Players Anthem”), Jay-Z (“Big Pimpin”) and Three 6 Mafia (“Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp”). Released in 2006, about a year before Pimp C’s death, “I’m Free” was on his sophomore solo album Pimpalation, the first of which he was out of jail to promote and perform. “They locked up my body but my mind never stopped,” he raps on the second verse. “But I still don’t believe the pen is no place for no man!” he says on the third.

Thanks to the Petty sample, “I’m Free” became an unexpected duet between two influential musicians. Petty, of course, would go on to inspire just about everyone in rock, including those who came before him, as well as Bon Jovi, Dave Grohl and The Strokes.

Coupled together in that moment, for the first time, the song felt like an ending. The freedom that was once so alive now seemed like a nice metaphor for death. After all…

I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for a while