Running Down a Dream with Tom Petty

ImageIn a normal world, good Apostolic-raised girls like me and Tom Petty don’t mix. But that all changed for me in the Summer of 2002. I was a freshly minted, Morgan State University graduate, and I was cutting my editing teeth at a six-month internship in at the National Education Association. I was enjoying the adventure of traveling into DC each day from Baltimore and thinking about the kind of career I wanted to create in this bustling city.

This summer also brought about my first interracial dating experience with a wonderful Italian guy named Andrew who I met on AOL. (Ahhh! I miss the days when I used to get my e-holla on in an AOL chat room.) He kept me intriguied with scintillating conversation on everything from politics to spirituality, and I stayed up as late as could to chat with him in the evenings (I had to be up and out my apartment by 5:30 am (!!!) to get into to DC on time, so my bedtime was pretty early in those days). We had a great dinner-and-a-movie, first date and I was really enjoying the time that we were getting to know each other.

A few weeks after our first date, he invited me to join him for a second date to see a concert at the Nissan Pavillion in Virginia. I was so excited about the prospect of a second date with Andrew that I really didn’t even care who was performing. We set up the logistics for the date and then my brain came back on and I asked, “Well, who are we going to see?”

“Tom Petty.”


“Tom Petty. I’ve seen him in concert several times and he is AWESOME. You’re gonna to LOVE it.”

“Ummm…I know exactly ONE Tom Petty song. I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for you. Are you sure you want me to come along with you?”

“Of course. You’re gonna LOVE it, Leah. I promise you.”

I replied with a very timid “OK” and I told Andrew that I better love this concert…or else. Little did I know, this show would be (and still is!) one of the top five concerts I’ve ever attended in my life.

The concert day arrived and I was nervous. Second dates are a HUGE deal and I was hoping that I would still be able to make a good impression even though I had NO IDEA what I would be getting into for the evening. He picked me up from a Metro station close to my internship and off we drove into the joy of rush-hour traffic on 495.

We arrived at Nissan Pavillion about an hour later and began our trek into the venue, which is quite an event in itself. I was hot as HELL that day and we climbed what felt like a mountain of steps to get into the ampitheatre portion of the venue. I was a little frustrated that my now hot and sweatiness was clashing with the summer fabulousness I was desperately trying to hold on to.  My frustration was quickly replaced by fear when we finally got to our seats and I saw the endless sea of white faces and not a black soul in sight. What had I gotten myself into?

Andrew graciously treated me to a few snacks before the concert began.  I could tell he was trying to keep my palpable fear at bay by filling up our wait time with interesting Tom Petty facts and telling me about the songs that he hoped he would cover that night. I was just starting to calm down when the rest of our row mates arrived–a group of six bikers and their wives. They were the absolute vision of every cliché biker club that I had ever seen in the movies, complete with biker vests, tattoos, long hair, and the high stench of leather and funk. Of course the biggest, burliest, hairiest dude of them all sat right beside me. Just as I was about to dissolve into a hot puddle of terror, big, burly, hairy dude (who shall henceforth be known as BBHD) stuck out his hand and introduced himself and his club members to Andrew and I. They were the friendliest although funkiest bunch of strangers I had ever met. BBHD offered to buy me beer at least three times that night even thought I kept politely declining. (That was back when I was still trying to be somewhat saved). After Andrew and I shared a few laughs with BBHD and his crew, the lights went down and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were on their way to the main stage.

When the lights came up, Tom and the band emerged from the smoke and uproarious applause from the crowd and began the show with “Won’t Back Down.” I was intruiged that he started his set with such a somber hit but it struck the right chord for the die-hard Petty fans. He continued the set with my now-favorite hits, “American Girl” “Refugee” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” By the fifth song, I was on my feet and delightfully bumping hips, arms, and hearts with Andrew and BBHD.  I was having the time of my life.

About an hour into the set, an aggressive, jarring guitar solo came pouring out of the speakers that was met with frenzied excitement from the crowd. BBHD was so thrilled that he spilled a good portion of what I was sure was at least his sixth beer on me. With all this vigorous energy, I just knew this song was going to be the JAM. Tom began singing the first verse of his classic hit “Running Down a Dream” and I didn’t have to wait long to discover why this song was such a crowd favorite. I could barely hear Tom by the time the chorus came in as the crowd joined in and enthusiastically sang along with him –

Running down a dream

Never would come to me

Working on a mystery

Go wherever it leads

Running down a dream

Seriously Tom Petty!!!!??? An amazing guitar-driven song with INSPIRING lyrics? Who does that?? I was officially converted into the Petty fan club. Tom whipped the crowd into pure delight with a 15-minute rendition of “Running Down a Dream” complete with a guitar solo that was out of the world. When the song came to a reluctant end, BBHD turned to me and said, “I told you Tom was FUCKING awesome!”

Tom and the Heartbreakers did about three more songs after that and were bringing the concert back into the harbor. At the end of the last song, the crowd stood for a thunderous, five-minute applause.  My now beloved BBHD who was definitely three sheets to the wind at this point yelled at me, “How did ya like the concert?” I said, “I LOVED it, but he didn’t sing the only Tom Petty song I know.” He replied, “Which one is that?”

Before I could answer him, Tom and the band came back on stage for an encore and he started playing the beginning strains of “Free Fallin.” I turned back to BBHD and said “That’s the ONE I know!!” I was in HEAVEN. I was so lost in the groove that I didn’t even realize that I was now screaming “Free Fallin!” at the top of my lungs. (Let me tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve heard my gospel-flavored version of “Free Fallin.” It’s even better when I’m slightly drunk!). As Tom strummed out the last notes of “Free Fallin,” I was fully spent and ecstatic that I took a leap outside of my comfort zone to attend this amazing concert.

Andrew and I bid farewell to BBHD and his crew and made our way out of the concert venue, which took 45 minutes alone just to get out of the parking lot (Damn you, Nissan Pavillion! And by the way, I REFUSE to acknowledge you by your new moniker, Jiffy Lube Live. Are inviting us to get an oil change or listen to music? I digress.) After we made it out that horrendous maze of a parking lot, Andrew got me back home safely to Baltimore and my life was forever changed.

My Tom Petty concert experience taught me that it was OK to step out of my box and try something new, even if I had no clue of what the adventure would bring. And not only had the concert transformed me, but the lyrics for “Running Down a Dream” became the anthem for my 20s. I fell in love with the idea of running after my dreams and following them wherever they lead.

I’m always amazed at the life experiences that stick with me and make the biggest difference. I would have never have thought that it would be a Tom Petty concert but I’m glad that God always strings together the most unique experiences to help me create an enjoyable, adventurous, and exciting life that leaves me inspired.

Running down a dream

Never would come to me

Working on a mystery

Go wherever it leads

Running down a dream

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