The Endless Optimism of Into the Great Wide Open

Photo by Mark Seliger

By Alex Rice

As the first recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, Jan Matulka spent two years in his late twenties painting the stunning landscapes of the American Southwest. The old-world Bohemian (he was literally born in the Bohemia region of Austria-Hungary) spent the decade after that trekking between New York and central Europe, immortalizing the vibrancy of the transatlantic 1920s on his canvas. The avant-garde abstractionist was known for his artistic flexibility, often alternating between hyper-realistic landscapes and more impressionistic pieces under the same sun.

Little is known about Matulka’s 1926 work Detail on Landscape, but it’s a dreamlike blend of both techniques. The pastel painting’s delightfully disproportionate bucolic setting (likely inspired by the Hudson River Valley) and fiery fall colors instantly take its audience to a vividly-colored utopia. It’s such an inviting image that, if you follow his strokes from the front steps, along the gravel road and to the grove of trees in the distance, you can’t help but wonder what’s around the bend.

No wonder Tom Petty chose Detail on Landscape as the cover for 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, the poppiest venture of his career. Its bright hues and pastoral textures are a perfect marriage for the album’s sunny melodies and free-spirited lyrics. Up until then, the sleeve of 1985’s Southern Accents (also a painting - Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, from 1865) was the only Heartbreakers cover to not prominently feature Petty’s face. This Florida rocker’s boyish mug - the gold standard against which all great artwork is judged.

Matulka’s stylistic commingling is mirrored most by the record’s prevailing lyrical theme. As much as Into the Great Wide Open has its head stuck in the puffy clouds dotting that big ol’ sky, the songs are often grounded in its fields of green. That’s never more evident than on opening salvo “Learning to Fly.” He begins this smash single traveling “down a dirty road” (recalling Detail’s long and winding lane) crossing the cover art’s alluringly evasive hill and entering a world that’s gone still. It’s only once Petty’s taken flight that he realizes he has no wings and is bound to a world that will “beat you down” and “steal your crown.” Still, he’s off towards parts unknown and out of frame: “I've started out for God knows where / I guess I'll know when I get there.”

That half-glass-full outlook becomes full-blown optimism by the record’s second and third tracks, the driving and jangly “Kings Highway” (as opposed to “Kings Road” from Hard Promises) and the starry-eyed, dream-chasing title track - both buoyed by bassist Howie Epstein and producer Jeff Lynne’s angelic backing vocals. “When the time gets right, I’m gonna pick you up / And take you far away from trouble, my love,” goes the opening couplet of “Kings Highway,” its blind faith for a better day making a perfect summation of Into the Great Wide Open. “Lover, I await the day / Good fortune comes our way / And we ride down the Kings Highway.”

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“As I get older, idealism is a rare thing,” Petty told interviewer Alan Bangs on a German TV show in 1999. “Young people are very cynical now, you know? I think it's important to give them hope and realism in the same package… You can be realistic but there should be hope in it. Because hope's what we're about. If we don't have hope, then we don't go on.”

“Into the Great Wide Open,” then, reads like an instruction manual to the youth of America on remaining upbeat. Its protagonist Eddie (played by Johnny Depp in the song’s music video, which garnered interest in turning it into a full-length film) responsibly waits until he graduates to make his fabled trip to the bright lights of Hollywood. Even while he unglamorously works as a bouncer, the sky is still the limit. When the A&R man doesn’t “hear a single” on his album, it remains so. Then, Mike Campbell’s majestic upstrokes send the tune into its heavenly and hopeful chorus. That Eddie is just another “rebel without a clue” is immaterial.

The events of the title track are somewhat autobiographical: a twentysomething Petty kept on the sunny side when he (both fortuitously and forebodingly) found a scrap of paper in a phonebooth with the names and phone numbers of two dozen record company contacts, leading him to the realization that he wasn’t the only musician trying to make it in L.A. and that stardom wasn’t something the mayor handed the nation’s wannabes upon their arrival. Fifteen years later, when he was a superstar fresh off the triumph of Traveling Wilburys (his supergroup with Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison), MCA Records told him they didn’t see any hits on his upcoming album. They unenthusiastically relented to releasing Full Moon Fever, which sold over five million copies in the U.S. and gave Petty three of his biggest singles - “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” It’s certainly easier to keep a positive point of view when everything comes up roses, but Petty’s Florida upbringing was anything but beach games and orange slices.

“My parents’ marriage was hell, and I lived through that. I lived through being terribly abused as a kid, and then I found myself in an abusive marriage,” Tom tells Warren Zanes in 2015’s fantastic Petty: The Biography. “But I managed to be somewhat optimistic, to see something ahead… Songs were a safe place to be, so I went there a lot.”

Perhaps, with other bullish Into the Great Wide Open cuts like “The Dark of the Sun,” “You And I Will Meet Again” or “Built to Last,” the singer was speaking sanguinity into existence? “I always laugh, because he’ll say, ‘Oh, I divine these songs. They’re not really about anyone or anything,” Petty’s daughter Adria reveals in the best-selling bio. “You can really tell, on beautiful albums like Into the Great Wide Open, that he’s struggling, constantly fighting, just to find a peaceful place.”