She's a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
What's more American than apple pie? How about loving Jesus, America, horses, and your mama?
Petty introduces his lead female character here with only a few words. But those words are deeply evocative; Petty tells us she's "a good girl," then fleshes out that picture by showing us how the things she loves are exactly the kinds of sweet and innocent things that every idealized girl in idealized suburbia is supposed to love.
She's pure. Or at least that's what his "bad boy" character seems to think, at the beginning.
Crazy 'bout Elvis
Elvis Presley, "The King," was an iconic American musician who arguably became the world's first true rock star in the 1950s. He's also the guy who inspired Tom Petty to want to be a rock star himself.
Tom Petty met Elvis in 1961 when he was ten years old; he later described the encounter like this:
When I met Elvis, we didn't really have a conversation. I was introduced by my uncle, and he sort of grunted my way. What stays with me is the whole scene. I had never seen a real mob scene before. I was really young and impressionable. Elvis really did look—he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual. It was like a procession in church: a line of white Cadillacs and mohair suits and pompadours so black, they were blue. [...] Everything became pretty clear at that moment. [Being a rock star] looked like a great job. (Source)
Petty subsequently traded his beloved Wham-O slingshot for a box of Presley singles and never looked back.
It's a long day, livin' in Reseda
Located in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, Reseda is a small municipality sandwiched between Northridge, Granada Hills, Van Nuys, and Encino in the suburban sprawl north of Los Angeles.
Reseda is in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, known colloquially to locals as "The Valley" (more on that soon). Driving through the Valley, it can be difficult to notice the transition from one town to the next; the whole place was built up in a tremendous rush of suburbanization shortly after the end of World War II. Local history website Valley Observed notes:
After the war the Valley became the nation's fastest growing region. Magazines and radio programs hyped it as the place to be, although the Atlantic Monthly scoffed that 'every piece of land that nourishes four walnut trees is called a ranch' by shameless land brokers. Real estate became the business to be in. The population doubled by 1950, and again by 1960. Tract after tract of mostly uninspired homes rose quickly across the plain of the Valley, racing outward faster than the streets and sewers and fire stations could keep up. Along the way, a new American lifestyle took hold. Families lived in their backyards and drove everywhere except into Los Angeles, where the Valley suburbanites rarely ventured. The San Fernando Valley became the nation's leading symbol of suburbia, as well as the swimming pool and sports car capital of the country and, eventually, the home of the minimall. Vestiges of the ranching culture began to be squeezed into smaller corners of the Valley, as suburban homeowners objected to tractor dust and waking to the crowing of roosters. (Source)
LA Weekly wrote a piece entitled "Tom Petty's Los Angeles" in which the writer traced every area in the city that had an impact on Petty's work and appeared in his songs. About Reseda, it says, "The video for 'Free Fallin' shows a 1950s-seeming, white, middle-class family living out the American dream in 1980s Reseda, a wry commentary that made the song an anthem for the 'good girls' growing up there (and other cookie-cutter 'burbs) at the time." (Source)
There's a freeway runnin' through the yard
The particular freeway in question here is Highway 101, the north/south highway that runs up and down the coast of the United States.
Locals in LA call the 101 the Ventura Freeway; the road, built in the 1950s, crosses the entire length of the San Fernando Valley before crossing the Hollywood Hills into Los Angeles. When first built, the freeway literally ran right through some people's yards.
LA Weekly's article exploring the impact of LA landmarks on Tom Petty's music recounted an incident when "Petty stared out at the 101 while staying at label-boss Leon Russell's house in Encino [a city in the Valley just south of Reseda]. In [his song] 'American Girl,' Petty imagined it as the highway of his hometown, the 441 in Gainesville, and placed a woman as the urban poet: 'It was kind of cold that night / She stood alone on her balcony / She could hear the cars roll by out on 441 like waves crashin' in the beach'." (Source)
We imagine Petty thinking of his "good girl" in "Free Fallin'" doing pretty much the same, dreaming about Elvis while the cars roared past out front.
In the 1950s, the Valley epitomized a new version of the American Dream that imagined the automobile as the key to a new day in freedom. By the 1980s, the 101 was choked with traffic every rush hour, and many of the kinds of supposedly "urban" social problems that the Valley's first generation of suburban inhabitants had sought to flee had arrived as well.
All the vampires
If you've (so far) somehow managed to avoid reading Twilight, you might need a friendly reminder that vampires are once-humans-turned-immortal blood-sucking creatures of the night. In this case, they're also a metaphor for the people of Los Angeles.
When a young Tom Petty drove cross-country from Gainsville, Florida to Los Angeles to try and score a record deal, he experienced a kind of shock and disillusionment upon arrival in the famed "City of Angels." Los Angeles, the number one destination for dreamers looking for their big break in the entertainment business, is more often than not a huge disappointment for those seeking the Hollywood life.
Broken dreams litter the streets like so many smashed liquor bottles. It's a movie-set-perfect 70 degrees outside practically year-round, and rain is a rare occurrence. Fancy cars roll down the streets, and beautiful people fill the sidewalks. It's a tough place for a young artist to find himself facing struggle and poverty.
It's also a place that embraces the nightlife. Strip joints, after-hours clubs, drug sales, prostitution, robbery, wild parties in the Hollywood Hills—they're all fixtures of the Los Angeles night scene. The Valley, which has become the capital of the American pornography industry, shares much of the seediness of the city's nightlife but isn't quite so overt about it.
LA Weekly reports, "A moment of out-of-towner cynicism, Petty's invocation of vampires on Ventura has less a monster-movie feel than that of the everyday slow-draining suck of sameness. Petty told Paul Zollo that the label didn't think 'Free Fallin' would be a single. 'They didn't think anyone outside Southern California would relate to it.' Little did they know, vampires lurk in every town." (Source)
Walkin' through the Valley
LA-speak for the San Fernando Valley, the suburban area just north of the city of Los Angeles.
The San Fernando Valley has sometimes been called "the valley of the stars," for its big celebrity population, or "the valley that porn built," because it is the birthplace and hometown to the multibillion-dollar adult video industry.
Originally the home of sprawling ranches on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley has grown dramatically in recent decades, becoming a largely self-sufficient, bustling suburban metropolis, with huge shopping malls, movie theater complexes, and a growing food and wine scene.
The Valley Observed, a website dedicated to Valley history, reports that on "reason the Valley became famous was the arrival of movie makers. They adored the varied terrain, historic ruins and predictably sunny weather. Cinema legends D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille discovered the Valley and shot many early movies there, then bought ranch getaways in the canyons. Around studios like Universal, Warner Brothers and Republic, a movie colony grew. Stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby golfed and gagged around in Toluca Lake, while Clark Gable and Al Jolson made Encino ritzy. In the west Valley were the stars who favored the ranch life: James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz among others. Ronald Reagan was one of the actors who lived the life of a San Fernando Valley rancher. The presence of all these celebrities and the stories they told about living the good life sold an image of the Valley as a sort of paradise. National magazines helped feed the myth and the Valley continued to lure more people." (Source)
By the 1980s, that vision of the San Fernando Valley as an oasis of suburban perfection had begun to crack. Strip malls and traffic jams weren't everybody's idea of the good life, and the unexpected rise of pornography as perhaps the Valley's most prominent business enterprise certainly didn't quite fulfill the Leave It to Beaver dreams of the Valley's 1950s-era pioneers.
Move west down Ventura Boulevard
Ventura Boulevard is the Valley's main drag.
Stretching from Hollywood all the way to Calabasas the Santa Monica Mountains, Ventura Boulevard cuts right through the heart of the southern San Fernando Valley. If we follow Petty's "vampires" as they head west, we'll cross through the suburban communities of Sherman Oaks, Encino, Tarzana, and Woodland Hills.
Our "vampires" roam back and forth across the Valley, presumably taking new "victims" wherever they go, doomed to wander eternally (the fate of the undead). It is easy to link this imagery to the homogenous feeling one you can experience along the Boulevard, where one strip mall bleeds into the next for miles on end.
I wanna glide down over Mulholland
Mullholland Drive is one of the most famous streets in Los Angeles, winding past exclusive mansions nestled high in the Hollywood Hills between LA proper and the San Fernando Valley.
The movie Mulholland Drive (2001), starring Naomi Watts, follows a detective search around Los Angeles for people who have committed a hit-and-run of a woman's limo. It is one of those quintessential LA movies, a psychological thriller with film noir undertones that indulges your senses and plunges you into the shady underbelly of the town.
Mulholland Drive (the street, not the movie) is a two-lane road that winds its way along the backbone of the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains, linking the suburban San Fernando Valley to Hollywood and the city. It offers spectacular views of both the city and the valley.
I wanna write her name in the sky
Skywriting is a unique (and somewhat old-school) method of advertising or sending a message to the world.
The Library of Congress, oddly enough, has a website dedicated to exploring the mysteries of skywriting:
Ever sat at the beach or an outdoor event and watched a plane writing in the sky? It was captivating, wasn't it? You try and guess what they are going to say, waiting for the plane to be finished. The advertiser has gotten your attention longer than if you whizzed past a billboard or glanced at a newspaper page. And it probably made a more lasting impression. That was the thinking of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation, one of the first companies to use skywriting for an advertising campaign. One of the first skywriters, Andy Stinis, flew for Pepsi-Cola from 1931-1953. Skywriting is done by one plane that can generally write up to six characters, with a skilled pilot at times maneuvering upside down as they decide when smoke is needed for the letters. Five to seven planes are needed for longer messages (up to thirty characters) so that the entire message is visible at once. Skytyping is a technique whereby the smoke is emitted in a series of bursts, like dots. A computer generates the master plan and electronic signals control the smoke output. The blurring of the smoke makes the desired end effect. (Source)