On November 19, 1994, a 44-year-old Tom Petty stepped onto the stage of Saturday Night Live with his band the Heartbreakers. They were ferocious. Not a term often used to describe the Florida bands unique,
Pushing the band, from behind, was a 25-year-old unemployed drummer. Some, say, it was an audition. 7-months earlier, the drummer’s band had dissolved after the lead singer tragically took his own life.
The band worked their way through two songs. The expected radio hit, “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” and the lesser known, deep-cut, “Honey Bee.” Both from Tom’s solo album, “Wild Flowers.” While it was a solo album for Tom, every member of the Heartbreakers played on it, with the exception of drummer, Steve Lynch.
Lynch was reported to have disliked the album. He was also frustrated by Tom’s earlier hiatus from 1988-1990 to be a Traveling Wilbury, aside legends, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Following a performance at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, the band’s manager let Lynch go.
For the SNL performance, he was replaced by a young drummer, named Dave Grohl, previously the drummer for Nirvana. Dave found himself sitting on the throne, possibly, thinking, “It’s Good to Be King.” The combination of punk energy alongside the grit of seasoned southern rock electrified the SNL stage. Alas, it was not meant to be long-term, as rock history had other plans for Dave.
In July of 1995, he would unleash upon the world the first Foo Fighters CD. To date, he and his band have sold over 15 million albums. One year later, at the age of 25, on August 18, 1995, I would attend the first of what would become a dozen Heartbreakers shows. Forever, ingraining the soundscape and poetry of Tom Petty into my soul forever.
I am a Tom Petty fanatic. When I made my own, Denver Performance Debut, I wore a “Test for Echo” Heartbreakers Concert shirt. Each day, when I wake up, I walk down the stairs of my home, past a 6×4 foot portrait of Tom. Payment for work I did for the dynamic performance painter, Brian Olsen.
As a vault of otherwise useless trivia, I could list all of Tom’s accomplishments in songwriting and the countless songs that got him and the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I could write thousands of words about his collaborative work with other artists, from the Beatle’s George Harrison to Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash to Eddie Vedder. Steve Nicks to Dave Edmunds. The list goes on and on. But today, it is personal. I will leave the musical book report to Rolling Stone and similar publications.
On October 2, 2017, apparent cardiac arrest, brought Tom Petty to the main stage in the sky. A stage that many agree, has gotten too crowded in recent months. Each generation experiences loss as its great artists pass on. At times, it seems, like only Pete Townshend, who hoped he would die before he got old, will outlive us all; well, him and the indestructible Keith Richards!
Tom’s musical contributions were unique. On the surface, the songs seem simple. Basic chord progressions that have existed since blues and rock music began. But, pick up a guitar and try to strum any of his songs. You will be baffled at why the chords just don’t sound the same under your fingers. Every piece of you will swear you are playing it the same way, yet he shaped them in a way that only he could. Telling stories over the top of them, that will forever be woven into the fabric of American Music.
For many of us, our pasts are anchored in musical memories. Growing up, my dad and I only saw three concerts together. Kiss, when I was in 3rd grade. Chick Corea’s Acoustic Band, when I was in college; and lastly, Tom Petty at Red Rocks in the summer of 2010. Two years later, on October 21, 2012, a young driver, sadly hit and killed by dad.
I have since returned to Red Rocks many times to see Tom, even attending back to back nights, this past summer to see his 40th anniversary tour. Cheering him and the band on through pouring rain, but always remembering my last time there, with my dad. There is a sad poetry around losing two of the most influential men in my life, both in October.
Losing great artists too soon is not new. It happens to each generation. In 1971 Don McClean sang about pie and reminded us of the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson as a result of a tragic 1959 plane crash. He turned tragedy into a beautiful eulogy through song. It may have felt like the music had died, but there was still so much more waiting to be created and heard.
History repeated itself, three short years later, in 1974. The Righteous Brothers sang “Rock and Roll Heaven” in remembrance of Bobby Darin, Janice Joplin, Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and more. It would not be the last time.
A few weeks ago, that spirited drummer, who joined Tom Petty and Heartbreakers in 1994, added his own song to the catalogue of musical loss, with the release of the Foo Fighters, “The Sky is a Neighborhood.” It celebrates, the countless artists we have lost in the past couple of years; David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Chris Cornell, George Michael, Chester Bennington, Glenn Fry, Leonard Cohen, to name just a few.
When I first heard the “The Sky is a Neighborhood,” I imagined Dave writing it. Envisioning all of these musicians moving into Cobain’s, hopefully, non-covenant controlled community. I couldn’t imagine a noise curfew with all of that talent? Musician after Musician, greeting the new guy, before inviting them to sit in and pick the next song.
When the band, Argent sang, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” they proclaimed his status as a true fan. It stands to reason, that he’d want the best damn band in heaven! I only wish he could have waited a little longer for Tom’s set.
As I sit here listening to Petty’s “Pack up the Plantation: Live!” I find myself rethinking the lyrics to his song, “The Waiting.” The waiting is only the hardest part when you think you have tomorrow; tomorrow is not a guarantee, so there’s no reason to worry about it. Turn today up to 11!