Like the rest of the music-loving world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Tom Petty’s untimely passing this week. I suppose I took him for granted, assuming he would always be there making outstanding music, as he had for virtually my entire life. Now that he’s gone, I thought I’d share just a few memories of times the man touched my life.
I had just turned 14 years old when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their breakout album, Damn the Torpedoes. In those days, if you didn’t have the album, you listened to the radio, waiting for your favorite songs to come on, and then turned it up as loud as it went when they did. It was the heyday of the “boom box,” the radio/cassette player combo that ran on batteries or AC. Mine was dark grey.
I didn’t have to buy Damn the Torpedoes right away because my friend, Andy, whose house I lived at when he wasn’t living at mine, had it soon after it was released. That is, one of his four brothers had it, meaning we had it, as long as none of them caught us playing it.
By the way, Wikipedia says Damn the Torpedoes peaked at #2, kept out of the #1 spot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But I distinctly remember lying on the floor of my bedroom, hearing Refugee come on the radio and the DJ saying it was from Petty’s album that had been “flip-flopping with Pink Floyd’s The Wall” for the #1 spot for several weeks. I know the internet is never wrong, but it peaked at #1 as far as I’m concerned.
By the time Hard Promises came out, my friend and I were militantly in opposite camps. He liked heavy metal and I liked punk and “new wave.” This was a divide that made Republican vs. Democrat or Yankees vs. Red Sox seem trivial. But we both loved TP & the HBs and were both hell bent on being at the show when the band came to town in the summer of 1981.
Andy’s older brother, Tom, took us under his wing in those pre-driver’s license days. And he had some sort of connection to get good tickets to concerts. Andy and I knew nothing of these worldly things. But, true friend that he was, Andy thought of no one else but me in terms of who would accompany him, his brother and his brother’s girlfriend to the concert.
There was only one catch: His brother also had secured tickets to the Judas Priest concert earlier the same summer. And if I wanted to go to see Tom Petty, I’d have to go with my friend to see Judas Priest.
It was a dastardly, albeit ingenious, move and he knew he had me. No way was I missing the what was to be the single-greatest moment of my life up until that point. But that a heavy metal band was to be my first-ever rock concert gnawed at me. I just hoped none of my other friends found out.
So, July 17, 1981, less than a month before the band I wanted to see came to Buffalo, I accompanied Andy, Tom and Tom’s girlfriend into the Shea’s Buffalo Theater to endure two to three hours of torture, the price for seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the following month.
But even this story has a happy ending. Judas Priest was so good – instrumentally, vocally and, surprisingly, as songwriters – they won me over. I enjoyed every minute of the concert and was on my feet rocking with Living After Midnight by the end of the show. So, Tom Petty indirectly opened my mind a little that night by forcing me to give a different style of music a chance. I remain a fan of “Priest” to this day.
On August 10, 1981, the big night had arrived. And my “supreme sacrifice” the month before was richly rewarded. Andy’s brother had worked his magic to get us prime seats on the floor, no more than 10 or 20 rows back, right in the middle of the aisle. Petty and the band came out and it was like they had jumped right out of my boom box. Knowing their music much better than I had Judas Priest’s, I couldn’t believe how meticulously it was performed live.
It was just a year later that a friend from high school approached me about forming what would be my first band. I couldn’t play the guitar or sing a note, but I went all-in anyway when the bug hit me, wanting to emulate all my heroes, including The Ramones, The Beatles, The Who, and my all-time favorite, Buddy Holly. But we didn’t cover any Tom Petty stuff in those early days.
I can’t say for sure why, but I suspect it was because you really had to be able to play to recreate those soaring, jangling sounds. That’s not to take anything away from the aforementioned greats. I’m sure they would have all rolled over in their graves if they heard us – even though most were still alive at the time – but there was just no way to fake The Waiting or Don’t Do Me Like That.
I played music as a second job for over 30 years, having a little bit of success with a band called The Skeptics in the 1990s. We managed to crack a dozen or so CMJ charts and took the band about as far as we could without quitting our jobs and going on the road. And by then, Change of Heart and my all-time favorite Petty tune, Listen to Her Heart, were staple covers among the Skeptics’ originals.
In the early 2000s, I recorded my first solo CD, which I wouldn’t end up releasing until 2007. And when it came time to figure out what the cover was going to be, Tom Petty inspired me once again. Not being particularly photogenic, I couldn’t quite capture the attitude of the original, but the cover shot for A Glimpse of the Ether was based on Petty’s classic Damn the Torpedoes pose.
By September 2010, I had been living in Tampa, FL for six years and had a senior management position for a small consulting firm. The CEO of the company frequently invited me to events in his box at the St. Pete Times Forum and I couldn’t have been happier when he did so for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He and I drove to the arena together and I probably told him Listen to Her Heart was my favorite Tom Petty song about once every half mile. After almost thirty years since seeing the band in Buffalo, I wondered if they still played it.
Of course, they opened with it. It was all uphill from there.
It never occurred to me that I’d never get the chance to see Tom Petty live again. I suppose I could have made an effort to do so sometime between 1981 and 2010. But like I said, I took him for granted, especially when the digital age got underway for real and one could pull up video of the live version of virtually any song on one’s phone. I figured I’d get plenty more chances to see him again, his rhythm guitar still meticulous, his voice still soaring through Refugee or Even the Losers. Sadly, I won’t get that chance, but I’m sure glad I did get to see him twice. And I’m glad he left us a body of work that will live forever.
Tom Mullen has been making music for over 30 years. During the 1990’s, he was lead singer, guitarist, and principle songwriter for The Skeptics. He released his 2nd solo CD, Unfamiliar Ground, in 2017.