“Don’t bore us get to the chorus” – and other life lessons from Tom Petty

I woke up this morning to the surprising and sad news of Tom Petty’s sudden passing. Initially this got me thinking (and I’ll admit selfishly) that I won’t get to fulfill my bucketlist goal of seeing the legend perform live.

You see, this man was known for belting out a mile long list of hits spanning decades. But to me there was much more to it than that.
I took up guitar in my early 20’s, and musicians like Petty are a God send to aspiring musicians just starting out. Simplicity!
4 chords in a loop followed by a simple 3 chord bridge? Easy peasy, I can do that. In 20 minutes I can pull together a semblance of something that would be catchy around a camp fire.

For that simplicity, the amateur guitarist in me thanks you Tom.

Don’t bore us get to the chorus

So let me take a page out of this legend’s book and get straight to the point…

Here are 3 life lessons that I picked up from Tom Petty.

1. The power of constraints

Tom was a master of constraints. In his brilliant style he was able to peel away an idea to get to its very essence.

Like a sculptor chiseling away bits of stone to reveal the perfect form, Tom was able to get laser focus on an idea without over complicating it.

To me his songs were like masterful little haikus.

2. Get to the point 

Comics like Seinfeld or Louis CK have also mastered this knack for delivering prolific hits.

Set up -> Set up -> Pay off -> Repeat

Jab -> Jab -> Left hook

Unlike a band like Radiohead which delivers arguably the opposite – layer upon layer of complex patterns resembling those optical illusion art pieces popularized in the 90s that revealed a picture.

When you stared at them for 20 minutes and were nearing a catatonic state, an image of an elephant would reveal itself.

Tom taught us to get to the point.
3. Don’t overthink it. (Keep It Simple Stupid)
I remember devoting a Saturday afternoon (this was before I had kids) to his “Runnin down a dream” documentary and seeing him talk about his song writing process.
In one of the clips he talks about coming up with the lyrics to “Free Fallin”. He would brain dump something that “sounded good” and matched the chords as early on as possible.
90% of what came out spontaneously from his subconscious would stick leaving him to interpret the song’s meaning after the fact.
Tapping into this incredible ability to get out of his own way lead to some of the greatest results in his incredibly prolific library.
For all that you taught us through your music and song writing, and for providing us with an awesome soundtrack our lives over the past 40 years, I thank you.