Tom Petty’s sudden passing is, in a word, a shock, one that deals another blow to everyone who appreciated this sturdy heartland rocker and bearer of the flame passed down from Dylan and the Byrds to the Americana contingent that followed later on.
When Petty and the Heartbreakers first made their bow, I was a very young promotion rep for ABC Records and its subsidiary, Shelter, the label that had signed the band early on. Living in South Florida, it was incumbent upon me to check out the initial appearance by a band that the bigwigs promised was going to be the next big thing. This was the age of punk and new wave after all, and if the mugshot I had seen was any indication, Petty clearly fit the bill.
It was supposed to be their big debut, or at least a warm-up gig of sorts for bigger things to come. The year was 1977 and the band in question, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, had only recently morphed from a Gainesvile Florida outfit with the decidedly unflattering handle, Mudcrutch. Fame beckoned, and the newly reconstituted band was leaving its hometown behind, and, with an eponymous debut album in tow, they were poised to unleash their talents on an unsuspecting world.
The setting for this historic occasion was an unassuming dive in West Palm Beach, a funky — in the worst sense of the word — that hardly seemed appropriate for something so auspicious. I was probably the only person who was there specifically to see Petty and the band, given that the group was wholly unknown at the time. Most of those in attendance were there for a cheap dinner and a few brews, the same lure that brought them there any other night of the week. Music seemed secondary to getting some grub, and possibly even stewed in the process.
Here, then, are my recollections of what now seems in retrospect a most memorable evening…
10. Petty had star charisma. He wasn’t the most animated guy off stage, or even the most amiable, but he had a vibe that suggested real rock star potential. He was short, with straight blonde hair and gaunt features, but he had a look of one who was already wizened from experience. He shook my hand and at that moment I got the feeling that he’d be heard from in a very big way.
9. Tony Dimitriades, the man that managed him up until the time of Petty’s passing, was the one who introduced me. A tall, distinguished Brit, he had the presence that suggested he’s only be involved if his client was the real deal. He spoke in measured tones, but assured me that his young charge was going to be a star, and he’d attain that status in a surprisingly short time. He was out to impress, and I was easily convinced.
8. The band was far more friendly than its leader, and when it was suggested that we retreat outside for a quick smoke, I eagerly accepted. I still remember the five of us — Petty did not partake — lined up against a far wall of the club, passing a joint and eagerly engaging in small talk. Of all the musicians, drummer Stan Lynch was the most enthusiastic, and the most friendly as well, and while I don’t remember exactly what we discussed, I do recall that we found an instant bond.
7. Despite its otherwise unimpressive appearance, there was one thing that caught my attention inside the club itself. Peanut shells littered the floor. You couldn’t take a step anywhere without hearing a continuing crunch under your feet. No doubt that was part of the allure. Have a pint of beer and all the peanuts you can crack. What a treat!
6. As soon as the band played their first note, it was clear they were already sharp and seasoned, having groomed their skills back home in Gainesville where they had evolved out of the earlier band Mudcrutch. They were tight and right on point, and though they weren’t especially flashy or prone to leap around on stage, they all had that cool charisma that suggested they knew how to convey their sound with certain smarts and savvy.
5. I remember that the set was short, all songs drawn from their debut album. Yet, even then, the songs carried a certain muscle and magic. “Breakdown” was an obvious standout, but surprisingly it was the track “Luna,” now practically forgotten, that struck me most. A dirge-like ballad, it had an air of mystery and mystique, drenched in thick swabs of Benmont Tench’s harpsichord sounding keyboards, while taking the music to a higher level.
4. I was awestruck, but then again, I was the only one really paying attention. The place wasn’t very crowded to begin with, but even the few folks that were there seemed more concerned about carrying on a conversation than giving the band its due. Fortunately, the band seemed used to these kinds of environs — Gainesville was a college town after all, and pubs and bars littered the area just off campus — and as a result, they were able to do due diligence without distraction.
3. The band did a rousing take on their soon to be standard “American Girl” and ended the set without benefit of an encore. While I applauded the proceedings, the hand clapping from the rest of the crowd was tepid at best. To say things were informal is probably an understatement. Once the music was finished, those in the audience barely looked up, offering little more than a nod of approval. Oh well. I waited for the band to make their way from the modest stage and joined them as they walked back to the kitchen area that had served as their backstage retreat.
2. That’s when everyone encountered the big shock of the evening. As we walked into that little room, painted in a luminous shade of light green, we instantly saw a message that had been scribbled on the door of the refrigerator with a black magic marker. “Heartbreakers Suck!” it read, and as much in amazement as anything else, we all recoiled at the rudeness of it all. And the inaccuracy as well. The band was superb. To this day, I can’t imagine what would inspire some stupid ass jerk to write something so outrageous.
1. Not surprisingly, that put a damper on the evening. We said our goodbyes and went off on our way, they in their van and me in my car.I never saw Petty up close again, and in fact, only had the opportunity to catch the entire group on one other occasion. Still, the memories of that night will be etched in my brain forever.