Over his long and productive career, Tom Petty played with several different bands, including Mudcrutch, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and The Traveling Wilburys. He's also occasionally released albums on his own, and 1989's Full Moon Fever—which included not only "Free Fallin'" but also the additional hit singles "I Won't Back Down" and "Running Down a Dream"—was one of those solo efforts. Amazingly, Petty's record label (MCA) initially rejected the album.
"When my record company rejected Full Moon Fever," Petty later recalled, I was hurt so bad. I was pretty far along in my career at that point. I'd never had anything rejected; I'd never really even had a comment. So when that happened, it was really just a board to the forehead. But then finally I picked myself up. I said, 'I'm not buying this, there's nothing wrong, I really like this record.' And then I waited awhile, until the top regime at the record company changed. And I came back and I played them the same record, and they were overjoyed. It turned out to be a huge hit."
One reason why the label originally looked at "Free Fallin'" as dubious commercial prospect was that it was so rooted in the particular social, cultural, and even geographical realities of Los Angeles. Record executives just weren't sure that people out in Iowa would be able to relate to a song about "livin' in Reseda." But the music's lyrical grounding in place may have ended up being the secret to its success.
Petty could see all the things that were wrong with the LA dream—remember those "vampires" walking down the boulevard—but he still loved the city, flaws and all, and drew his inspiration from it. Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley infused Petty's psyche and enthralled him the same way that the Salinas Valley affected John Steinbeck, becoming a "character" in his fiction. Steinbeck once described his famous novel East of Eden as "a biography of the Salinas Valley." Just like Steinbeck's work, Petty's songs are so full of places in Los Angeles and The Valley that you could even call this area his muse. It is a city that isn't welcoming to just anyone, but it has a way of recognizing true talent, and that is what Petty brought to the table. While Chandler wrote crime fiction that glorified the film-noirish LA scene of cops, thieves, murderers, and dames, Petty wrote ballads and lyrics that invoked the more complex and introspective parts of the city. Los Angeles had given him the break he was dreaming for, and he paid homage to the city with his music.
Of the song's creation, Petty says:
"'Bugs, a roadie who's been with us since the day we started, bought me this Yamaha keyboard. I said, "Man, why'd you buy that? It's expensive!" He said, "If you write one song on it it'll pay for itself." So he charged it to me and left it there. [Fellow rocker] Jeff Lynne was over one night and I started playing with it. I played...' Petty hummed the opening chords of 'Free Fallin'' plus five more, a busy pattern. 'Jeff goes, "Wait, what was that - just play that first part over and over." Okay, I did. And Jeff's just sitting there smiling and he says, "Go on, sing something." So just to make Jeff smile I sang, "She's a good girl, loves her mama." And from there I wrote the first and second verses completely spontaneously. We were smart enough to have a cassette on. Jeff said, "Go up on the chorus, take your voice up a whole octave, what'll that sound like?" I said, "What do I sing?" Jeff said, "I'm free fallin'." So I sang, "I'm freeee..." He said, "Wo, there's power in that, that's good." I wrote the third verse after he left and brought it in and showed it to him the next day. It all fit together and we were really excited. We went running over to Mike's with the song. Mike hardly knew Jeff, we just showed up and said, "Hey, we gotta do a record right now! We gotta get this song down." Mike said sure and we did it. Axl Rose called and asked me, "Where did you get that line about the vampires in the valley?" When I'm driving I sometimes see these shadowy-looking people just off the sidewalks, around the post office. I always thought of them as vampires for some reason.'"
Through songs like "Free Fallin'," Petty has been able to resonate with teenage fans while continuing to build upon his relationship with an audience his own age. "I never will exactly understand why we still have a very large teenage audience," he says. "The only thing I can figure is that we never pandered to them in any way. Maybe they respect that."
So there you go, from just three simple chords, one of the greatest rock anthems was born. Furthermore, in true Petty style, he introduced "Free Fallin'" to the public earlier than his record label wanted him to:
"I don't think we had a hit ballad ever until 'Free Fallin'.' And I remember with that, there was some question," Petty says. "I went on 'Saturday Night Live,' and the single at the time was 'I Won't Back Down,' and I played 'Free Fallin',' and MCA was just furious at me. But my thinking was, '"I Won't Back Down" is already a hit, let's play something they don't expect.' I'm sure it helped the record later. Sometimes you just gotta do what you think is right."
The song can be thought of as a sort of coming-of-age story from both a male and female perspective. It traces the life of a girl who's growing up in the squeaky-clean 'burbs of the San Fernando Valley. She represents the archetype (the standard or ideal) of the all-American teenage girl. She loves Jesus, she loves America, she loves Elvis. And horses (the Valley is dotted with horse ranches and sage brush) and her mama, too. What could go wrong?
Well, suburban life starts to get a bit boring. Every day starts to seem like "a long day, living in Reseda." And it's not too inspiring having "a freeway running through the yard." And then there's the boyfriend. She loves him, too—just like she loves Jesus and America and horses and her mama. But the Valley (and the poor girl) can't hold him. He can't escape the siren call of the thrills and excitement lurking over on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, where celebrities and wannabes cruise the boulevards looking for fame and riches, and where people who seem like "vampires" lurk in the shadows, up to all kinds of no good.
He's a bad boy, and he leaves her (and all her wholesome suburban goodness) behind for freedom—the freedom to be a star (or a vampire), the freedom to break her heart.
But is he really free? Or just free falling? The iconic chorus is simple but also lyrically ambiguous, opening space for some interesting interpretations. "Free falling" is itself a phrase, of course, used by skydivers, bungee jumpers and the like, to describe the experience of literally falling hundreds of feet through the air. However, he breaks up the phrase into "free" and "falling," creating two separate moods. At first Petty wails, "I'm freeeeee," belting out his happiness at the freedom gained from leaving a relationship, but then he concludes with "free fallin'," perhaps suggesting that a breakup is also a terrifying experience in which the people involved feel lost and out-of-control.
In the song's final verse, it seems our bad boy may have had a change of heart. He wants to fly back over Mulholland Drive, back to the Valley, where he wants to "write her name in the sky," perhaps in a last-ditch effort to win her back. But that all-American girl might not still be there waiting for him. Like the Valley itself, she's changed. It's not the 1950s anymore. What was once some kind of Leave It to Beaver suburban ideal has become the capital of the American porn industry. The seedier aspects of LA life—all those vampires standing in the shadows of the boulevard—have made their way over the Hollywood Hills and sprawled out through suburbia. That idealized place and that idealized girl are gone… if they were ever even there in the first place. And the loss of innocence almost makes our bad boy want to end it all, to "free fall out into nothing, leave this world for awhile"—maybe by steering his car right over the edge of one of those magnificent panoramic vistas up on Mulholland Drive.