Tuesday, October 03, 2017

💔: A Heartbroken but Forever Appreciative Tribute to Tom Petty

"I wanna glide down over Mulholland 
I wanna write her name in the sky
I'm gonna free fall out into nothin'
Gonna leave this world for awhile"
 -- Tom Petty
    "Free Fallin'" (1989)

Even after being reported dead on Monday afternoon, Tom Petty wouldn't back down.

But by the end of one of the worst news days in American history--due to the unthinkable slaughter of music lovers at a festival in Las Vegas--the premature reports of Petty's death were replaced by official confirmation.

It made for an oddly fitting exit for one of rock's great iconoclasts.

Back in 1981, after the third Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' album--the brilliant Damn the Torpedoes--made him a superstar, his record company, MCA, wanted to price the band's follow-up LP, Hard Promises, at $9.98, raising the industry standard by $1.00 for "superstar" acts.

To his own financial detriment, a 30-year-old Petty--who had already threatened to declare bankruptcy to force a previous detente with MCA--said "No way."

He would not allow his fans to be taken advantage of, insisting Hard Promises be list priced at $8.98.

MCA capitulated.

So although there isn't great humor or solace to be found in one of my favorite musicians dying unexpectedly at 66, on a day so mind-numbingly awful as to cushion the blow, given news reports--and resultant social media posts--over a 10-hour span Monday that had Petty in critical condition, on life support, off life support, confirmed dead, erroneously confirmed dead, clinging to life and, ultimately around 11pm CST, officially declared dead, one can imagine Petty, in his bemused Floridian drawl, saying something along the lines of:

"Can you all maybe stop tweeting out condolences. I'm not even dead yet."

Of course, the grim reality seems to be that after going into full cardiac arrest in his Malibu home early Sunday morning, the rocker was brain dead by the time he arrived at UCLA Medical Center, and never to be revived.

Though the past couple of years has seen a tsunami of rock star deaths--including Petty's fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) and many others--the passing was shocking, and personally quite saddening, on many levels.

Including that it came just one week after Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up their "40th Anniversary Tour" (in their 41st year) with the third of three shows at the Hollywood Bowl. This was also just over 3 months since I saw them pack Chicago's Wrigley Field on June 29.

But also, as noted above, Tom Petty's death Monday was on the same day the world learned that the night before, at a country music festival in Las Vegas, a man whose Mandalay Bay hotel room was a virtual armory shot nearly 600 people, killing--per the latest reports--59 and injuring 527.

This was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, a record that will undoubtedly be broken, especially as nobody who can wants to do anything about gun control.

Compared to the massacre of people merely standing in a field listening to music, the passing of a rock star--even one as long & widely cherished as Petty--shouldn't bring the lion's share of tears and anguish.

Quite properly, his death isn't getting the same degree of coverage and headlines it would most days, and with that perspective, my sorrow over losing Petty--while great for reasons I will expound on below--is acutely proportionate.

But I have shared my devastation, grief and outrage about the terrorist act in Las Vegas through other forums and interactions, so will continue to focus this piece on Tom Petty and what he & his music mean to me.

I'm pretty sure I first became aware of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers around the late 1979 release of Damn the Torpedoes and its hit singles, "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That."

I now know that their preceding albums--Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and You're Gonna Get It!--have some excellent material, but both came out before I was 10.

I was instantly and forever smitten by Damn the Torpedoes, and in 1981 when The Loop (WLUP) gave away all the tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Hard Promises concert at the Rosemont Horizon on June 17 as a radio station promotion, I waited at the FlipSide in Lincoln Village and got myself a pair.

Though I technically had sat through a Pablo Cruise performance as part of a family excursion to ChicagoFest the previous August, I count the June '81 Tom Petty show as my first rock concert.

Of now well over 700.

I was just 12 at the time, and my dad--who wasn't a rock lover, but valued contemporary culture enough to add Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Bee Gees and more to our household record collection--took me to the show. He was 46, and far older than most of the crowd.

Interestingly, when I saw Petty this past June, at the age of 48 I was on the younger side.

I next saw TP&HBs in 1989 on the Full Moon Fever tour--another phenomenal album, one of three Petty would record without his erstwhile Heartbreakers--and when I moved to Los Angeles the next year, I not only lived near both Ventura Blvd. and Reseda, as mentioned in "Free Fallin'," I ventured to the Westside Pavilion strictly to stroll through the shopping mall where that song's video was largely shot.

I would see Petty & Co. a total of nine times over 36 years--obviously a longer span than for anyone else--including close up at Chicago's intimate Vic Theatre in 2003.

Quite admittedly, I didn't love Petty in concert as much as some other cherished acts--though in my 2005, 2010 and 2015 rankings of favorite musical artists I consistently have him in my Top 20--as he frequently frustrated me with rather staid setlist choices.

I'm pretty sure that in 1999, 2001, 2006 and 2008, I voiced much the same complaints that I wrote about in 2014 and this past June, mainly concerning Petty's unwillingness to dig as deep into his vaunted catalog as I would have liked.

Beloved early rockers of mine--"A Thing About You," "Change of Heart," "Straight Into Darkness" and others--were eschewed tour-after-tour, show-after-show for many of the same mid-tempo songs I didn't cherish nearly as much.

But while I don't hail Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a live act quite as highly as some others, the shows were never less than terrific. I loved the man, his music and his band enough to keep coming back and I awarded the Wrigley show @@@@1/2 (out of 5) even with many wished-for songs again left out.

So as would befit a guy who persevered through severely breaking his hand by smashing it against a recording studio wall, having his L.A. mansion destroyed by an arsonist, seeing a band member die from drug use--plus the usual ebbs & flows across nearly 50 years of making music, initially with a band called Mudcrutch, who he more recently reformed--I give Tom Petty huge props for doing what he wanted and doing it quite well. (And I can't deny "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is actually a great song.")

He was also extremely gracious onstage, profusely bestowing thanks for the crowd's applause after nearly every song, and--in keeping with a man who steadfastly fought to ensure his fans got good value--these were the acts I saw open for him:

The Replacements, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Pearl Jam, Steve Winwood (twice) and Chris Stapleton. (I can't recall or find who, if anyone, opened in 1981.)

Petty, whose laconic speaking voice belied a deceptively sharp wit, also features into one of my favorite rock anecdotes--and life lessons--of all time.

In 1979, at a No Nukes benefit concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers preceded local hero Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Petty came offstage incensed at the crowd's reaction and in an attempt to calm him, Jackson Browne told him, "Tom, they're not booing, they're yelling "Bruuuuuce!""

To which Tom purportedly retorted (perhaps without the profanity but I like it better this way):

"What's the fucking difference?"

Thank you, rest in peace and god bless, Thomas Earl Petty. You sure made a fucking difference in my life, and always will. 

The above admittedly doesn't much broach on how much I loved the music of Tom Petty, most often accompanied by the Heartbreakers, including Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and others over the years.

So I went to Spotify to make a playlist, gathering songs I knew and liked from each album. This isn't even quite comprehensive and there are 83. I first went through the Tom Petty solo albums and then the ones credited to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, so the order is a bit random. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

Thanks for this post Seth. I was good to share grief. The Spotify list is overwhelming! Nicely done!