By Brian Wise.
I feel like I have come full circle with Tom Petty. I was there at the start and at the end too: seeing him 40 years apart and a few times in between. The first time still stands as one of my top 10 concerts of all time and this year’s show had its own greatness.
It is not that his age of 66 suggested he was far too young to depart. Touring musicians lead a tough life but Petty’s addictions were far behind him. It was more the fact that I had seen him play at Jazz Fest in April this year and he looked and sounded so great.
I can still recall the first time I heard Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers when I was living in London in the late ’70s. It was late 1976 early 1977 and punk was just starting to flex its muscles and about to bust open everything.
While Petty’s music was hardly punk as performed by the Sex Pistols (who were still to break) or The Damned, it had that same energy and conciseness. And he looked like a punk (perhaps a well-groomed one). Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was also the perfect band name for the times.
Maybe the Heartbreakers moniker reminded people of Johnny Thunders’ band. Maybe the cover of the debut album with the guitar through the bleeding heart evoked a certain ethos. Whatever the reasons, the notoriously fickle UK critics at NME and Sounds – who hated the dinosaur bands like the Rolling – embraced Petty and the BBC and Capitol played the songs.
Petty broke in the UK and Europe before the USA. In fact, the debut album didn’t do all that well in his until he went back after the UK tour.
Of course, Petty was touring on the back of one of the great debut albums of all time. All original songs, no covers at all – although American Girl sounded like it could have been a Byrds cover (probably another reason the critics loved the band)..
May 12, 1977 was the first time I saw Petty & The Heartbreakers. It was at the Hammersmith Odeon and they were the support act to Nils Lofgren who was no slouch at all, with his stage acrobatics and scintillating guitar solos. There seems to be a small club of people living in Melbourne who saw that show and agree with me that Petty blew Nils off the stage, as they say.
Petty’s tight 11 song set contained not only songs from that great debut but also a few key covers of Chuck Berry’s ‘Jaguar And Thunderbird’ and Bobby Troup’s ‘Route 66’ (as popularized by the Stones). The rest of the set list included ‘American Girl,’ ‘Fooled Again,’ ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Listen To Her Heart’ (a preview of the next album), ‘Strangered In The Night,’ ‘I Need To Know,’ ‘Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ ‘Dog On The Run’ and ‘Surrender.’ It was maybe only 35 to 40 minutes but was brilliant. ‘Who is this Tom Petty chap?’ said one of my flabbergasted flatmates.
Petty’s first and only fully-fledged Australian tour with The Heartbreakers was in 1980 but his stint touring with Bob Dylan in 1986 brought its own rewards. Petty and The Heartbreakers gave us the closest approximation most of us will ever hear to The Band backing Dylan, though I think I criticised them for sounding too much like Robbie Robertson and company!
In subsequent years Petty fought and won a battle with his record company against its exploitative contract. He enjoyed huge success with the Traveling Wilburys and he continued to pump out albums, while overcoming serious addiction.
In 2007 I saw Petty and The Heartbreakers at ACL Fest and despite a thunderstorm he came back after a half-hour delay and finished his set. The thing that impressed me was the fact that all the college kids knew every word to every songs and many of those songs had become anthems. ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ ‘Free Fallin,’ ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’…the great songs just flowed.
Earlier this year before he went out on the 40th Anniversary Tour Petty talked about how much he loved being in the studio creating new music and he promised he wasn’t going to become an oldies act just churning out the hits for the sake of it. Petty even got his first band Mudcrutch back together to record a couple of albums, something that attests to the fact that he kept his friends close to him over the years.
So let me skip forward 40 years from the first time I saw Petty and tell you about his appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as he celebrated with his old running mates: keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair and newbie’s, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone (who had only been with the band for 20 years!).
Petty headlined the main stage on Sunday April 30 in front of 40 to 50,000 people and in reviewing the show I wrote that he looked great, he sounded great and he did a really interesting set (including a bracket from Wildflowers) – as well as many of the hits.
People of all ages – from the baby boomers who grew up with Petty like I did to the college kids there on Spring break – knew every word to every song and they stood and sang along. I could have easily created a different set list with just as many great songs from the catalogue. He encored with ‘American Girl,’ which seems apt given my history with him.
If you want to hear Petty and The Heartbreakers at the brilliant best you should get the 2009 Live Anthology, 4 disc-set, that summarises their career and Petty’s influences. If you want to immerse yourself in Petty’s history watch the 4 ½ hour documentary on Netflix. Then there is Warren Zanes’ excellent recent biography which is highly recommended.
Unfortunately, I never got to interview Petty but it was not for lack of trying. He was definitely on my bucket list. I did my best on a number of occasions. (The closest I came was meeting Steve Ferrone and then I was too timid to ask him for an interview!). I recall an argument I had with a record company rep when Petty first toured Australia and I was just starting in community radio trying in vain to talk to Petty.
But there are a number of excellent interviews with him – and great recent ones too – that show Petty to have strong opinions on just about everything, including holding on to the purity of his band. I am pretty sure that if I had met Petty I would have liked him; he just seemed like that sort of person.
But despite the fact that I never spoke to Tom Petty I feel that I at least shared a history with him and that his songs were there for me at important times of my life. That is the essence of the relationship that we have with our favourite musicians and you cannot ask for more than that.
Thanks for everything Tom!