This morning, even before I was fully awake my wife told me about the massacre in Las Vegas. I could not fathom how someone could be so evil. To find a vantage point from a hotel room sounded like a rerun of the Texas Book Repository gone mad. The images on the television and soundtrack of automatic weapons fire hit me in the gut as deeply as on 9/11. How could this happen? Why, in the name of God?
I got on with things as best I could. I had a deadline and meetings to prepare for. And then my wife called again. Tom Petty had suffered full cardiac arrest and was on life support. I had just seen the band play a week earlier at the Hollywood Bowl. He seemed a bit tired after months on the road but the show had that energy and connection with the heart of America that they have had since the beginning. I was lucky enough to be there for that.
In January of 1977 I bagged on New York. After 3 1/2 years of some of the most intense and amazing life experiences I just had to get out. I was living on a couch in a tenement in Bensonhurst in the worst winter in New York memory. There was a 2 inch gap under the front door and the wind came howling in off the Atlantic close to zero, or so it felt. It sucked but I knew it was temporary because I was done. It was like winter camping in Siberia.
That and the snowstorms and a blowup with a favorite professor, and I was over New York. My folks lived in a California dream home. Looking out the front door was like looking at the cover of the Hotel California album. Palm trees, beauty, water, warmth.
Until that point New York was an amazing journey. Going to school at Lincoln Center; an incredibly diverse and talented rabble of friends. Downtown in the Village one night, up on Broadway & 72nd or so the next. Needle Park and Hell’s Kitchen and the high rises and townhouses on the Upper East Side.
The city was exploding with hip hop, salsa, new wave and punk and I was right in the middle of it. I had seen a band a couple of times down at CBGB’s called Blondie that I thought were going to go big. Talking Heads, Television, the Ramones and others were playing the Bowery while Springsteen conquered the Village and the rest of the country. It was exhilarating beyond any high.
But I couldn’t stand the city anymore, so I left, hitching rides from the GW Bridge to Denver in one go and then across the Rockies to Vegas. Then with a pimp and his two girls on their way home to LA and then on home. I think it took me around 54-55 hours all told.
I was a wreck by that point. I crashed for three days and then I jumped in the water and showered and sat in the sun for a couple of days, just getting my happy back. I saw in the paper that Blondie was playing the Whiskey in a week or so and told my brother we had to go.
And so we drove up to LA and paid our money and grabbed a beer. The place was pretty empty. No one knew who this band was. Some strange chick from New York and her band.We had gotten there early because there was no traffic, and pretty soon the openers came on.
They just blew it up. They were incredible; tight, great songs and huge energy. Out of nowhere.It was funny because almost 40 years on I ran into Cheri Curry and we talked about those days and she mentioned that she helped the Heartbreakers get their first real gig.
The other night Tom Petty talked about their first few months. They were from Gainesville but they actually got the band together in Santa Monica. That show at the Whiskey was one of their first. It was a while later that the first album came out, but we knew these guys had tapped into the American soul.
During his recent show he dedicated “I Won’t Back Down” to the people of Houston and Florida and Mexico. I’m sure he would have done the same for Puerto Rico and Las Vegas as well. We don’t back down. We stand up in adversity and help each other. There were 1,000 first responders last night. EMT’s and law enforcement and firefighters and just plain people. It is who we are.
Tom Petty got that a long time ago. He played the soundtrack to thousands of lives. It is a sad, tragic day in America, but remembering our innate spirit; our cussedness; our sense of honor and our compassion makes us who we are. And the Heartbreakers have helped us to get there and get through it.
I guess it is full circle. From the first to the last, but what a ride and what a comfort to hear the words and music that revive hope.
We won’t back down. We’ll stand our ground.