It is hard for me to compartmentalize the passing of the great Tom Petty.
I was a little later to the party than Gene, for I noticed Petty in the similarly great Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley Valentines Day in 1977 when I was buying Frampton Comes Alive (laugh if you will, but I was a big Humble Pie fan and had Frampton’s three previous albums which featured George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Klaus Voorman, to name a few).
But, I remember the stack of records and the debut album which held a sign that said, “his name might be Petty, but his music ain’t small.”
So, I bought both.
In April 1977, Petty and band played Winterland (with Greg Kihn) and a few months later–in September–he again played and I attended both, this time with the band opening for Be Bop Deluxe.
By then the group had become my favorite band, and this was all amplified when I went to London that fall and fell under the spell of the punks and Petty et al totally meshed with American New Wave to me despite the classic rock set-up.
In June of ’78 the band again played Winterland and again, I was there, and then again in December as part of the closing of the venue I had loved and seen so many great bands (in fact the final three acts were Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and then the Dead for New Years, and that was that for Winterland).
The following summer Petty was embroiled in a lawsuit and petitioned the court to tour and make some money since their next recording was tied up in litigation, so I saw the “lawsuit tour,” as it was known in Sacramento in the summer of 1979.
There were more. The Mountain Aire Festival (1983), Petty with Dylan at the Greek in ’86, Southern Accents in 1987, and unfortunately missed the Into the Great Wide Open tour due to strep throat. But, my ex-wife, Ava, who became a Petty fan used the tickets I got. In fact Ava said during Mountain Aire that she got the feeling Petty was looking at her for a moment, singing to her, connecting with her.
By then, Petty et al were an arena band so I saw them only once more, again at the Greek, in 2006 for the Highway Companion 30th Anniversary Tour.
I think that makes nine times, and aside from buying the bulk of the band’s albums (I am not a greatest hits guy) but, in 1979 I began working on a novel that became my Masters Thesis, a pretty chunky play on the Picaresque called Dirty Laundry and Petty and his band and that debut album–which I believe was among my essentials–were pivotal parts of the plot.
Petty was surely a rock star, and a wonderful song writer and lyricist in my view, but he was also a regular guy–or tried to be–and carried that attitude within several lawsuits he had with his record companies.
In the end, I am just at a loss how a guy, so vital on the stage, had a heart attack and poof, gone, but there you go.
If there is a West Coast/East Coast difference in sensibilities about the Heartbreakers and their name and band, I always thought of The Heartbreakers as Johnny Thunder’s band, as opposed to the West Coast band which was all lumped in with the name Tom Petty. As in “Tom Petty” included the Heartbreakers, and “The Heartbreakers” included Johnny Thunders, and I mean no disrespect to the great Thunders or his band in separating the two like this.
Here is an early live recording of a song of the band’s I always dug from the first record. There is a great story around this gig, and that the band got searched at customs getting into Germany. Apparently they had a big chunk of hash and were concerned, but the goods were never discovered.
Petty asked bass player Ron Blair, who was holding, what happened to the stuff and Blair smiled, showing off some very black teeth. And, he played this gig while blitzed.
Again, I just don’t know what to say, though. The Biletones have at least a half dozen Petty tunes in their setlist. I guess the only place I can go is thank you so much Tom, for your songs, your humanity, and for being yourself.
I hope things are as fun on the other side! RIP mate.