It was the summer of 1980 and I was vividly alone in our house on Mt. Tabor, my parents down in the Bay Area visiting my terrorist sister in prison. I did a lot of lurking. Anything was possible. Not a lot happened. A friend punched a hole in the wall. I met a bow-legged model for “Lawman” jeans. I opened drawers and scrounged in closets. And I played, loudly, over and over, Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes.” We had this Zenith console stereo sitting under the living room window. It was six feet by two feet, with built-in speakers you pivoted open. At times the needle was so shot it slid across the vinyl noiselessly. Not that summer though. That summer sound came out and filled me. I’m not sure I knew what “damn the torpedoes” meant but it sounded good, it sounded like “fuck it.” And there was the look on Petty’s face. It said “You’re gonna get it.” It was cocky, smirky, badass above a lurid red. The first chord of “Refugee” after the little stuttering drum was a total unleashing. It set you free. It knocked you sideways. It was the sound I wanted to live by. I bought most of the next records after that, and I played Petty songs in my college band “Stalk of Flesh.” One thing about Petty—he never disappointed you. You got what you wanted. There were misses, but the misses were outliers. My friend Connor said to me the other day, “No one tells you Petty is their absolute favorite, but no one tells you they don’t like Tom Petty either.” That seems right. He wasn’t my favorite, but I loved him all the same. Like nothing else—not poetry, not film, not fiction, not painting—music alters your day to day life. You’ve got a soundtrack in your head and it’s composed of whatever you’ve been putting on recently. It goes with you to the store. It’s there when you fold clothes or wash dishes. Tom Petty made me a lot braver that summer. He put a snarl in me. Wherever I went, whatever I did, the soundtrack was “Damn the Torpedoes.”
This talk is from a few years ago, at the wonderful, historic Austen-Riggs psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Mass. I think it’s the best overview of how I conceive of psychobiography. For those interested in the topic, or in my work, or in how I go about trying to make sense of a person, go HERE.