Awhile back I wrote about how I was playing some songs for veterans and friends around a campfire in Idaho. We were down by the river at the edge of the ranch, and the night was deepening on the last few hours of a weekend horse camp for veterans.


Before I played the last song, ‘The Table,’ I told the story of how I’d written it about a man losing his partner to cancer. I had no idea my own partner, a black Labrador, was already dying of bone cancer there at my feet back when I wrote the song years before.


But you know that story already.


As the firelight danced across our faces and I played the first few chords of the song, a dog I didn’t really know pushed up to her feet. I’d noticed she kept to herself and was almost always focused solely on her owner, kind of like my old dog used to be. 


But she walked around the ring of rocks and over to me, where she lay down at my feet, her heart pulsing against my shins.


We all saw it happen.


We all felt like something else was going on.


That feeling only got stronger as I played the last chord of ‘The Table, when she left my feet to return to her owner’s side, just as the last notes rang out into the night.

I learned later that I’d lost my dog to cancer the same year that campfire dog at my feet was born.


I got the news yesterday that she just passed away.

Of cancer.


She probably had it while she was there at my feet, as I played that song around the campfire.

Kind of like when I wrote that song, with my own dog and her own silent cancer at my feet.

It’s like they were the same dog. Kind of like one soul jumped ship, from one body to the next. 

I don’t know. No one really knows about these things. They just believe. Which is usually all that matters, anyway.

But maybe there’s really no goodbye. There’s just next time.


I do know that we all make a choice to either live in a world that is connected, or in a random world of chance events.


Sometimes I’m not sure which one I live in.


But moments like this are hard to ignore.


And I know, no matter what, that the world is a better place with a dog in it.


RIP, Alma.


And thanks for the reminder.

Even The Losers

I cranked ‘Even The Losers’ as loud as the truck speakers let me.

And I drove the winding road home with Tom Petty in the passenger seat, telling me that even the losers get lucky sometimes, even the losers keep a little bit of pride.

They get lucky sometimes.

I first heard that song when I was 9. My older sister had ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ on cassette tape in her car, and I’d turn on the ignition and listen to the album from the driver’s seat because I didn’t have a stereo in my room. The third song on side 1 was was my favorite, with the sound of a train and some random lady’s voice about the normal noises in here butted up against the descending guitar line.

But now, in high school, ‘Even The Losers’ actually meant something.

So I pushed the truck speakers to the brink that day, that fateful day, and sang with Tom in the passenger seat. Over and over and over again.

My friend Mike Harris understood. Sometimes we’d sing that song to each other in the outfield as we ran down fly balls freshman year. We’d bonded in the way that kids on the fringe sometimes do, when the stupidly small world of high school seems aligned against the quiet guys. He was a big kid with a mild stutter who hadn’t quite figured out how to move his super-sized limbs yet, and I was a short and sensitive late-bloomer a long ways from blooming.

I heard that Mike figured out how to move those super-sized limbs and became a star pitcher in college, and then an orthopedic surgeon after medical school.

I say ‘heard’ because I lost touch with Mike.

And now it’s too late.

The first song I learned to play on the guitar in high school was a Tom Petty song, and those three chords opened a door into a room where I had something different to offer, a room where what I brought to the table mattered. As I made my way through the songwriting world, it was impossible to find someone who wasn’t influenced by Tom Petty.

We all covered him, all the time. And sometimes we didn’t even know we were covering him.

Even recently, when Sean Watkins was producing my next album, we toyed with the idea of leaving out a certain guitar part because the notes hinted at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers riff.

But we decided that anything remotely Petty-ish was a welcome blessing, so we left that guitar part in.

A few days ago that song went to the mixing engineer.

And later that afternoon, I found out that Mike Harris died.

You were never a loser, Mike.

But you probably just welcomed Tom Petty to the stage in the sky, playing air guitar and singing ‘Even The Losers’ anyway, as one of the greats joined you.

And tonight I’ll drive another winding road home, with Tom Petty in the passenger seat telling me that even the losers get lucky sometimes. Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.

They get lucky sometimes.

And I’ll turn to him and say thanks for everything.

But it won’t be enough.

Sean plays a lot of music with one of the Heartbreakers. I said to him, “What a legacy. Only thing I can think of that compares would be when Springsteen goes.”

Sean said, “I know, and Dylan. It’s all happening at some point. In the meantime we enjoy each other and continue putting music and good vibes into the world. Speaking of which, when are you coming back down south?”

That last thing that Sean said, about enjoying each other and putting music and good vibes into the world?

I bet Tom Petty would consider that thanks enough.

On Petty and Vegas

I usually tell stories about what’s happening around me.

There’s snow falling outside the window here in Idaho.

This isn’t really a story, though.

Because tears are falling everywhere else, from Las Vegas to a hospital room where Tom Petty is clinging to life.

He’s still standing at the gates of hell, because he won’t back down.

Just like his song says.

He’s probably not really at the gates of hell, but if that’s where he’s going, I want to go too.

All I know for sure is that the coward shooting fish in a barrel from a 32nd floor window isn’t in the same place that Tom Petty is heading.

A distant friend of a friend was shot in the neck at that country music festival last night in Las Vegas. He’s gone.

The deadliest shooting in modern history is tragic, horrific, and yes, evil.

But most of all, overwhelmingly sad for those of us still here: those hanging on to life in hospitals, those friends and family members left behind, those who are citizens of this world wanting a better place.

The media is on a blame-hunt, trying to uncover something that will explain last night away. Because that’s what we think we need: answers. Myths and legends, even our religions, exist to give meaning to a random world.

But sometimes I think bad shit just happens.

It doesn’t always make sense.

And folks are already using Las Vegas to advance their own narrative of whatever they’re against. From guns to open-air concerts: you name it, Vegas proves it.

We seem to be against a lot these days, sort of like the NFL players ‘protesting’ against inequality during the national anthem.

How about we try being for something, instead of always against something?

For is proactive. Against is reactive.

I wonder what the world would look like if we were for equality instead of against inequality. For understanding instead of against prejudice. For compassion instead of against intolerance.

When I was doing research for ‘For The Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam,’ I noticed that Steinbeck wondered the same thing when his kid was fighting in Vietnam: “I must believe that the plodding protest marchers who spend their days across from the UN and around the White House hate war. I think I have more reason than most of them to hate it. But would they enlist for medical service? They could be trained quickly and would not be required to kill anyone. If they love people so much, why are they not willing to help save them? This country is woefully short of medical help. It might be dangerous to use this method of protest, and besides, if they left the country, their relief checks might stop. But in return they might gain a little pride in themselves as being for something instead of only against.”

‘A little pride.’ My favorite Tom Petty song has a lyric about how even the losers keep a little pride.

A few years ago, I got a letter from the mother of the victim of another mass shooting. Her child was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. She chose to be for something, instead of against something, and her curriculum for social and emotional learning in schools is gaining traction and making a massive impact.

The same narratives were being thrown around back when I got her letter, and I remember hearing the familiar ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ I thought about guns and I thought about people and came to the conclusion that neither guns nor people do the actual killing.

The bullet does.

But the bullet has no choice in the matter. It has to go where it is sent.

So a few days after I got that letter, I wrote a song of apology from the bullet to the child:

but i don’t make those kind of choices / i have to go where i am sent / i never know where i am going / until i know where i went

i didn’t mean to hurt you/ i had to go where i was sent / i didn’t know where i was going / but now i know where i went

The bullet didn’t have a choice.

But we do have a choice.

So tonight I’m going to listen to Molly sing this song and feel whatever I’m going to feel and think whatever I’m going to think.

But no matter what, I’m going to work toward being more for something than against.