The Meaning Behind “Straight into Darkness,” a Powerful but Underrated Gem from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

A catalog as robust as Tom Petty’s is bound to contain some songs that are deserving of classic status yet aren’t all that well-known to the average fan. “Straight into Darkness” was no hit when released as a single in 1982, despite brimming with energy and power and sounding as fresh as any of Petty’s big hits.

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What is the song about? What decision about the arrangement unlocked the song? And what did Petty think after the fact about the album (Long After Dark) that contained it? To get all the answers, we’re going back in time, and going “Straight into Darkness.”

Petty’s Concerns

Tom Petty couldn’t have been any hotter when he and the Heartbreakers hit the studio in late 1981 to make the album that would be titled Long After Dark upon its release the following year. With the albums Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises, the band had solidified themselves as rockers who could cross over to the mainstream without losing their identity or artistic integrity.

But according to Petty’s later assessment, Long After Dark didn’t quite rise to his standards as a whole. He felt producer Jimmy Iovine, who had been so instrumental to the success of the previous two records, was losing a bit of focus as he concentrated more on the business side of music. The fact that Iovine would indeed become a huge music mogul seems to suggest Petty was onto something.

On top of that, Iovine pushed back against Petty including a few songs the latter thought would give the record a bit more variety. As it ended up, Petty felt the LP lacked a bit of ambition. He would rectify that by going for broke on his next album Southern Accents, which would endure a tortured recording process. On Long After Dark, Petty would admit that the band got it just right on a few songs, with “Straight into Darkness” a special standout.

Hello “Darkness”

When Petty and company were trying to record “Straight into Darkness,” they began by featuring guitars at the beginning of the song. But something was off. That’s when they made the decision to start the song with a prominent piano part. As Petty told Paul Zollo in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, everything fell into place from there:

“Sometimes the songs won’t reveal themselves to you until you find the right sound and the right recording of it. And that was one like that. You couldn’t really get everybody grooving the same way until we went over the piano, and then everybody instinctually found what to play. But that’s part of working with a group.”

With Benmont Tench’s piano at the forefront, the arrangement for “Straight into Darkness” is moody and tense in the verses, which makes the kick into overdrive with the guitars in the chorus—featuring harmonies from new Heartbreaker Howie Epstein—that much more invigorating. The music matches the push-and-pull themes of defeat and resilience that characterize the lyrics as well.

What is the Meaning of “Straight into Darkness”?

Petty pulls a bit of a fast one on “Straight into Darkness.” In the first two verses, it appears as if there’s no hope, and that human nature pulls us naturally into difficulty and unhappiness. The first verse describes a promising relationship that ends with no warning: There was a moment when I really loved her / Then one day the feeling just died / We went straight into darkness.

The comparison is drawn in the second verse to an evening plane ride, where the narrator gets engulfed by the all-encompassing void: Man, there was nothing, only black sky. But when we get to the bridge, he starts reaching out for companionship again. And in the final verse, we find he’s not willing to give up on some kind of light breaking through, even while understanding it takes some effort to find it: Real love is a man’s salvation / The weak ones fall, the strong carry on.

Listening to “Straight into Darkness” today, it’s kind of unbelievable to think it didn’t even chart when released as a single. Maybe folks feared the song’s darker aspects and missed out on the triumph at the end. Whatever the case, it’s a prime example of how Tom Petty’s inimitable songwriting could get a thrilling boost from his legendary band.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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