Awaiting their new release Mojo, I was reminiscing about the band’s earliest days. Those who have never enjoyed the tactile sensation of cracking the seal on a vinyl album and anticipating the first notes from the speakers might not get it, but when you held a twelve-inch album jacket in your hand, you were more likely to focus on the task at hand.
I’ve clicked as many MP3 and WAV files as the next guy, but they all look antiseptic. The smell of the record, the familiar label pattern and most importantly the art on the front cover would set the stage for the next fifteen or twenty minutes…before you had to get up and flip the thing over for side two (or as I liked to think of it, the home stretch).
And on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album, there was this leather jacketed punk with the thin blond hair staring me down with a smirk on his face. He didn’t look that tough, though – I could probably kick his ass if the rest of the band didn’t jump me – so subliminally my response was something along the lines of ”prove it, buddy”.
And, of course, he did. “American Girl” still sounds as fresh as it did in 1979, and as someone who had spent many a night listening to cars on 441 “like waves crashing on a beach” it was right in my wheelhouse. Two years later, when You’re Gonna Get It proved there was no sophomore slump going on (“I Need To Know”, “Listen To her Heart”) I was dumfounded that the band was not immensely huge. Not that I didn’t have a large collection of albums that shoulda woulda coulda.
Video: “Listen To her Heart”
When Damn The Torpedoes came out, I was able to get an advance copy from a friend who was the local MCA Records college rep, and I was absolutely convinced it was going to be the record that finally broke these guys wide open. I was running a club at a University at the time, a place where Friday happy hours were huge, although we usually just piped in a local rock station for music. I was so convinced that one listen to “Here Comes My Girl” or “Refugee” or “Even The Losers” or “Don’t Do Me Like That” was going to blow their minds that I dubbed it onto cassette, brought my own tape deck in from home and wired it up.
Not me, not now.
The room was packed and I made a brief announcement; for a moment I felt like those AM jocks did when they were about to drop the latest single on their listening audience. Because here in my hands I held the perfect hybrid of The Rolling Stones and The Byrds, and in Petty’s voice and words you could feel the desperation of a man who had just watched his career almost get flushed down the toilet when his prior record label (Shelter Records) went bankrupt. I was about to do three hundred college kids a huge favor. I was going to change their lives. I was going to scoop the local rock station by three full days. This, indeed, would be one of those moments we’d remember forever.
Well, I was half right.
The record held up its part of the bargain, but the crowd just…didn’t…get it. The second song wasn’t even ten seconds old when people started yelling to play some Grateful Dead. The Grateful fucking Dead? What the hell was wrong with these idiots? I wasn’t that much older than the kids in the room, barely out of college myself, and the rule for Happy Hour was rock’n'roll, not trippy noodling. This was a town that was dominated by rock radio. I was crushed.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time I shook my head in disbelief as a great record fell on deaf ears, and it was far from the last (my annual submissions to the Village Voice Pazz&Jop poll look like alien transmissions). Lesson learned, again. But time would prove me right, as Damn The Torpedoes went on to become one of the biggest records of the year and the album that singlehandedly turned Tom Petty’s career around. I never anticipated he’d become actual rock royalty with such a critically acclaimed career, but I do know a great record when I hear it. Most of the time, anyway.
Hearing the recent Mudcrutch releases and the first sounds from Mojo, it sounds like Tom is looking fondly backwards as well. And that’s just fine by me.
Tom Petty website