Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Long After Dark (1982) | featured image

Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic (Excerpt)

Happy 40th anniversary to Tom Petty’s Long After Dark album, an underrated manual for creatives in existential crisis. Enjoy this excerpt from Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic.

Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic
Megan Volpert
University of Georgia Press
November 2022
Long After Dark
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
2 November 1982

Long After Dark is too often waved away as perhaps the least notable album [Tom] Petty ever made. Even albums like The Last DJ or Echo are given more attention because at least the former is a controversial knock at the music business and the latter is a testament to Petty’s personal struggles with divorce and heroin. Long After Dark is worthy of more intense consideration because it marks an end—after which would come different producers, collaborations with many of Petty’s elders, solo albums, and other serious stabs at newness or reinvention.

This fifth album bookmarks 1982 as Petty’s reckoning with the absurd, with the ceaselessly repetitive and uselessly empty cycle of success for a rock star. He began to worry about the trap of “his years living inside the album cycle.” According to Warren Zanes, Petty would “write the songs, go into the studio, make the record, mix it and master it, set up the release, do press, tour behind the record, write the songs, go into the studio, make the record . . . and thirty years later, if you’re lucky enough to get that many years, your kids are grown-ups. Petty has spent most of his life at work.” Journalist Steve Pond reported that it was driving Petty mad, into a time of prolific waste: “For months, the schedule was monotonous: record, break while Petty wrote more songs, record, break. The band would tell Petty to write one song, and he’d return with five. The record had too many rockers; Petty would go home and write ballads. When there got to be too many ballads, he started ditching them like crazy. ‘I was trying to find the right balance,’ he says.”

He was overdoing it with no results, looking for balance but finding monotony. The album was yielding nothing new. […] Petty’s weariness with Long After Dark functions as proof that he had finally and totally awakened to the absurdity of stardom. As Camus defined it, “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.” Whether Petty would recover from his crisis of stardom consciousness or suicidally drive his music career into the ground remained to be seen in 1982, but he was on the precipice of the only line of inquiry that ever mattered to existentialism, since “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

The instinctual nature of this moment is pretty dangerous because “an act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it.” Petty’s passion for making great music, according to Camus, is located in the same spot as our human impulse to end it all with self-sabotage. He was trying to pour all this rock and roll mojo into Long After Dark, but it wouldn’t gel. It had no resonance for him, despite his labor: “At this point in his effort man stands face to face with the irrational,” said Camus. “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

A musician can walk away from this darkness, from the world that won’t properly answer back. But then the music itself is lost, so the issue is whether Petty was called to music to such an extent that he would refuse to walk away from it, even though producing this music was precisely the thing causing him so much pain: “From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt—that is the whole question.”

He didn’t walk away; he picked up the problem and ran with it. Zanes said that the “almost ceaseless movement between writing, recording, going home to his family, and working through the band’s affairs had begun to define who he was. He was a workingman. The old gang wasn’t the same because, as he put it, ‘Someone had to be the adult here.’” To lead a band is to assume responsibility for its challenges, perhaps especially its existential ones. Zanes said specifically of Long After Dark that making the album was “a matter of Petty wanting to avoid trouble that might come from the guys he’d known since high school, while recognizing that he’d been in that situation for years. He couldn’t have what he thought of as a real band and not find himself there. But the fatigue of that and the fatigue of the album cycle itself were both weighing on Petty. The Heartbreakers, too, were struggling with the relentlessness and its cumulative effects.”

What Petty knew instinctively of the Heartbreakers’ ups and downs thus far was that “if the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.” To shift toward darkness as a metaphor for the same, Camus said, “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing.” Petty went straight into that darkness and met the relentlessness of absurdity with his unceasing work. He finished Long After Dark by taking joy in writing through his existential crisis. Camus said, “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.” The clearest example of such a manual on Long After Dark is “Straight Into Darkness.

Reprinted with permission from Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic (2022) by Megan Volpert. Published by ⒸUniversity of Georgia Press. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



The Optimist Died Inside of Me: Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Narrow Stairs’

Silent Film’s Raymond Griffith Pulled Tricksters Out of a Top Hats

The 10 Most Memorable Non-Smash Hit Singles of 1984

30 Years of Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’