Free Fallin’ I will stay in the car for. Like, if I get somewhere, and this is on, I’m not getting out until it’s over. It’s the Marky Mark of songs to me; it came into my life at such an influential point that I’ll never fall out of love with it.
I can still feel what it was like to watch this video at eleven or twelve years old. There was so much I related to visually – the Vision Streetwear (I’ll never forget the ads for Vision in my sister’s YM magazines), the eighties shopping mall Tom Petty lurks in between ghosting around the youthful story that is the video narrative, the sweet sixteen party around a pool (a fantasy), and being the kind of girl who would drop in on a vert ramp with the guys (another fantasy though eventually I learned to skateboard in my late teens). I don’t know if I paid much attention to the lyrics then, though I was probably already imagining myself as a good girl “home with a broken heart”, because I got dumped twice in fifth grade and spent junior high tall and goofy, with mostly awful haircuts.
There are few late eighties time capsules as effectively poignant as this. Even though the story jumps decades, it ends on a vert ramp starring pro skater Gator Rogowski. Gator’s story is told in the excellent documentary “Stoked”. It’s unclear to me whether or not the woman he murdered, Jessica Bergsten, is in the video (the female protagonist star, Devon Kidd, thinks she is), but Gator’s girlfriend and Jessica’s best friend (as well as star of Vision ads), Brandi McClain, is.
Gator and Brandi
When I originally googled and found this blog interviewing the “good girl”, Devon Kidd (née Jenkin), I thought she was the most boring part of the story. I admit, I got turned off by her Jesus references, but on second reading I see her Jesus references are no different than my universe references (I mean except that I’m not Christian – you get the point.). She describes being inspired by the song before she was ever cast in the video and its continuing presence in her life. And, she is bleeding positivity, which can’t hurt anyone. You can actually look her up on Facebook… she was an ultimate California girl but lives in Colorado now – as I do.
I grew up mostly in suburban Boston, and “Free Fallin’” is, of course, an L.A. story lyrically. In fact, the geographical references were part of why Tom Petty’s record label originally rejected the song. In my early twenties, the imagery I was infatuated with took on new meaning when I moved to L.A. with a guy I knew from Denver. It was September of 2000, and the idea was that we were going to live in a house in the valley together, joined within a couple months by another close friend. Then a bunch of other stuff happened.
I quickly got a job on Santa Monica Blvd. just East of Vine. Every day I made the drive “over the hill” from Sylmar (if you’re wondering, the place where Linda Kasabian stashed the wallet in a toilet tank after the LaBianca murders). I listened to the classic rock station in the car, and at work, where I could put our hold music on the crackly speakerphone on my desk.
Every day I heard “Free Fallin’” and every day I could apply its lyrics to my own life, which of course is the hallmark of a truly great song. Sylmar wasn’t Reseda, but it was darn close. Though Craig Rosen points out in this blog that the “freeway runnin’ through the yard” line is misrepresentative of Reseda, I felt like I spent my life on freeways for my first few months in L.A. It was these confusing freeways that caused me to get fired for lateness on my second day of work at the Virgin Megastore in Burbank, a weekend job I took to get out of “roommate debt” with the guy I was living with. I blamed this financial setback on a check my former Brooklyn roommate didn’t mail me for three weeks, and my refusal to ask my parents for money at the time (this changed later on!).
Being fired was a failure of colossal proportions to me. I had never been more in a state of free fall in my sheltered young life. I slept on a pile of blankets, and then an inherited single futon mattress, and had a metal shelf as my only furniture. Mulholland Drive was just a fantasy street I might someday be able to drive on if I made it out of the valley.
If you’ve ever googled “what is Free Fallin’ about?” you’ll find that 1) people have interpreted it as much as I have and most decide it’s either about Tom Petty leaving a girl behind in Florida before he got famous, (which leads me to the question, was Tom Petty hot???), or an archetypical story of a good girl in the valley who loses her ambitious boyfriend to the hills of Hollywood and 2) Tom Petty just kind of wrote the song and it’s not necessarily about anything specific. God, you can read that “Free Fallin’” line a million ways; it is beautiful. And I enjoyed very much reading here what people think of it.
When I originally became obsessed with this song, my twenty two year old coast-to-coast free fall seemed negative. I thought I was a humongous loser by the risky nature of my existence and lack of tangible success. Hearing it now, I connect to the time when my adult life was just beginning. I seriously yearn for that kind of freedom. This untethered existence I dream about that I can choose now but was happening to me without my choosing then – and taught me so much. My pathetic and romantic life gave me the grit I needed to grow up and become a little bit fearless. I almost wish I’d be in that situation again to shake me into some desperate ambitious pursuit. But I remember it painfully well.
Within a year of my time in the valley I was living much closer to the LaBianca’s house than the Spahn ranch (another Manson reference!), in the maid’s quarters of an old mansion in Los Feliz. There had been several stops between, but I did settle here for several months. I was driving an actress to set and picking her up on Mulholland Drive. I did manage to get drunk with George Clooney, spill a drink on the B-list actress sitting next to him, and throw up in my friend’s bathtub all night. I can see now that I was luckier than many in my L.A. trials, as in many other aspects of my young post-college life. I got a job, made it to a prominent music video and commercial production company, and when that company went out of business, began my most successful year of the two I lived in L.A. as a freelance production assistant, and finally was able to buy new clothes again.
But, this luck was not without painful steps along the way in all aspects of my life. I was told, as a young entertainment professional, that in L.A. you’re always looking for a “job, a boyfriend, or an apartment”. Yup. Frequently I was getting screwed by all three at once.
I don’t move as often as I used to, but things haven’t changed that much. Thank god for perfect songs to remind me why I love not being in control.
Polaroid circa 2001, Los Angeles, when I only wore Sauconys, Dr. Scholl’s, and clothes from the thrift store. And that amazing vintage Lee jacket. (DAMN IT why did I get rid of that?)