All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Rock ‘n’ Roll

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads

— Tom Petty

I’ve gone on a Tom Petty jag lately.  First there was the Traveling Wilburys’ compilation, which included a DVD of that fondly remembered supergroup, with TP in the line-up, from the late 1980s.   And then I picked up the recent Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers DVD compilation which has a 4-hour documentary by Peter Bogdanovich and another DVD of the 30th anniversary show of the band in their home town of Gainesville, Florida.   Runnin’ Down a Dream and Free Fallin’  keep playin’ in my head.

Great song lyrics are both specific and universal.  The songwriter’s best source is particular personal experience, but (and this is really the art of songwriting) manages to express it in a way that allows the listener to participate, contributing the aura of the listener’s own hopes and dreams and setbacks to what he’s hearing.  This is part of the charm of Tom Petty’s music.

I’ve discovered I’m not much of an intellectual, although I’ve tried sometimes to have pretensions in that direction.  I feel my way through life, and although that may sound like a blind man, that’s always the way forward (okay, occasionally backward) for me.

The true intellectual, besides being smarter than me, brings a colder light of reason to his or her affairs than I am willing to do.  I’m busy trying to focus on what I feel about something, and this often makes me look confused, because I am.

I bring this up only to try to understand why songs have been so important to me.  They’re so not intellectual, though often enough smart.  And if you read the words on the bare page, they can be trite.  Still when the words are sung with sincerity and feeling, and they connect, well, “it’s a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard.”

Gerry Rafferty, whose songs were often a refuge over the years, in Good Intentions comments in a related way:

I asked my heart to talk to my mind
They said don’t worry, oh well you’re doin’ fine
I went to the doctor, I said I’m misunderstood
He said, ‘Don’t worry, why your intentions are good.’

There are many other lyrics that have made an impact.  One album (from those  times when albums were more important) that comes immediately to mind is Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood:

When some cold tomorrow finds you
when some sad old dream reminds you
how the endless road unwinds you

When there’s no one left to leave you
Even you don’t quite believe you
That’s when nothing can deceive you

While you see a chance take it
Find romance fake it
Because it’s all on you

— Steve Winwood, Will Jennings

Although I don’t quite subscribe to the faking romance notion, I know where it’s coming from, for I’ve felt it too.

From that same album:

But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf on the telephone
I need my love to translate
— Steve Winwood, Viv Stanshall

This brings up that phenomenon of really liking a song because of the way you’ve misheard the lyrics.  For a long time I heard the first line as Her jealous knights and all her secret courts which is interesting but not the song…

[An amusing website on this very thing is The Archive of Misheard Lyrics where you can vote on your favorite misguided way of listening and even suggest that your way improves on the song…]

Bruce Cockburn, well known in Canada, but probably not so much in the USA, is another favorite.  He writes poetry as much as he writes songs:

This shaman with the hoops stands
Aligned like living magnetic needle between deep past
         and looming future
Butterfly pierced on each drum beat, wing beat, static spark,
        storm front, energy circle delineated by leaping limbs 


You see the extremes
Of what humans can be?
In that distance some tension’s born
Energy surging like a storm
You plunge your hand in
And draw it back scorched
Beneath it’s shining like
Gold but better
Rumours of glory


The trouble with normal is it only gets worse

Speaking of poets, of course Bob Dylan’s played a part in my education:

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on
edges, soon,” said I
Proud ‘neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

I associate different albums with various eras of my life.  These were albums I returned to again and again and drew some kind of sustenance from them specific to those times.  One such, if you can believe it, was Joe Walsh’s The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get.  I still think this is one of the great underrated rock albums.

I’m out here in the meadow
Part of an old stone wall
Stand here because he said so
Waitin’ around to fall  

Another such was Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill:

You’ve been tellin’ me you’re a genius since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean
The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge, I can’t understand
Are you reelin’ in the years, stowin’ away the time
Are you gatherin’ up the tears, have you had enough of mine

All is not complete seriousness in my musical upbringing of course.  A surprise hit in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-Nineties was Dana Lyons’ Cows with Guns (hear it here).

He picked up a bullhorn and jumped up on the hay
We are free roving bovines, we run free today
We will fight for bovine freedom
And hold our large heads high
We will run free with the buffalo, or die

I have learned clear, and sometimes more ambiguous, lessons from many others of course:

All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest                 —
Paul Simon

He wear no shoeshine he got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger he shoot coca-cola
He say “I know you, you know me”
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free             —
The Beatles

The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.                — Bruce Springsteen

Especially in Vancouver — that’s some apt psychological insight into the terrible drivers here…

You would think with all the genius and the brilliance of these times,
we might find a higher purpose and a better use of mind.
Jackson Browne

I’d like to explain why you fine young men had to be blown apart to defend this mud hole.       — Randy Newman

I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.
Coming down is the hardest thing.         —
Tom Petty

There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen


(Note:  If you have snatches of song that occasionally reverberate in your head and speak to you, many can be tracked down at, an on-line reference of over 13,000 song quotes.

And a good source of song lyrics is here. )

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Culture, Music, Remembering

4 Comments on “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Rock ‘n’ Roll”

  1. Around about the time I was learning to appreciate the finer things in life, like Freedom, I saw Tom Petty on the Old Grey Whistle Test. His approach to rock ‘n’ roll was sure different from the all fired up direction I was headed but there was no denying the southern boy could write an evocative song. I cannot look at an American Girl without thinking about her being raised on promises.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey Mr. Beer N Hockey,

    Thanks for stopping by… From the documentary, apparently England was much more receptive to his music at the beginning than the States.

    I’ve seen a couple of DVDs on the Old Grey Whistle Test featuring many of the bands trying to make it in those days. Have to restrain myself buying all the music DVDs I want…


  3. kevmoore Says:

    I think, as an Englishman, thats fair to say, we picked up on him very early on, but then you picked up on the Police before they could even get arrested (no pun intended) in Britain!
    I particularly love the Arc of a Diver lyric, it has an added Poignancy, as Viv Stanshall, wonderful eccentric and lyricist, died in 1995 in a house fire. He had an amazing way with words, like many comic writers, treading the line between comedy and tragedy with enviable ease.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Kevmoore,

    Thanks for your comments, and info about Viv Stanshall, of whom I know nothing…

    Just looked him up on Wikipedia… quite the guy… especially the setting fire to his big belly part!


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