Tom petty was well into his amazing 40+ year career when he hit his first big identity crisis. As Warren Zanes documents in his book Petty: The Biography, though the first two albums had solidified Tom and Co.’s byrds-brit-southern sound as solid radio staple, and the singles and touring had brought a modicum of success to both Petty and the members of the Heartbreakers, Petty was faced with one of the harsher realities of success.
He had become a brand.
And as a brand he had to clear up some blurred financial lines, cut a few ties, and draw up a new contract that would both give him more control, as well as reward him for the large part he’d built in creating this engine – an engine that now employed many people and had gotten more than a little… messy.
He had to break with the heartbreakers.
What he had to grapple with personally though was losing his identity – or at least seeing it change dramatically. The determinedly independent kid from north Florida who wanted to be Elvis – and stick a big middle finger to anyone who said he couldn’t – especially his dad, now had to be wary of becoming one of the things rock musicians, and artists in general, all agree to despise: just another big, bloated company cranking out singles, leaving friends and relationships in their wake. Who would this new person be? Could he be all things to all people, his fans, the band, his family?
Answer: a little bit yes a little bit no. Though forced to adapt and learn to handle the business side of rock, a person like Tom Petty at his core will never change.
* * *
I was reading this particular chapter on a bus from Nashville to Atlanta, on the way to get my car in Maryland and get on with my soul-searching trip. I’d just written a post on how I was finally happy. I was flying high, or at least as high as a jobless artist and rambling purpose – seeker can. I was finally able to let go – like I wanted – of the last four years’ frustrations and stuttered starts, financial dry heaves that though they appeared to be working only really resulted in.. exhaustion.
I was thinking of all this when the bus pulled off in Chattanooga. Calling it a bus stop would be a stretch, it was really just a patch of sidewalk where the weeds were winning and no businesses dared enter. It was a quick stop, just enough time for a few people to jump on board. I’d gone down the stairs to stand up a bit and use the restroom, when a desperate passenger caught my ear. Apparently he hadn’t purchased a ticket in time and the way this bus works they don’t accept cash – you can’t just hop on. Maybe it keeps the riff raff off, though it’s probably just how they vary pricing and availability. With just a few minutes to spare before the bus would leave, he pleaded with someone, anyone, to help, offering cash if someone would buy his ticket online and get him on board.
You can probably guess what happened. Eric said thanks, handed me the cash and sat down.
“C’mon!” I thought,
“I’m reading, I’m into my book,
I’m exploring tom petty’s career and thinking about identity,
I’m feeling close to a breakthrough, I had my own bench seat,
blah blah blah…”
* * *
Eric is a nice enough dude, was just trying to get to a concert in Atlanta. A French metal band. I thought they were all Norse or Gaelic but it’s been a while. He works at a bar in Chattanooga and dreams of starting his own someday. He rides bikes, doesn’t own a car, has a hipster beard but clearly had it before it was cool, and yep, you guessed it, has a big, ugly past involving a dad who left the whole family in the lurch. Not just left but stopped wanting to be a dad. A real low life.
So it was that I found myself inside the JW Marriott in Atlanta Georgia, having dinner with Eric the bicyclist in a packed sports bar on a typical nfl Sunday, surrounded by business travelers and wedding parties, with lots of coors light and shiner bock flowing from the bar. I wasn’t even one day into leg II, heck I hadn’t even got to my car yet, and there we were, two guys raised on bikes, skateboards, and rebellion, talking about fathers. When I left him I could tell the tears were coming.
The funny part obviously,
is this isn’t exactly news to any of my long term friends.
* * *
So if this is who I am then, why don’t I just embrace it? Why don’t I seek out these conversations and connections, head out on the road for good, become a modern day Paul or Barnabas, spreading my own gospel of fathers, forgiveness, sunshine, and California?
Probably because I’m human. Because I still need to be reminded of why I’m here, even when it’s staring me in the face, surrounding me on all sides, a penchant for connecting with those in the margins as well as those who just like to hear stories, and are willing to share their own.
* * *
I arrived in DC the next morning. An overnight bus ride with a packed population doesn’t exactly result in a wide awake and joyous attitude going into the new day. Nevertheless and not surprisingly, I got talking to a Doctor from Massachusetts who was in town visiting his son, one son is doing well and one son he’s a little concerned about. We talked for hours over coffee at Ebenezer’s near union station, a place that now feels like home, though I’ve never spent more than a couple days in DC.
We left the same way as Eric and I did, exchanging e-mails and me promising to send links to watch the film about dad, and both Eric and the doctor responding almost identically:
“great talking to you, good luck and safe travels,
sounds like you’re on an amazing journey.”
Yes, I guess I am.
From Eric in Chattanooga, to Dr. Dobrow in DC, to Len and his wife on the airplane at the halfway point, to many, many folks along the way, I keep being asked to share my story at unsuspecting times when I think I’m just here for this experience, for me.
Obviously it’s clear I’m not here for just me.. not even close.
* * *
As a kid my identity was simple, it was my bike. All day, everyday, my bike was my life. Fixing it, jumping it, customizing it. It was who I was, a troubled kid who had found an outlet. Ok and channeling the karate kid on the schoolyard was a close second, just to be honest.
* * *
As an adult my identity has been a hodgepodge of long term friendships, road trips and adventures, film and photography, endless attempts at stability. In fact way too many to count.
But I know it’s also connecting people – to each other and to all of our stories and common ties.
* * *
Maybe that’s why questions about my Olmsted family emerged as I planned this trip. Finding out who dad, grandfather, great grandfather and others were in the past, I’m hoping can offer great insight to the present.
So I continue. Visiting Cornell University today to research Great Grandfather Faye Deveaux Olmsted, Chief engineer at the Olmsted power plant that I visited way back in June – at the beginning of this amazing trip – for those following along.
What will I find?
I don’t know, but I said I needed this, and I think I was onto something.. so forward I go.
Following – what exactly? An instinct? A calling? My heart?
“And isn’t it lonely?”
– said a man in upstate NY
Yes it can get lonely, but not as lonely as I’ve been before. Something I’m supposed to do is my companion. Someone I have yet to meet – maybe purpose? I honestly don’t have a word for it just yet.
Maybe next week.