Some of my fondest memories as a kid was getting out of bed on Saturday late nights, sneaking into the family room and catching a music show called The Midnight Special. There, I could see the acts I heard on the radio, and maybe see a new artist or band. In 1978, I saw a performance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The song was “American Girl,” and I went crazy. When I crawled back into bed at 1:30 am, I could not get the song out of my head.
The following year, after discovering songs like “Breakdown” and “Listen To Her Heart,” I saw a promo clip (later known as the “video”) of a cool tune called “Refugee” on the Merv Griffin Show. I was galvanized by the power of the song. It was nothing like the songs that permeated the musical landscape at that time. It was so not disco, that it made me dance and feel alive. It became the first record I ever purchased by Tom Petty.
I remember Tom’s sold-out performances during his week-long stint at the L.A. music club that mattered most, the Whiskey Au Go-Go. Of course, I asked my mom if I could go and see him. Her stock answer I already knew by heart: “So you can be surrounded by long haired, pot smoking weirdos? No.”
It was around this time that I decided not to return to AM radio. Didn’t matter. Petty and his crew crossed over to FM in a big way. His band and music became a main focal point for me. They looked like they were always having fun on stage. Petty would jump around, like he was trying his best to levitate off the stage and into the air. He brought humor back to music. His songs were instantly memorable, and full of life. And when the “age of the video” came around when I was a teen, his videos were the ones that I didn’t mind seeing a million times (so much more interesting musically and visually than A Flock of Seagulls or Duran Duran).
As I have stated before, there were very few artists from the 80s that I really cared for. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could always rely on me to pick up a copy of their latest work. And their work usually had me inside of my bedroom, learning how to play their latest songs on my acoustic guitar. I remember their live performance at Live-Aid during the summer of ’85. I was having my first phone conversation with a girl (Julie . . . wow). As soon as Petty and crew came on my t.v. screen, I cut the conversation short with the words, “I have to go now. Petty’s on. Can I call you back?” I grabbed a videotape, threw it in and captured the performance.
And I never called the girl back. I was “too busy” studying the performance. She got mad, and found another guy to like. I got my allowance and bought a copy of Tom’s then-current album, Southern Accents.
One of the best concerts I ever attended was a show on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Great Wide Open Tour. I sat with my friend, Clover Club Larry, and enjoyed a wonderful night of music. I’ll never forget the long encores. Tom Petty invited a few of his friends to share the stage. These friends? Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Ringo Starr. I felt special to witness such a gathering of some of my heroes. I still get goosebumps thinking about that night. Wonderful.
The music that really captured a moment in time for me was his second solo album, Wildflowers. At that time in my life, my mom was dying from ovarian cancer. I would spend my time driving back and forth to the hospital, listening to a cassette copy in my car, crying. Tom’s music gave me the strength to hold myself in check. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I knew that things weren’t going to be the same again, and I was scared. My mom was my rock, and I was losing her. Tom’s music reminded me that we must all keep moving, no matter what events shape your life.
Tom still makes great music, and I never miss a chance to hear his latest. He is inspiring, and hero in every sense of the word. Remember the public fights with his record company? He took on the “big dogs” to restructure a horrible contract, as well as fighting them over the 9 dollar price tag for the band’s Hard Promises album at the beginning of the 80s? That just wasn’t the norm in those days. He’s championed musicians and music fans alike, and for that he deserves nothing but respect.
Tom, if you should read this someday, thanks for thinking about the fans. Thanks for the great music, and thanks for showing us musicians who came later about ethics, integrity, and caring. Damn the torpedoes!
(Lex Neon is also known as Alex Oliver, the quirky and often eccentric musical genius of “sunshine pop / rock” band Poppermost. Check out their music and Lex’s rock rantings at http://www.poppermost.com/).
Note: Original release date of the ‘currently listening’ album below is October 19, 1979.
Damn the Torpedoes
By Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers