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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Tom Petty and the Thrills and Joys of Fatherhood

Rob looks at the outsize impact of one of classic rock’s most legendary figures. Plus, a big announcement about the future of the show.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 59, we’re breaking down fatherhood and Tom Petty’s “It’s Good to Be King.”

So the nurse hands me my son. My newborn, first-born son—born, like, 90 seconds ago. The doctors are tending to my wife. I am standing there in a hospital room—trembling, quite a bit—and holding a baby. Holding my son. I am a father now. And you can spend your whole life, you can spend years and years imagining this moment, and you can spend the long months of your wife’s pregnancy in a laughably inept scramble to prepare for this moment, and you can spend the hours and hours and hours of your wife’s quite difficult labor praying for this moment, but you have no idea how, exactly, you will feel, or what, exactly, you will do, when this moment arrives. Or at least I didn’t. All the people who tell you When Your Kids Are Born It Changes Your Life and Things Will Never Be the Same, that’s all true but quite vague and not terribly helpful in terms of, uh, prep.

So the nurse hands me my son. I am holding my newborn, first-born son. I am laughably unprepared. I have no idea what to do. And so, with no premeditation whatsoever, I do the first thing that pops into my head. I sing my son a Tom Petty song.

I’m not even a Tom Petty fan like that, in this moment. No offense. It would not have occurred to me, 90 seconds earlier, to do this, to sing this song to my son, to sing any Tom Petty song, to sing any song by anybody. But my thought process, as best I can reconstruct it, must’ve been: Oooh, crying baby. Soothe crying baby. Sing song to soothe crying baby. Dad sing lullaby soothe crying baby. What lullaby Dad know? What lullaby Dad know fit momentous occasion? Oooh, crying baby. And it pops into my head and out of my mouth. “Alright for Now.” By Tom Petty. 1989. From the album Full Moon Fever. I picture my newborn son Shazaming this song, Shazaming me as I sing to him, his little baby hand holding up his phone to my mouth. He’s like, “Who is this trembling guy, and more importantly what’s that song he’s singing, that’s interesting. Is this Tom Petty? Is this from ‘Damn the Torpedoes’? I gotta look this up.”

Did this song soothe my trembling newborn son? Maybe. Did it soothe me? No. But I was beyond grateful for this song, which I do think was equal to the gravity of this moment, and conveyed some sense of my life-changing awe in the presence of my son, and conveyed some sense of my perpetual unease, as well.

Because I always liked the For Now part of the title “Alright for Now.” I think the peace, the safety, the comfort, the alrightness described so tenderly in this song, is all the more precious for the acknowledgement that it’s temporary.

But now I’ve set a precedent, right? I have established a Tom Petty motif, in terms of my parenting. And for whatever reason I feel compelled now to keep singing my son Tom Petty songs. Expand the repertoire. Give him a greater sense of the Tom Petty catalog. My son slept quite poorly, as a baby, and so there I am bouncing lightly on one of those blue exercise balls, in a darkened room, holding him as he cries—the exercise ball was some sleep expert’s advice, it was bullshit, my parenting advice is don’t take parenting advice from anybody, it’s pretty much all bullshit, especially if you have to pay for it—but as I bounce on the exercise ball I sing “Alright for Now,” and then I move on to “Free Fallin’.” Which needs no introduction. Even my newborn son doesn’t need to Shazam “Free Fallin.’”

Here’s the tricky thing though about singing “Free Fallin’” as a lullaby. The jump to falsetto for the chorus is quite jarring to a baby, his eyes all shooting back open and bulging—you can’t really sing in falsetto quietly. You can’t whisper in falsetto. So eventually I learn to drop an octave for the chorus so as not to startle my son awake. That’s just a little parenting advice for you.

Also obviously I’m singing this a capella and so I’m trying to work out precisely how many seconds of silence to put between Now I’m free and free fallin’, if I should count it off in my head like I’m singing the recorded, full-band, regular-speed version of the song, or if should I stretch that pause out, so as to prolong the silence and enhance the lullaby aspect, or what? My presence is quite relaxing and soothing to babies, I assure you. And when I worry the baby’s getting tired of “Free Fallin’,” I move on to “I Won’t Back Down,” which has a less severe version of the chorus falsetto problem, and provides an invaluable opportunity to sing the words “You can stand me up at the gates of hell” to a baby.

All three of those songs are from Full Moon Fever—so much for giving my son a sense of the full Tom Petty repertoire. He’s got like 16 albums. Terrible parenting. A real rock critic woulda sung him something from Southern Accents. Full Moon Fever came out in 1989, when I was 12 years old, and Tom Petty was 38 years old. As a 12-year-old, I thought 38-year-old Tom Petty was a charming, wizened, impossibly old Rad Old Man. A grandfatherly paragon of classic-rock excellence and graceful decrepitude. He was our link with history. He was holding court from a wheelchair on an ice floe drifting off toward the horizon. This was my first, and for a long time my only Tom Petty album. I had it on cassette. Full Moon Fever was designed to be heard on cassette, in my opinion, in part because the album art—on the CD and now the streaming version, that square, the art itself (the photo of Tom, and the title Full Moon Fever)—is suspiciously cassette tape–sized and -shaped. It’s a smaller rectangle within the square. And also when I did finally listen to this record not on cassette, I found out that Tom Petty inserted a jokey little spoken interlude halfway through the album, right at the end of “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” specifically for the people not listening on LP or cassette.

I find Tom Petty’s speaking voice tremendously endearing and comforting. He’s from Gainesville, Florida, but does not have a super thick Southern accent, and he sounds like a guy from the South too cool and rebellious to have a super thick Southern accent. His voice is also ideal for delivering the driest Rad Old Man Jokes imaginable.

Side two starts with a fantastic cover of “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” by the Byrds, which I was not aware of when I was 12, I just thought it was, like, the 200th fantastic original Tom Petty song. Because there are at least 200 fantastic original Tom Petty songs, and I sung three of them to my son on a loop during our arduous exercise-ball bedtime routine for a year or so, which means I got 197 more Tom Petty songs to go. I’m gonna do the whole Full Moon Fever album first. Obviously my oldest doesn’t need to be sung to sleep any more but maybe now I’ll wake him up for school by blasting “Yer So Bad.”

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.