The Search for Identity
My final companion
Tom petty was well into his amazing 40+ year career when he hit his first big identity crisis. As Warren Zanes documents in his book Petty: The Biography, though the first two albums had solidified Tom and Co.’s byrds + brit + southern sound as solid radio staple, and the singles and touring had brought a modicum of success to both Petty and the heartbreakers, Petty was faced with one of the harsher realities of success.
He had become a brand.
And as a brand he had to clear up some blurred financial lines, cut a few ties, and draw up a new contract that would both give him more control, as well as reward him for the large part he’d built in creating this engine — an engine that now employed many people and had gotten more than a little messy.
He had to break from the Heartbreakers
What he had to grapple with personally though was losing his identity — or at least seeing it change dramatically. The determinedly independent kid from north Florida who wanted to be Elvis — and stick a big middle finger to anyone who said he couldn’t — especially his dad, now had to be wary of becoming one of the things rock musicians, and artists in general, all agree to despise: just another big, bloated company cranking out singles and leaving friends and relationships in their wake. Who would this new person be? Could he be all things to all people, his fans, the band, his family?
Answer? Yes and no.
Though forced to adapt and learn to handle the business side of rock, a person like Tom Petty at his core will never change.
* * *
I was reading this particular chapter of Zanes’ great biography on a bus from Nashville to Atlanta, on the way to pick up my convertibel in Maryland and get on with my soul-searching trip I was calling ‘Life is a Highway.’ I’d just written a post on how I was finally happy. I was flying high, or at least as high as a jobless artist and purpose-seeker can. I was finally able to let go — like I wanted — of the last four years’ frustrations and stuttered starts, financial dry heaves that though they appeared to be working only really resulted in exhaustion.
I was thinking of all this when the bus pulled “off” in Chattanooga, calling it a bus stop would be a stretch, it was really just a patch of sidewalk where the weeds were winning and no businesses dared enter. It was a quick stop, just enough time for a few people to jump on board. I’d gone down the stairs to stand up a bit and use the restroom, when a desperate passenger caught my ear. Apparently he hadn’t purchased a ticket online and the way this bus works they don’t accept cash — you can’t just hop on. Maybe it keeps the riff raff off, though it’s probably just how they lure you in with pricing and then check availability. With just a few minutes to spare before the bus would leave, he pleaded with someone, anyone, to help, offering cash if someone would buy his ticket online and get him on board.
You probably already know what happened.
Eric said thanks, handed me the cash and sat down in the seat next to me.
“C’mon” I thought, I’m reading, I’m into my book, I’m exploring Tom Petty’s career and thinking about identity, I’m feeling close to a breakthrough from the burden of being John Olmsted’s son, I have my own bench seat here man, and blah blah blah.
Eric is a nice enough dude, was just trying to get to a concert in Atlanta. Some French metal band apparently. I thought they were all Norse or Gaelic but it’s been a while. He works at a bar in Chattanooga and dreams of starting his own someday. He rides bikes, doesn’t own a car, has a hipster beard but clearly had it before the current beard trend, and yep, you guessed it, has a big, ugly past involving a dad who left the whole family in the lurch. Not just left but stopped wanting to be a dad. A real low-life.
So it was that I found myself inside the Marriott Hotel in Atlanta Georgia, having dinner with Eric in a packed sports bar on a typical NFL Sunday, surrounded by business travelers and wedding parties, with lots of Coors Light and Shiner Bock flowing from the bar.
I wasn’t even one day into leg II of my trip, heck I hadn’t even gotten to my car yet, and there we were, two guys raised on bikes, skateboards, and rebellion, talking about fathers. When we had to wrap up and I left him in that sports bar I wasn’t surprised that the tears were coming. He said he knew we were supposed to meet and I didn’t argue. In fact I enjoyed the moment too long, forgetting that I was a full 3/4 mile from the bus stop and I ended up in full Samsonite luggage commercial mode, dragging that carry-on sized suitcase for all it was worth.
I got on the bus as the last passenger. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric.
Not just about Eric but about the how. About leaving from Nashville, accepting a southbound bus towards Atlanta even though I was headed up to D.C. I thought about all the things in my life I take as random, and how many times I need to be convinced that they’re not.
I’m sure this isn’t news to any of my long term friends.
If this is who I am then, why don’t I embrace it more? Why don’t I look for these conversations and connections, head out on the road for good, become a modern day Apostle Paul or Jack K., spreading my own gospel of fathers, forgiveness, sunshine, and California?
Probably because I’m human. Because I still need to be reminded of why I’m here, even when it’s staring me in the face, surrounding me on all sides, connecting with those in the margins as well as those who just like to hear stories, and are willing to share their own.
* * *
I arrived in Washington D.C. the next morning. An overnight bus ride with a packed population doesn’t exactly result in a wide awake and joyous attitude going into the new day. Nevertheless and not surprisingly, I got talking to a Doctor from Massachusetts who was in town visiting his son, one son is doing well and one son he’s a little concerned about. We talked for a good hour over coffee at Ebenezer’s near Union Station, a place that now feels like home, though I’ve only been there twice.
We left the same way Eric and I did, exchanging e- mails and me promising to send links to watch the film about dad, and both Eric and the doctor responding almost identically:
“great talking to you, good luck, sounds like you’re on an amazing journey.”
From Eric in Chattanooga, to Dr. Dobrow in DC, to Len and his wife on the airplane, to many, many folks along the way, I keep being asked to share my story at unsuspecting times when I think I’m just here for my experience, for my discovery, for me.
Obviously it’s clear I’m not.. not even close.
* * *
As a kid my identity was simple, it was my bike. All day, everyday, my bike was my life. Fixing it, jumping it, customizing it. It was who I was, a troubled kid who had found an outlet.
Yes channeling karate kid moves on the schoolyard was an identity too, if I’m honest.
As an adult my identity has been a hodgepodge of long term friendships, road trips and adventures, film and photography, and endless attempts at stability. In fact way too many to count.
But I know it’s also connecting people — to each other and to all of our stories and common ties.
Maybe that’s why questions about my Olmsted family emerged as I planned this trip. Finding out who dad, grandfather, great grandfather and others were in the past, can sometimes offer great insight to the present.
So I continue.
I’m visiting Cornell University today to research my great grandfather Faye Deveaux Olmsted, Chief engineer at the Olmsted power plant that I visited way back in June — at the beginning of this amazing trip — which now seems like a lifetime ago.
Existing in the margins of life, breaking through the stereotypes and preconceptions that increasingly keep our isolated selves from really loving each other.
And yeah I still need a job.
More to come