Straight Into Darkness: One Tom Petty Redemption Song

By Megan Volpert

Of all the Heartbreakers tracks available to come through her headphones as Megan Volpert stood over train tracks preparing to surrender to the psychedelic blindness of simple human misery, “Straight Into Darkness” is the one that did. In this highly philosophical and deeply personal exploration of one obscure Tom Petty song, Volpert’s essays comb through the musical, historical, rhetorical and sociological implications of a forgotten gem in a legendary catalog with satisfying results.

In the face of powerlessness, we rebel anyway. She judges the forty years of Petty’s career with one finger on the pulse of Bob Dylan and an occasional whiff of Bruce Springsteen, looking at the sometimes violent mob scene of concerts as a type of transcendence. Straight Into Darkness offers a compelling vision of rock and roll fandom where the songwriter’s hardworking sense of humor is enough to save us from absurdity. All you need is Albert Camus and a couple of chords. Long after dark, Petty and Volpert each emerge as modern mystics.

Megan Volpert is the author of eight books on communication and popular culture, including two Lambda Literary Award finalists. Her MFA in Creative Writing is from Louisiana State University and she writes regularly for PopMatters. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for over a decade and was 2014 Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching. Volpert used to drive a scooter and has “What would Tom Petty do?” tattooed over her heart.

 

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More praise from Petty experts:

Wow, this is a fascinating read! Nothing takes a look at Petty’s songwriting like this. It’s refreshing. Long After Dark happens to be one of my favorites, maybe because it’s the only CD in my car. But it just kind of needles away at a listener and Volpert brings to life the subconscious questions we have through her deep dissection and analysis. Straight Into Darkness is truly thought-provoking, super well-written and unlike any regular biography. It’s going to take me at least ten more reads to wrap my head around it all. But that will be a joy. If you’re a real Petty fan, this is a required book.
-Jason Hedges, frontman for Heavy Petty Gainesville

An interesting look at the inner workings of the Heartbreakers channeled through a deep consideration of their transitional Long After Dark album. Fans of Tom Petty will love this book.
-Bob Dec, keyboardist for Petty Larceny Massachusetts

Wow, this is a fascinating read! Nothing takes a look at Petty’s songwriting like this. It’s refreshing. Long After Dark happens to be one of my favorites, maybe because it’s the only CD in my car. But it just kind of needles away at a listener and Volpert brings to life the subconscious questions we have through her deep dissection and analysis. Straight Into Darkness is truly thought-provoking, super well-written and unlike any regular biography. It’s going to take me at least ten more reads to wrap my head around it all. But that will be a joy. If you’re a real Petty fan, this is a required book.
-Jason Hedges, frontman for Heavy Petty Gainesville

Assuming the role of musicologist, historian, philosopher, music theorist, psychologist, and story-teller, Volpert expertly plunges deep into the artistry of a four-minute wonder of a song. Straight Into Darkness illuminates the truths and myths of a culture, a band, a man, and their lasting impact on generations of listeners. If you are a Petty fan, a student of rock and roll, or examiner of the human condition, this is a must-read.

-Steve Luthye, keyboardist for Petty Theft Dallas

Alina Simone, author of Madonnaland 

From deconstructing chord charts, to charting the progress of his heartland mega-hits, Megan Volpert has set out to fill the Gibson-shaped hole in the hearts of Tom Pettyologists everywhere with this deep dive into America’s most understated guitar rock icon.

 

Jason Diamond, author of Searching for John Hughes 

Tom Petty was one of the great American songwriters whose work deserves to be broken down and examined thoughtfully and with the same passion he delivered every lyric with. Megan Volpert has done just that and more, mixing just the right amount of academic rigor and total Petty obsessive in this illuminating book.

From the Introduction:

No way around it: I once was carrying so much physical chronic pain that I got near to jumping off a train platform, but I didn’t, because of Tom Petty’s “Straight Into Darkness.” This little book examines why.

The number of good books about Petty can be counted on one hand. Most of them are properly researched journalistic enterprises that shy away from too many critical maneuvers, like examining the nitty-gritty of his word choices or arguing about whether his work is kind to women. None of them much illuminates the nature of a personal connection between author and subject, and none of them explicitly dips a toe into any philosophy. I hope the form and content of what I’m doing here stands for something new, and I’m sure a lot of folks won’t like it.

That’s got to be all right, that uncertainty and distaste for innovative approaches to a beloved thing. There are lots of salvation songs in this world, and even many others in the Petty catalog to which countless strangers have doubtless given their allegiance. But as I stood over those train tracks preparing to surrender to disease and despair in the psychedelic blindness of my simple human misery, the one song out of hundreds of available Heartbreakers tracks that came through my headphones at that one perfect moment was “Straight Into Darkness.” I’ve built my life around this epiphany, so it seems like a decent thing to build a book around, too. At least you know that I mean what I say, that you can believe me.

And don’t go getting all sad as you read though these essays, either. Camus says:

If this myth is tragic, that is because the hero is conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his decent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

In service to that type of lucidity, you’re welcome to skip around in this book. Each essay is a self-contained unit, but they are also sorted into six different tools for approaching the song—personally, musically, historically, rhetorically, sociologically, and philosophically. The five sections on the band’s fortieth anniversary tour comprise my thoughts on the challenge of wanting to hear my song at a show. Spoiler alert: I never did. But I did learn to play it myself, which is covered in the three bits I think of as palate cleansers. You don’t need to know a lick of music theory to enjoy this book.

The three sections on album context provide a condensed version of the Heartbreakers’ history as background to understanding the creation of Long After Dark and the place of “Straight Into Darkness.” The six sections on lyrical analysis go through each and every word of the song to get at its many meanings. There are three sections on mob scene for a sociological and psychological examination of the band’s concerts, with a close look at the roles of violence and mysticism. Then the three sections on standards evaluate philosophical implications of the song as they pertain to individualism, transcendentalism, and absurdism. There’s also some good stuff in that section for fans of Bob Dylan, and the occasional whiff of Bruce Springsteen.

Whatever you came here looking for, I wish you luck finding it. Done in any number of other ways, I could’ve ended up working on this book the whole rest of my life over thousands of pages. Hell, I suppose that’s what I’m doing anyway. But that’s between me and my rock and roller.

 

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From Making the Album

Long After Dark marked several crossroads moments for the Heartbreakers. It was their last album for Backstreet under the terms of the Damn the Torpedoes legal settlement. It was the band’s last album produced in full by Jimmy Iovine, though Petty would later call him back to work on bits and pieces. Most importantly, it was the first record on which bassist Howie Epstein replaced Ron Blair. Petty “stole” Epstein from Del Shannon while producing his Drop Down and Get Me comeback album. The Heartbreakers had been called in as Shannon’s backing band, so the audition happened organically once it was announced that Blair was calling it quits.

Says Blair, “I’ve told this story probably twelve different ways, and it could go anywhere from ‘If I was fired, I probably deserved it’ to ‘My mind left planet Band’ to ‘I needed a break.’ But there was a pivotal moment for me.” He got a phone call from Dimitriades and they agreed things had soured. Zanes says the whole band saw it coming: “No one in or around the band denies that as of 1981, Ron Blair was drifting. He wasn’t behaving like a band member. He’d taken a stroll to the periphery, and it left him vulnerable.” Show biz was getting to him: “The way we’d talk about other people and other bands. You know, ‘Our gang is better than your gang.’ The competition and the gossip. It just rubbed me the wrong way, the way the game is played.”

Petty sympathized: “[Ron] was very sincere. He quit the music business completely. Something had popped, and he didn’t want to play music at all.” Yet, as Zanes notes, “A vacancy in the band was a problem with historical reverberations.” If the band could carry on at all, a new bassist would certainly mean a different sound. But Blair’s absence was perhaps most impactful on the remainder of the rhythm section. Says Zanes: “With Blair gone, there was no band member Lynch could use to distract the others, and shield himself, from the painful attention he got in the studio as the drummer who wasn’t always giving the band what they wanted.”

Beyond drumming, Lynch was the primary band member responsible for singing harmonies, and Epstein would take that away from him. According to the Playback liner notes, “Epstein had two qualities Petty valued highly: he had no ego problems and he could sing his butt off.” Campbell confirms both attributes: “Howie came in and was a great harmony singer, which was the main thing he brought to us. Howie played the bass more like a guitar players or a singer who was accompanying his voice.”

Epstein was accustomed to playing studio sessions and was glad to contribute whatever the band could use:

 

If somebody else comes up with a better part, great. I don’t get bothered by that at all. I know some people do. ‘I’m the bass player!’ I think that’s kind of silly. If Ben or whoever comes up with a better bass part, we’d be fools not to use it. I was definitely happy when I joined the band. I really think it was stranger for them. I don’t think the guys had been in many other bands. They were so close knit, where I was used to playing with lots of bands. I think it was a little weird for them to have this new guy in there.

 

By contrast, Lynch was more unsatisfied than ever. In addition to the familiar trouble posed by Iovine’s intense methods, the drummer was also less than pleased with Petty’s newfound interest in punching up the songs by slightly speeding up many of the mixes: “They went through the rectum of the fourth dimension and never came back. I say if you want to make a rock-and-roll record, you’ve got to let some feathers fly. The control issues at that point were way beyond reason.” Lynch increasingly dropped off from the studio work and would quit the band entirely in 1994.

 

- Megan Volpert

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