Straight Into Darkness

Straight Into Darkness: One Tom Petty Redemption Song
By Megan Volpert
[Miniver Press]

Scholars, or those who fancy themselves scholars, should not write about popular culture. You know the types: If there’s more than one framed parchment hanging on the wall, well, the owner of said parchments is likely under the delusion that it’s their onus/privilege to pontificate about anything and everything. As if it matters. As if anybody cares. As if their analytical abilities are keener and more lucid than the proverbial Average Joe’s. If they’ve seen as much as one painting by Van Gogh and another by Bob Ross, well, they “know” visual art. If they saw a video of MC Hammer on MTV in the 1980s and overheard the Migos playing in their kid’s bedroom last week, well, they “know” hip-hop culture. If their dad owned a couple of BTO albums and their favorite band is either Radiohead or Wilco, well, they “know” rock ’n’ roll. And, even worse, they’ll tell you what they “know.” (And, baby, I’m one too.)

But I have excellent news for the world. Atlanta-based author/educator Megan Volpert is bucking the trend by producing a body of work about pop culture that’s interesting, entertaining, and, well, it’s significant. A book critic for and columnist for Atlanta INtown, the prolific Volpert has published a half a dozen books about pop culture in the last decade – with two more slated for release in early 2019.

Volpert really does know rock ’n’ roll, especially as pertains to her “priest,” role model and spiritual guru, Tom Petty. And, yes, she’s telling us what she knows in her most recent critical opus, Straight Into Darkness: One Tom Petty Redemption Song. And these ministrations are well worth receiving – for diehard Petty supplicants and run of the mill rock fans alike.

Darkness is a masterful deconstruction and microscopically close reading of a relatively obscure (as if any song on any of Petty’s mega-selling albums was obscure, exactly), deep track from 1981’s Long After Dark album, “Straight Into Darkness.” Yeah, the song isn’t exactly one of the main threads of Petty’s Americana tapestry, but it’s a special song for Volpert, the song that saved her life. “I was once carrying so much physical chronic pain that I got near to jumping off a train platform, but I didn’t, because of Tom Petty’s ‘Straight Into Darkness,’” writes Volpert.

Sure, the book, Straight Into Darkness, is about the song, “Straight Into Darkness.” But it digs a lot deeper than that. It’s about the author’s (Volpert’s) parasocial relationship with the artist (Tom Petty); it’s about the poetry and composition of rock ’n’ roll; it’s about the nature of fandom; and it’s about the potential of a work of art (or, shall I say a “cultural product” for the Frankfurt School devotees out there – all three of yaz) as a vessel for transcendence. But don’t be put off by all these grandiose claims. It’s an engaging, fun and affecting read – and, if you’re not careful, you just might learn a thing or two before it’s done.

The slightest weakness of the book is its organizing conceit – you know, the bit about the single song. Of course, it is about the song that saved Volpert’s life. But the book, in its entirety, is not just a longwinded analysis of one song. I mean, 300-plus words about a single song and nothing but would get boring. (If you’re looking for that kind of analytical turgidity, see the umpteen scholarly tomes about the art and artistry of Bob Dylan – case in point of my hypothesis about how scholars, and those who fancy themselves scholars, shouldn’t write about popular culture.) Perhaps a better title would’ve been Megan & Tom: A Love Story. I jest. But then again, maybe not.

Volpert leads the reader on what at first seems a meandering path through the context of the album, Long After Dark, and the lyrics and composition of the song, “Straight Into Darkness” (natch). None of this, however, is as tedious as one might think it would be. The author skillfully cobbles together various bits of criticism and history in a way that doesn’t read like a term paper (that’s bad), a master’s thesis (that’s even worse) or a scholarly journal article (the nadir). Basically, the first half of the book is an entertaining setup for the multiple payoffs in the second half. Darkness is a spiritual rock ’n’ roll journey where getting there, of course, is half the fun.

After this setup, said payoffs cohere in the second half of the book, where Volpert delivers a series of touching, true and sometimes hilarious retellings of her experiences at Petty concerts and, finally, offers four compelling arguments (liturgies, if you will) as to why all of this matters so damned much. It makes sense. And it works. If rock ’n’ roll has ever moved you profoundly, you’ll totally get it – and be moved by it. So, uh, yeah.

Certainly all of this is better summed up in Volpert’s own words:

I lived it and I can write about it until the second coming of Tom Petty and you still won’t understand what the fuck I’m talking about until you pony up for the experience of it all for yourself – to live by his example, because rock and roll is a church and Tom Petty was one of my priests. He was a spiritual gangster and then he died. He went straight into darkness and I am still here, very much alive.