Friday, March 8, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Walls

Has Tom Petty written better songs? Sure he has. “The Waiting” is his masterpiece, after all, and “Refugee” and “American Girl” and maybe even “Free Fallin’” and “Wildflowers” could be considered better songs than this. He’s written so many good songs, some of them surely have to be “better” than the one I’ve picked today for Favorite Song Friday.

Has he written more popular ones? Sure thing. See above. Hell, this isn’t even the most popular version of the song. He released a different version that got more airplay and placed higher on the charts than this one.

It’s even a little more obscured in that it didn’t appear on a traditional studio release, but rather on the soundtrack to the 1996 semi-hit She’s The One, which to be fair was a Tom Petty album in that he did the entire soundtrack. But still, by 1996 the alt-revolution had taken place and even the best of those artists of the Classic Rock genre—like Mr. Petty—were kinda getting pushed to the backseat for a bit, with both commercial sales and radio play.

Still, for my money, this may be my favorite song Tom Petty ever did. Which says a lot, because I love so much of Tom Petty’s career output.

Favorite Song Friday – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Walls”

Some days are diamonds
Some days are rocks
Some doors are open
Some roads are blocked

So simple. Yet so wonderfully stated. “Walls” is a mildly forlorn love song about the choices we make, done in mid-tempo major key fashion that Petty always worked to an art form.  Three verses and three choruses, no bridge. Four basic chords on the verses, five on the chorus. Easy and breezy, over and out, done in about three minutes. Featuring words on the chorus that once more showcased Petty as a first-rate songwriter.

You’ve got a heart so big
It could crush this town
And I can’t hold out forever
Even walls fall down

Years ago I was talking with my wife about these lines and remarked that the first part of the chorus seems on its face so silly, almost childish: “You’ve got a heart so big it could crush this town.” Seriously, left alone it’s just a goofy line.

She said, “But then he follows it up with, “And I can’t hold out forever, even walls fall down.' That line says a mouthful. Maybe anyone could have written that first part, but not the second part. That’s songwriting. And that’s what makes the song.”

She was right. Still is, really. About most things. But definitely about “Walls.”

Simplicity works when it comes to the written word, and few singer-songwriters over the past generation have used the formula of making the simple sound like far more than that than Tom Petty has. It’s how he finds heartfelt beauty, for example, by following oft-repeated rock-n-roll credo, “I’m free!,” with the line, “Free fallin’!” With just one word he goes from rebellious triumph to total directionlessness.

The same applies on “Walls.” Little toss-off maxims—“Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you cry, half of me is ocean, half of me is sky”—are given a much grander meaning when coupled with that concluding line of the chorus, or the last line of the final verse, “Part of me you’ll carry, part of me is gone.” Each part of the song feeds the next, and while all the parts are wrapped in that (sorry for this word again) simple pop structure, put together they add up to something greater.

When I was in college Raymond Carver had just died, and the minimalist style he had brought to the literary fore was being aped by most of the fellow-English majors I ran with. It was the writing equivalent to wearing flannel and ripped jeans a few years later; everyone wanted to do it. Everyone wanted to write like Raymond Carver—as few words as possible, direct, dramatically understated.

Only what I realized when I went back and read most of what Carver left behind was this—the dude could write! He didn’t write in minimalist form because it was trendy, or because it’s all he could do. He did it because he was a magnificent writer and this is the way he chose to write, and his words, while sparse, echoed with meaning and depth.

Many of Tom Petty’s lyrics remind me of that. Including “Walls,” first and foremost. It works not because it’s easy, but because he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he knows exactly how to craft something that is understated, melodic and unceasingly lovely.

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