(Above: Tom Petty from the coolest video of 1985.)
This one’s going to be hard to write.
I have a list of them in my head: the musical obits that will be tricky ones for me, because the music that the people who will be featured in them meant so much to my formative years. Here’s one of them. I got word – as did everyone else this afternoon – that Tom Petty suffered a heart attack sometime last night and never came to. He was pulled off of life support this afternoon and early media reports said that he was dead at the age of 66. There was confusion after the fact as the LAPD said that they “inadvertently” released the news of Petty’s death, which was reported by CBS, TMZ, Variety, and Rolling Stone. Official word of Petty’s death came from his management in the late hours of Monday night.
Petty’s music was there before my days in radio, all the way through it, and even still today long after my full-time career ended. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers provided the soundtrack for so many moments in my high school and college years that I can’t count them all. Whatever the situation, there was always a song that fit it – and I learned to weaponize them to send messages to friends, lovers, ex-lovers, you-name-it on the air. On at least one occasion I used “Change of Heart” to signify the end of a relationship and “All Mixed Up” (a great song from Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough) to signal that one might be imminent. Weekends in the summer were spent driving around aimlessly listening to a Petty mixtape that I’ve long since lost but could probably replicate with little effort. (Once, when my wife bought a new car, we drove around listening to “Mary’s New Car,” since what else would you put on?)
I was lucky enough to see Petty in concert three times: once with ‘Til Tuesday as an opening act, once with the Black Crowes opening up, and once where he shared the bill with Aerosmith. I passed on a chance to see him this past summer, which of course I now regret heavily. But there was supposed to be a fourth show where I did have tickets and never got to the theater.
June 27, 1986 was right after high school graduation. I was tooling around in a 1969 Buick Electra that I had just had some body work done to and an Earl Scheib paint job to make it a solid black. We had tickets to see Petty and Bob Dylan – who I was ALL about in high school – at Alpine Valley Music Theater in Wisconsin. Six of us made the trip: my friends John and Dan rode in my friend Bill’s car, while my friends Rich and Carl rode in my Buick. We got stuck in traffic going through the city on a hot day, but had plenty of time to get up near Racine before the show.
It was at that moment that Carl complained that it was really hot in the car. The AC wasn’t keeping up very well, so I rolled down the windows. “No, the seat’s hot.” We pulled over, and the seat was hot. I pulled down the backseat armrest, and flame jumped from it. Shit! The car’s on fire. We start running like crazy people down the highway as fast as we can toward Bill’s car, which was now pulled over trying to see what was going on. I had a vision of the car exploding and being hit by the trunk lid, and I wanted as much distance from that as I could muster. By the time I looked back, the car was fully engulfed. The oil-based foam interior – also re-colored black – went up like gasoline had been poured on it. It took maybe ten minutes for the car to be completely consumed. A local fire department showed up to hose off the wreck – and explain to me that “cars only blow up on TV.” Had I known that, I would have taken an extra few seconds and grabbed two things from the glove box that would have been useful that night – my wallet, and the tickets for the show. (Fortunately, the “60’s Cruising Tape” I normally kept in the car didn’t make the trip.)
We got to the hotel we planned on staying, and I called my parents. “The car is a total loss,” I explained to my mother, who had heard enough of my “the whole thing is ruined” mentality to be a little skeptical. They drove up to collect us the next day, and I remember my mother breaking down when she saw the car. “You were IN there?” she asked. Yep. It was at that moment that the owner of the towing yard presented me with a bill for the tow. I asked “What if I don’t pay this?”, to which he replied “You don’t get your car back.” Deal. I abandoned my car in a Wisconsin field, save a few emblems I pulled off as well as the plates (which I still have in a box), and headed home.
In that same box I have the cover of Rolling Stone that came out around that time: it featured Petty and Dylan with the headline “The Summer’s Hottest Ticket.” You have no idea.
(Above: Irony, thy name is Rolling Stone.)
There are so many songs I could have picked for this piece that I may have to do multiple postings. But the first one I thought of is the one above the title. 1985’s Southern Accents was the LP that Petty was touring in support of when I first saw him that summer. I loved the song, I loved the Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired video, and I loved the trippy light show he added to the live performance, also ironically at Alpine Valley. It also fits the “going home is hard” motif of the past few days, so maybe that’s why it was top of mind.
Whether it was the Heartbreakers, or Tom solo, or work producing Del Shannon, or with the Traveling Wilburys, there was so much to enjoy, and always the right song for the occasion. So long, Tom, and thanks for so much of the soundtrack of my life.
You can see the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by clicking here.
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