MIKE FORNATALE remembers a true American giant
The death of a beloved celebrity. Again. Heartfelt tribute after heartfelt tribute. Some brilliantly eloquent ones, some that don’t say much but obviously come straight from the heart, and also many pithy observations like “saw him at nasaau colasium 81 good show” – and you wonder if you should even bother, because of the sheer weight of redundancy. Temptation to get all flowery and erudite and even mansplainy.
But I do have a couple of interesting stories, I think, so here goes.
For me, it did not begin auspiciously. But it became auspicious pretty quickly.
The timeline is important. No, critical. It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1976. It had been almost a year-and-a-half since a certain NYC “supergroup” headed by Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell had made its first splash. Their classic, Hell-less lineup was in place by early 1976, and had been gigging for the better part of a year. The name was pretty well-known ‘round these parts.
I was the Music Director at WFUV, Fordham University NYC’s student-run (at the time) FM station. Not just a campus radio station, but a powerful 50,000-watt major-market non-commercial entity. New releases from record companies do not usually arrive at the radio station the day before a holiday weekend, and that’s one of the reasons I remember this so clearly. A small box from ABC records, with two LPs inside. The only thing in the mail that day. It’s about 3PM and I’m on my way home for the weekend, just stopped in to check the mail first.
So I open the box. Two new artists, neither of which I’ve ever heard of, both on Shelter (the label originally started by Leon Russell, distributed by ABC, for you trainspotters.) One of them was a female duo called Lyons & Clark. A very expensive-looking production, by Tom Scott. And I’m going to derail my story for just a second in order to talk about Lyons & Clark, because I love this album to death. It’s a big-money mid-70s monster, to be sure, but incongruously slathered all over an obvious small-coffeehouse/candles-in-Mateus-bottles folkie act. Without the big money this would have been a two-ladies-two-acoustic-guitars, stools, playing in pass-the-hat venues that seat twenty people. But both of ’em seem to have had a REALLY serious Joni Mitchell fixation, and that’s what probably caught somebody’s ear and why they ended up with Tom Scott producing. The songs are great, and neatly survive the kitchen-sink production that would have strangled lesser material. The Joni-isms are a bit much at times – if you can find No Deal on the interwebs somewhere, which I doubt, the answer-vocal “playin’ with a jokerrrrrrrr” will make you laugh pretty hard – but I don’t mind them. So that album really nails down the late Autumn of ‘76 for me.
Then there’s the other record. The one that was on top when I opened the box.
I saw that smirky face, the leather jacket, the chain of bullets, and the word “Heartbreakers”. And I said, out loud, to whoever was standing next to me – I think it was Jim Monaghan – “Who the FUCK does this little pretty-boy asshole think he is???”
(It wasn’t until decades later, of course, that I found out the imagined purloin was literally the other way around. Richard and Johnny were in Florida and saw a poster advertising some little local band, and decided that said band would never make it out of their little local scene and it’d be perfectly okay to steal the name and use it themselves.)
Well, I figured, whatever. Since I was on my way out the door anyway, I took the two albums home to listen to them over the long weekend. Before I put them on, I read the press kits which had come with them. I remember nothing about the L&C data sheet, other than that it spent pretty much all of the ink on naming all the luminaries who had played on the album. Pretty impressive list, yeah, but YAWN.
The press kit in the Tom Petty and the “Heartbreakers” [SEETHE!!!!] album only served to deepen my disdain for whoever this guy was, or thought he was. There was an 8×10” version of the contact-sheet that you’ll find on the album’s original inner sleeve, each photo smirkier than the previous one, with some credits on the back. And then, a two-page typewritten-and-mimeographed Q&A, by a mercifully-unnamed interviewer, which has the nerve to be headlined “BIOGRAPHY.” In which a very sullen young man who clearly does not want to be interviewed tersely answers a few questions about his band.
The interview tries to trump up some “mystery” about the band’s geography. “You don’t like to talk about where you’re from. Why is that?”
Ho-hum, I thought. It’s probably going to turn out that he’s from Asbury Park NJ and doesn’t want anybody to know. (Remember, it’s ’76)
This was a fairly popular motif in press kits of that day. Right around the same time – either just before or just after this, I can’t recall – we received the debut album by somebody named “Johnny Cougar.” You may keep your opinions about THAT to yourselves – but in the enclosed interview the guy comes off as a weapons-grade asshole, with so many chips on his shoulders that his shadow must have looked like a trident. In later days he would blame this on his original management’s misguided attempts at image-building. I don’t know the guy, so, like I said, keep your opinions dry, fresh, and in the pantry. But the album was a dreadful Springsteen Clone, and he spends the entire interview angrily denying that the album is a Springsteen Clone. (Which again, to be fair, he nowadays blames on his management.) Okay, enough about that guy.
Anyway — I played the Lyons & Clark first, Wednesday night, because I expected to not like the other one much. I was in a very good mood by the time it was over, and I put the other one on.
We Old People are so fond of saying “There’s no way you could know what it was like,” of course, and I know full well that you young’uns feel the same way when you hear it that WE felt when people said the same thing to us about Lenny Bruce and Coltrane. And, yeah, it’s not really an accurate sentiment. You CAN know what it’s like if you know all or even most of the context. It won’t hit you in the stomach the way it would have done if you were actually IN the Cavern Club in ’62, but you can get it intellectually. So here’s the context.
“Rock Music” was in a weird place in the USA in ’76. Neither our charts nor our radio stations were nearly as homogenised as they were in the UK. If you think you had a deep division, in that regard, in the UK in ’76, I promise you it was worse in the USA. There was the still-reviled “punk” over here (The Ramones’ first album was about half a year old and nowhere to be found on the radio) – there was “pop music” over here – there was disco over here, just beginning its big heyday – and then there was whatever Bruce Springsteen is over HERE. The Stones, over HERE, had put out the much-reviled (at the time) Black And Blue a few months ago. In hindsight, there was nobody driving too fast down the middle of the street in a convertible anymore.
And that’s where we are as ‘Rockin’ Around With You’ leaps out of the speakers in my room. Well, to be fair, it doesn’t so much “leap”. It sounds like it’s being joined in progress as the football game ends, or something. One of the guitars is picking little harmonics over the drum intro as if he doesn’t know the song has started.
And then suddenly it’s that perfect midpoint between The Byrds at their best and the Jones Stones at THEIR best – that sounds so familiar now but was so overwhelmingly electrical the night before Thanksgiving ’76.
I played it again. And I played it about 20 times the next day, before AND after dinner. I called my girlfriend, who had also gone home for the holiday, JUST to tell her how great it was. Forty years on, she probably still remembers this phone call. She was probably also holding the phone a couple of feet away from her head.
But it really was THAT important a record. It was kind of like someone had suddenly remembered which closet had all the good stuff in it.
I instantly forgave him the name, the smirk, the jacket, the interview, even the bullets.
First story, part two: wow. I just realised I saved the press release that came with that first album. I pulled out the original LP and looked inside, and there it is. I had never noticed that I had stuck it in there and saved it. Ha. It’s as ridiculous as I remember
Second story: it’s March of 1977. I’m going through a pretty bad time. In The Village Voice I’m looking over the weekly ad for [long-gone beloved East Village club] The Bottom Line, and I see the following bill: “Roger McGuinn & Thunderbyrd, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.”
Petty’s debt to McGuinn was obvious, in several ways. And McGuinn was a fan. He had covered ‘American Girl’ on his latest LP. It was a decent version – I mean, the song was a complete homage to McGuinn in the first place – but it didn’t measure up to Petty’s original, not at all. Still, nice to see them on the same bill, for multiple reasons. (Petty’s band had already been to New York once, and played at CBGB, but in my contemporary Personal Tailspin I had somehow not found out about it till after it happened.) The album was not on the radio, anywhere, and I assumed it would just fade into history. So the Bottom Line show would be my Tom Petty And The Cherry-Breaker.
The Heartbreakers, young and hungry, took the stage and no prisoners. They kicked ass even beyond my expectations. Totally slayed the entire audience, none of whom (except me and a couple of others) had come specifically to see them. Standing ovation, and an encore. Pretty darned unusual at that place. I dearly loved The Bottom Line, and miss it, but there was definitely “an attitude” among its audiences.
Then McGuinn came out with his band. It was a dreary, sloppy, strained performance. He was drunk, red-faced, and really off his game. In later years he’d readily admit that he was going through a tough time, prone to substance abuse, and a long way from his best.
And that’s fine – but he made the massive mistake of playing ‘American Girl’. AFTER Tom Petty had played it and left the audience gasping for air. Even if he had been the once and future McGuinn The Dragonslayer that night, this would have been a very bad idea. As it was, most of the audience looked like the ‘Springtime For Hitler’ opening-night crowd when it was over. There was polite applause, of course, but oooooooh.
Third story: November 20, 1977, later that same year. And almost a year to the day after I had stood in the hallway at WFUV scoffing at the photo of the smirky boy in the leather jacket. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are back at the Bottom Line, this time headlining
I can’t remember exactly when tickets first went on sale – I think it was mid-October. I saw it in The Voice and literally sprinted to The Bottom Line that weekday afternoon. I don’t know why I was in such a hurry – I wouldn’t have expected it to sell out too quickly. The album still wasn’t being played on the radio much at all, although a couple of songs did appear once in a while. I remember this vividly because I stepped up to the window, made my request, and some second person in the office, way out of view, yelled “Tom Petty, YEAH!!” That doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy, but it was. It was being uttered by someone who sounded like he really needed to be in the presence of a kindred spirit. Underlined by the very distinct impression that the girl who was actually handing me the ticket did not seem to have any idea who “Tom Peddy” was.
Anyway – this was a little more than midway between the first and second albums (still my two favourites, by miles) and there hadn’t been any hint of new material. The second LP was roughly half a year away.
I do not remember who the opening act was [someone has since reminded me that it was The Dingoes, from Australia] but I know I got there early. Grabbed that seat right in front of the stage. The one that nobody else ever wanted. The “Nostril Seat”, which I had named because of the view it proferred. But I got some great photos there over the years.
This is where I’m supposed to tell you that they were so different the second time, so much better, so much more confident. But that’s not the way it was. It was great, transcendent even – but that’s how it had been the first time. They got to play a longer set this time, sure, but “more confident?” No way. They had come out the first time at the top of their game, and they were still there.
It was still pretty much the whole first LP and a cover or two, but they did play one new original, which stuck in my head all the way home and for weeks afterward. ‘Listen To Her Heart’. The second album is gonna be very very good, I said to myself.
And oh, it was. That second LP, You’re Gonna Get It, is probably – along with 1982’s Long After Dark – Petty’s most-criminally-overlooked work.
It’s also noteworthy that I cannot think of – in the USA, anyway – another artist so universally beloved by “The Punks” as well as the mainstream rock fans in those early days.
I’m tempted to go LP by LP here, but I won’t. I’ll just say that I can’t think of another artist who has slung out so very many LPs over such a large temporal acreage and never ever saddled us with a dud. Some songs I could have done without, of course. And some production values at certain times which I also could have done without. But Tom Petty was one of a kind. There won’t be another.