Tom Petty's 2006 single "Saving Grace" is a literally perfect addition to my prized roadtrip playlist, one of those rare songs that I know will amp my interstate travels for a long, long time. I must admit, though, I'm a little surprised. Back in the eighties, I never cared much for Petty. His nasally voice and seemingly pedestrian lyrics failed to impress me, a confirmed Genesis fan in those days. Nowadays I don't listen to Genesis that much, but I've come to appreciate Tom Petty. I don't know if he grew up or if I did, or if it's a combination of the two, but his latest album ("Highway Companion") and single have grabbed me.
"Saving Grace" begins with a driving pulse of rhythm guitar and an occasional metallic clatter that reminds me of telephone poles and clotheslines and westbound trains. "I'm passing sleeping cities," Petty says, "fading by degrees, not believing all I see..." Organs and textured guitars roll to the sound of handclaps and the song gathers steam: "And it's hard to say who you are these days. But you run on anyway…" After the first chorus, "Saving Grace" officially becomes an ass-kicker, growling with a primal junkyard saunter that catches me a little by surprise every time I hear it. I flash on tin roof Mississippi juke joints. I remember empty, dusty roads and blue-sky afternoons. And I yearn to hit the highway with a six string of my own.
"Saving Grace" speaks of guilt and the desire to escape the sins you've committed, and I think of my own. To me, road trips have always been about that saving grace, the chance to live simply, without context or memory. They provide opportunities to flee the small places of my life, oddly enough by visiting smaller ones still. Among the broken bottles and grimy windows of an abandoned motel I've always felt some degree of renewal. And yet the road never offers a real escape, only a brief respite. That's what the song means, I think, when Petty sings, "You're confident but not really sure." But I run on anyway.
PS: Listen to the song a couple of times and see if you don't agree: Petty begins with a simple roadtrip anthem, but he seems to conclude with a shove at President Bush's inability to get off that bloody road running through Iraq:
You’re rolling up the carpetIt's almost as if a new adventure in Iran may be perceived as some form of "saving grace."
Of your father’s two-room mansion
No headroom for expansion no more
And there’s a corner of the floor
They’re telling you is yours
You’re confident but not really sure.