My earliest memory of Tom Petty is watching the Heartbreakers perform “Change of Heart” on Saturday Night Live in 1983. The anger of this song spoke to me. Even as a 15 year-old, I sensed that the ladies didn’t exactly dig me, and a lyric that said – in essence – “Screw you, I’ll be fine without you” felt might satisfying to a brooding teenager, not to mention that as an aspiring keyboardist I dug the sounds of Benmont Tench, always tasteful, never overplaying.
Two years later, while washing dishes at Seigo’s Japanese Steakhouse in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a strange song with a sitar, synth drums, and the inimitable twang of Tom Petty came on the radio, as the band had switched gears with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” A few months later my buddy Jim and I attended his show at Alpine Valley (with Til Tuesday opening) and yes, the Southern Accents tour featured a horn section and a huge Confederate Flag that seem incomprehensible and tasteless in hindsight, but for an ignorant 17 year-old the power of the show hit home. “Hey, hey, hey. I was born a rebel.” Fuck, yeah. I left the concert feeling empowered and emboldened…and then I got my first speeding ticket from the Wisconsin’s finest on the way home and learned that I was anything but.
Flash forward two years, and Petty was back at Alpine Valley (I believe with the BoDeans opening, my buddy Kurt in attendance with me), and the satisfying vitriol was back with my favorite Petty song of all time – “Jammin’ Me.” Yeah, man. “Give ‘em all someplace to go.” Few words were more satisfying to my young-adult self.
I didn’t see Petty perform again until 2003 at the intimate setting of the Vic Theatre in Chicago. Petty had aged and mellowed somewhat and I had aged and mellowed somewhat, now a father of three. Allow me illustrate by sharing my two most vivid memories of that show:
1) Petty saying something like, “This one’s for those who are no longer with us,” before playing “Handle With Care.” By then, Roy Orbison and George Harrison were gone, and just a few months earlier bassist Howie Epstein had died as well. It was a somber moment.
2) Me wishing to God that the encore would end because my feet were killing me after standing for about four hours on a concrete floor.
Yep, the vitriol was gone, and now all I wanted was some Advil and a good night’s sleep.
I’d lost track of most of Petty’s releases over the past few decades. I paid modest attention to Wildflowers and never got back on the bus, but there’s no denying the fact that the Heartbreakers fed the soul of my youth.
So long, Tom. Rest in peace.
And to music fans everywhere: brace yourselves. Petty, Bowie, Prince, Emerson, Lake, Michael...these are only the beginning. It’s going to be a rough, rough ride.