On July 2, 1986, I was a junior on summer break from the University of Dayton and I went to the second concert I’d ever attended. It was at the Akron Rubber Bowl in Ohio, The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan were the co-headliners, but I was there to see their ‘with special guest’ Tom Petty.
He was my man.
For five years before that I had worn out his album ‘Hard Promises’ on my father’s turntable, listening to Tom’s sweet but twangy voice lamenting, wailing about the difficulties of waiting (whoa, his opening guitar riff on that one was a killer sixties and seventies love child), about the troubles of letting you go (latting you gow-oh), about that funky Nightwatchmen and the ol’ Kings Road.
Every song delivered.
This stuff wasn’t even close to pop music at a time when everyone glorified fluff. Tom’s music sounded more like this funky offshoot of bluesy rock-n-roll and hard folk mixed with poetic lyrics, an irate guitar, and the most original voice I had ever heard since Mick or Bob or Tom.
When my summer job co-worker Dave asked if I wanted to see the Dead and Dylan at the Rubber Bowl, I hesitated. Not exactly my scene. Then I noticed Petty’s name on the ticket and immediately pulled out cash. I had to see the guy who made my favorite album.
Oh, what a scene it was.
The Akron Rubber Bowl seats just over 35,000, and that hot July afternoon at least that many tie-dyed, dread-locked deadheads were either camped out in the parking lot or wandering around aimlessly throughout the interior of this concrete behemoth. Neither Dave nor I partook of any drugs that day, but it’s safe to say that everyone else had. They were all huffing nitrous, smoking weed, and tripping balls, floating around us like delicate soap bubbles waiting to pop.
When Tom Petty walked smiling onto the stage with the Heartbreakers, I was only about a hundred feet away. The crowd up front was surprisingly thin (Dave guessed it was because the Dead weren’t going to play for a while), but those of us standing there wanted to see Petty.
And he delivered.
I have no pictures, no videos, only vague memories of this future legend being comfortable as an opening act to these other two existing legends. Tom owned that stage for his band’s forty-five minutes and the hazy people responded by moving up and crowding in. They wanted to be close to whoever was making these gloriously original sounds.
And it wasn’t just his music.
Tom Petty was fun to watch. When someone is born to do something, there is no bigger thrill than to see them do it. From where we stood, it was like having courtside seats to watch Jordan. We were close enough to Tom Petty to see the pure joy in this virtuoso’s eyes, to see his fingers work chords out on the fret board, to see him stealing glances with Bob Epstein his bass player, sharing a look that says can you believe this? Can you believe we get to do this for a living?
When I heard that Tom had passed from heart failure yesterday, my heart broke. It didn’t help that the news was sketchy at first, and we had to spend a day wondering if he was still with us. I imagine his spirit is smiling at this, whispering to George and Roy, I told them the waiting was the hardest part.
When you’re a genius, an artist, a legend of Tom Petty’s caliber, 66 years are not enough. Sure, for a rock star, it’s a much more impressive run than 28, but he was different. He aged with southern grace, there was so much more music in him. We all know there were more songs, more concerts, more musical connections to be made by this marvel, and yet here we are today without him.
As I write, I am listening once again to Tom’s ‘Hard Promises’, and I am 21 again, back in that stadium watching a legend do his thing, singing:
I used to think that when this was all over
you might feel different ‘bout me.
Truthfully, Tom, we’re just having trouble letting you go.
– Mike Lukas