What Tom Petty's "Straight Into Darkness" teaches us about uncertainty

This "Long After Dark" track re-positions darkness not as a symbol of negativity, but as a space of the unknown

Published September 1, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 'Long After Dark' tour, 7 December 1982 Wembley Arena. (Solomon N’Jie/Getty Images)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 'Long After Dark' tour, 7 December 1982 Wembley Arena. (Solomon N’Jie/Getty Images)

Excerpt from "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" by Megan Volpert (University of Georgia Press, 2022.) Used by permission of the publisher.

The chorus of a song is generally its most instructive part because it repeats, but Tom Petty often prefers to put his lessons in the bridge or final verse. And he was not fond of handing out advice anyway: "I'm certainly not trying to preach or tell anyone what's right or wrong. I see myself as an observer, a reporter. I try to use what's happened to me or people in my immediate vicinity—and the better I get at expressing that and getting it across, the more meaningful the tunes are to people." Indeed, the chorus of "Straight Into Darkness" at first appears to be mostly reportage.

As the chorus applies to the first verse, the love died out and the couple went into darkness by separating. The darkness in this case is sad, maybe even bad, but we don't really know what became of either person once they passed into that darkness. Applied to the second verse, the band gets on a plane to London and flies into the darkness not knowing whether rock stardom awaits them when they land. In retrospect, we know they were greeted as a wild success. That darkness in this case builds excitement, represents the space of the unknown. One verse depicts an unhappy ending and the other depicts a happy one, though the four lines that report these two endings are identical.

These stories of how a romance died and how a career was born seem at cross-purposes in their definitions of darkness. We're accustomed to analyzing darkness as a symbol of negativity. In the binary of dark / light, night / day, black / white, we almost always assign negative value to dark / night / black. Petty himself sometimes fell into this assumption, once understandably describing his divorce as "the darkest period of my life." But the chorus of "Straight Into Darkness" works to dismantle this negativity by sending all the characters into darkness, some of whom emerge happily and some of whom don't. The darkness of "Straight Into Darkness" is therefore more value neutral—only a space of the unknown.

Many people have anxiety about the unknown, but others find amusement in it. The shroud of mystery laid over one's future is a powerful idea and, moreover, it's an inevitable reality. It's the famous Schrödinger's cat situation: you put a cat in a box with a poison that occasionally activates randomly, and then you don't know whether the cat is alive or dead until you open the box. That box has darkness in it. The darkness is a paradox, a situation at cross-purposes with itself because, until you open that box, the cat is dead and alive at the same time. The cat being out of sight means in some ways that it's firmly in mind. Petty's mother passed away during the making of Hard Promises, about which he reflected, "You can file things like that way, but they're still working on you." We are tremendously influenced by our uncertainty.

The only other mention of darkness on this album is itself. What does "Long After Dark" mean? It's a nice way to start a campfire story maybe. It does have a scary ring to it, but let's think about time. Once it's long after dark, we're headed for sunrise. "Long after dark" may mean we can already see the light. If you can have an "after dark," you can also have a "before." The title carries this implication of a cycle, which really only means lining up both parts of the paradox end to end in a circle in order to hold on to two contradictory ideas at once. Is it light out or is it night? It's both. It's long after dark.

Keyboardist Benmont Tench even noted this paradox applied to the album's cover art: "[The album] was very angry or dark. It's got a nice cheerful red cover and silver back where everybody looks like, 'Hey, we're a pop band.' But it wasn't. It's got a real good mood and it sounds like the way we sounded then. It doesn't sound tricked-up at all to me. Hard Promises sounds tricked-up." We'll return to his valuation of honest authenticity versus the tricked-up later, but note the tension in the way the album's artwork reveals as it conceals. Ultimately, out of the paradox of the unknown comes the surprise of our future.

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By Megan Volpert

Megan Volpert has written or edited more than a dozen books, including "Boss Broad," which won a Georgia Author of the Year Award. Her latest is "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" (University of Georgia Press, 2022). She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University and a fellow at the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought.

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