The first time I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play was deep in the winter of 1976/77. I had just come back home to LA from 3 1/2 years in college in New York City. The last 60 days or so were a disaster.New York was electric and raw and alive but when it turns on you it can crush you.
It was the coldest winter in memory and I was living in a -20 sleeping bag on the sofa in the living room of a friend’s apartment in Bensonhurst. There was a 2″ gap under front door, and an incredibly bitter wind was blowing in right off of the Atlantic.
My relationship had gone to hell and I was outraged at one of my professors enough to quit school with a few months left to go. I figured I could make up the semester later on. I was done with the city.
But while there it was in fact electric. it was out of control; bankrupt, on its knees and it was the middle of the bad old 70’s. But down in SoHo and up in Harlem the was a new message. It was “screw you and your contrived music and your contrived society.”
At places like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s and a bunch of no name clubs bands like Television and Talking heads and the Dictators and the New York Dolls and Patti Smiths and Blondie were all inventing a new genre.
Uptown it was Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets and Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata were inventing hip hop. And any band worth anything was playing everything from the Garden to the Schaefer Music festival to the clubs and palaces.
I left that for Los Angeles. Walking into my parent’s house with my few possessions on my back it was Hotel California once again, almost literally. Stunning neighbor girls, the surf, sailing. Warm. Warm is good when you roll in from the Arctic.
But I was a musical outrider. I had seen the next big thing. It was incredible and vital and raw unlike the highly produced LA Sound. And it was just beginning to filter into LA. I said to my brother, “Deacon, you have to check this out.”
And so we went up to LA one winter night, probably with the top down on his Fiat 124 and got to the Whiskey a Go Go to see this hot chick with a band who could, on a good night, knock your socks off.
We got there for the first show and the place was pretty much empty. Maybe 50-75 people. No one had ever heard of Blondie. And then the openers got on stage and proceeded to blast anything in their paths off of their foundations.
It was a primal American band, maybe the primal American band. Incredible, minor key narratives of love lost, betrayed, shredded and freedom and raw ya ya emotion played very loud.
I am guessing, 35 years later that they may have had their first album out. But their set was for the ages. I loved Blondie at the time, but they had just had their doors blown off.
Breakdown, American Girl, Anything that’s Rock & Roll, Rockin Around with You, there wasn’t a bad song played that night. We walked out of the club a couple of hours later stunned. I had seen Springsteen break it open with Born to Run at the Bottom Line 6 months earlier and there I was again.
The next day I found the vinyl and it became a cult object played at full volume at least once per day. Strangers would appear at the front door asking who the mystery man was. I was the main man at parties. Chicks dug it. Slowly the world caught up.
A few years later, married and in my Magic Christian phase we went again to see the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl. This time it was a limousine and dinner at the Polo Lounge. A night for living large with my other brother and his wife. Tony Curtis and one of the old cowboy movie stars were a couple of tables away and it was Hollywood classic. The show was great as well, Petty in his prime in the mid-80’s.
I would see the Heartbreakers a number of times over the past 20 years and it was always enjoyable, always different. One of the things I respected most was their own respect for the music and for rock & roll.
Tom Petty is not a classicist. The music is far too alive to him and his cohorts. It’s still fun to stretch and bend the notes. Speed it up or slow it down or remake a song into something new. Over the past few years it seems his geographic center is somewhere between Memphis and Chicago. A lot of blues and roots rock. The Heartbreakers were Florida swamp rock long before rockabilly made its appearance and yet they have that rock mentality that everything in rock & roll is fine.
They are at the stage now that the could give a sh*t. They play for themselves and for their fans and every set list is mixed up. That’s what happens after so many years together. It would be boring otherwise. This tour is different as well. A lot of small venues and extended stays. It’s tough to be on the road and moving all the time. We were lucky that they still live in LA for the most part, so the Fonda Theater at 1,200 capacity was a perfect venue.Every other night and not a lot of the weirdness of their younger days. I think John Entwhistle’s death on the eve of The Who’s tour a few years ago was a memento mori.
The show Sunday night was special for another reason. Both of my daughters insisted on going. from their earliest years, the Heartbreakers were part of the soundtracks of their lives. Unusually for their age, they have always dug deeper into the past than their contemporaries. Of course this was Dad’s master plan anyway.
A part of my parental duty was their musical education, and so James Brown and Ray Charles and Etta James shows were part of the curriculum along with the symphony and the opera. I tried to keep them away from those nasty bluesmen and they never had a huge taste for gangsta rap.
And so there were the three of us standing towards the back on Sunday as the band led in with one of the old standards. They followed with another classic, but newer. The same rock & roll fire; a bit more grizzled and the highs not quite as high but now tom sounds like one of those whiskey voiced bluesmen. The latest album, Mojo, plays to this with several classics thrown in with some incredible new stuff like “Candy” and “U.S. 41”. “I just want to make love to you” was a bit of an embarrassment for a father with his daughters there, but they even knew that Muddy Waters classic. Strange kids.
A little like Dylan. A little like Muddy Waters, but all TP. The kids were engrossed. They may have been some of the youngest people there in their 20’s but they know the songs and the vibe.
On Saturday night the band was shut down by the fire marshals for overcrowding, which I doubt would have happened 30 years ago. But the band made it up to the fans with full refunds. It sucks to miss the whole set, but free is good. Sunday we got the full show.
Unfortunately this old man had to bug out. Tom and the band can sleep in on a Monday morning. I can’t.
Hopefully someday soon we will renew our acquaintance. Hopefully the girls may come back with me, maybe with the next generation. If not, well, like the Dude, Petty abides.