Notes From A Tom Petty Fan

All right, it is Monday morning on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo and my thoughts go spiraling backwards in light of the fact that I had the supreme pleasure and privilege to witness two performances of the band MUDCRUTCH this past Thursday & Friday evening (May 1st and 2nd) at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, CA. In 2008 at this historical juncture in the annals of pop culture (generally) and rock and roll (specifically) there isn’t much NEW MUSIC (read: contemporary) that comes down the pike that gets this 43-year-old kid very excited. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen and heard too much music over the years. How do you stay fresh and excited about a musical genre that may have played itself out ages ago? I REMAIN, however, a music fanatic (no two ways about it) and I am grateful that in spite of how weird the music business is that it is still possible to be surprised and to have my faith in rock and roll be re-kindled…and that is exactly what happened to me this weekend.

Now the name Mudcrutch is hardly a household word but certainly the name Tom Petty is (both with and without his group The Heartbreakers) as Petty has earned the stature of being one of popular music’s most beloved, successful and critically recognized songwriters & performers. If there is anything to dislike about Petty it is the fact that his music is so ubiquitous on classic rock radio that it is easy to dismiss the guy due to an over-familiarity with his greatest hits (it’s not his fault that commercial radio programming is so goddamn static…no pun intended). Until very recently his early group Mudcrutch has been nothing more than a footnote in his assent to worldwide stardom since that group disbanded over thirty years ago. With a passionate regional fan base in his native Gainesville, Florida the original Mudcrutch allegedly commanded audiences of up to a 1,000 people but during the band’s five-year existence there is scant musical evidence of what that band was truly capable of. A couple of demo tapes and two 45s released in 1971 and 1975 did little to bolster their commercial status and frustrated by their lack of success the band broke up with Petty subsequently offered a solo deal through Shelter Records. By 1976 Tom Petty joined forces with a quartet that Mudcrutch keyboardist Benmont Tench had put together for his own recording project with Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch and viola! The Heartbreakers were born, from 3/5 of the original Mudcrutch.

(Strangely guitarist Danny Roberts who replaced original guitarist Tom Leadon does not seem to merit much mention in the official history of Mudcrutch…and ironically as the band is celebrating a miraculous Phoenix-like re-birth Roberts is currently in critical condition after being a car crash this past Friday morning in Jacksonville, Florida. Very sad all round…)

So…thirty-two years later after re-counting the entire Mudcrutch saga for Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary on TP & The HB’s (2007’s critically acclaimed Running Down A Dream) it appears that spending all that time looking backwards inspired Petty to contact original Mudcrutch guitarist Tom Leadon and original Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh and asked if they’d be interested in reuniting. Petty told musician/scribe Warren Zanes that “I felt like we had left some music back there and I wanted to go back and get it.”

Well, apparently when Tom Petty puts his mind to something the man stands by his intentions and while I had initially hoped that the band would go back and revisit it’s earlier musical compositions in retrospect I am grateful that the band has wisely chosen to harvest a new crop of material based upon the musical roots that inspired them to play in the first place. At the two shows I saw this past weekend in addition to playing 13 of the 14 songs on the newly released (April 29th) eponymously titled MUDCRUTCH LP (only the song “Oh Maria” did not get aired at the shows I saw) the band choose to celebrate it’s musical heritage by covering songs that were no doubt part of their repertoire back in their original “heyday” when they were the house band at Dub’s Diner in Gainesville (at the Troubadour they performed songs by The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Bill Monroe, Eddie Cochran, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Jerry Lee Lewis). The mixture of rock and roll, bluegrass, rockabilly and folk was awe inspiring and totally in keeping of why Bob Dylan once described Tom Petty as “gutbucket.” This is American rock and roll at its absolute finest. As Petty said from the stage on Thursday night “this is probably the finest bar band you’re gonna hear in West Hollywood tonight.” Indeed, Mudcrutch may be the finest bar band you’re ever going to hear. Period.

Now I have to ask: why hasn’t Benmont Tench ever sang a lead vocal before this LP? His composition “This Is A Good Street” is one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time and sequenced back-to-back with the instant Petty classic “The Wrong Thing To Do” is more than ample evidence of why this album is worth your attention. Ditto for the album’s centerpiece “Crystal River” and a casual re-write of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” for the album’s closer “House Of Stone” brings the whole thing back from whence it sprang; from the hand-carved cradle of down home roots American music.

The band just finished playing 13 shows (with six sold out shows at the 500 capacity Troubadour) and I hope that after Petty and the Heartbreakers are done playing greatest hits shows to the sheds of the world that he somehow manages to make his way back to the bar. Oh, I forgot to mention the fact that in this band, Petty plays bass (a Hofner) and together with Randall Marsh makes a wonderfully understated rhythm section. After thirty-one years of following Tom Petty I thought the man had quite possibly become old hat. How wonderfully wrong I was and I highly recommend the new album. MUDCRUTCH manages to be a tour-de-force by a brand new band that took thirty-eight years to finally record their debut LP. I will never forget the look of joy on Tom Leadon’s face both nights at the Troubadour. Smiling ear-to-ear the guy clearly had a dream come true and I was privileged to witness it. What an absolutely wonderful experience. Thank you guys for a great pair of shows and for helping to restore my faith in rock and roll.

Can I Get A Witness: a personal chronology of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers:

April 1978…the first time I saw footage of Tom Petty in the film FM after seeing the movie at Springfield Mall with Joe Martin. “Breakdown” is on the LP soundtrack. However, the film is pretty dismal…

April 23, 1983…the first time I saw Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform as they headlined the “X-Fest” in San Diego, CA at Jack Murphy Stadium [hosted by local radio station 91X]. Also on the bill are The Stray Cats, The Ramones, Bow Wow Wow, Modern English and The Flirts. At the time I was extremely disappointed that original bassist Ron Blair is no longer with the group and has been replaced by the remarkable Howie Epstein

July 26, 1985…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA in support of their current LP Southern Accents. Lone Justice opens the show.

June 9, 1986…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Bob Dylan at the San Diego Sports Arena. The acoustics at the Sports Arena are legendary for its’ “muddiness” but that can’t cloud the fact that I’m seeing Bob Dylan for the very first time with one of my very favorite bands. A perfect pairing. Tonight is the first date of their North American tour and the only time they performed “Got My Mind Made Up.” Also, the first time I meet writer Paul Williams (of Crawdaddy fame) and we trade tickets. I gave him a ticket for this show and he gave me a ticket for…

June 14, 1986…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Bob Dylan at the Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA. I managed to somehow record this show from the third row and felt like Dylan was looking at me the entire time. It’s too nerve wracking dealing with threat of being hassled by security to enjoy a moment like this…but the show was great and tapes ARE a great way to re-live your memories.

June 16, 1986…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Bob Dylan at the Pacific Amplitheatre, Costa Mesa, CA. The first of two nights in Costa Mesa and I’m beginning to love the LP that is being played before every show on this tour, AKA Graffiti Man by John Trudell & Jesse Ed Davis. During a rendition of “I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know” I lean over to my friend Steve and say “Doesn’t Petty and Dylan sound great singing together?” and he replies “Of course they do, Petty’s been doing Dylan his entire career…”

June 17, 1986…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Bob Dylan at the Pacific Amplitheatre, Costa Mesa, CA. The second of two nights in Costa Mesa and the last time I would see Dylan backed up by Petty & The Heartbreakers. I loved these shows and think that this is the finest group that has ever backed up Dylan. So long, good luck and goodbye.

October 16, 1992…Columbia Records Celebrates The Music Of Bob Dylan, Madison Square Garden, NYC, NY. One of the most hyped events in the history of Dylan’s career, it did give many people a chance to see a staggering array of talent all take the stage during one performance. George Harrison was the high point of the evening for me (singing “If Not For You” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie”) but Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers also did great versions of “License To Kill,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (with Roger McGuinn). Too bad about Sinead O’Connor…

March 18, 2002…The 17th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony, Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom, NYC, NY…for five years (2000-2004) I had the pleasure of researching and procuring archival musical footage for the RARHOF and one of the perks of that gig was attending the ceremony each year. Well, not only attending the ceremony but also getting to sit in on the rehearsals in the afternoon and occasionally meeting the inductees. Intimate indeed. The ceremony included a performance by the original Heartbreakers (“American Girl”), with Ron Blair re-instated in the bass chair and to the best of my knowledge this is the last public performance with bassist Howie Epstein (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”). Meet Mike Campbell on this day…

August 25, 2002…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at the Coors Amplitheatre, Chula Vista, CA…this is part of a small round of shows before kicking off The Last DJ tour in the fall. Jackson Browne opens the show with an under-rehearsed band.

October 29, 2002…Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at the Open Air Theatre, San Diego, CA…The Last DJ tour is in full swing with Jackson Browne again opening the show. I’d like to say that Jackson’s band sounded more together during his set but I managed to spend all that time backstage watching music videos with Petty, Campbell, Tench, Blair, Scott Thurston and a few friends. If I didn’t have a picture documenting the moment I wouldn’t have believed that I was actually there, but it’s great to know that people in Tom Petty and Mike Campbell’s position remain passionate music fans themselves and are happy to hang with “regular folk.” Shocked and stunned.

November 29, 2002…Concert For George, Royal Albert Hall, London England…thanks to the generosity of several people, but primarily of Mike Campbell (who pulled a few strings on my behalf) I was able to witness what might be the coolest concert ever to be staged. That is highly speculative but I doubt that I personally will ever see a more magnificent or emotional performance than the Concert For George. Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ravi & Anoushka Shanker, Michael Kamen and fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty – all to celebrate the music and spirit of George Harrison. The Heartbreakers sound great on “Taxman,” “I Need You” and “Handle With Care.” You can see me in the film being seated during Ravi’s introduction and as I took off my beret and looked around I shook my head and wondered what I did to deserve being in that spot at that moment. I cried through much of the show and found the entire experience breathtaking. My gratitude knows no bounds. Thank you.

March 14, 2004…Rehearsals for The 19th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony, Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom, NYC, NY

March 15, 2004…The 19th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony, Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom, NYC, NY…tonight George Harrison is inducted into the Hall Of Fame for the second time (the first time was as a Beatle, now as a solo artist) and Tom Petty was on hand with Jeff Lynne to induct George into the HOF. “Handle With Care.”

May 1, 2008…Mudcrutch at The Troubadour, West Hollywood, CA…a 19 song set performed by the best bar band in the world. I can’t believe they did “Off The Hook.”

May 2, 2008…Mudcrutch at The Troubadour, West Hollywood, CA…another 19 song set, this time with Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” replacing “Off The Hook.” This could be the last time I see Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Tom Leadon & Randall Marsh together on stage. What a fantastic experience and what a great memory… It was nice to meet Linda, Janie & Athena. Thanks to Layne for sharing the ride.

Who knows where the story ends…

Long live rock and roll. Endless gratitude to Mike Campbell, Tom Petty and the rest of The Heartbreakers & Mudcrutch. You guys are the absolute best.

Jon Kanis, Monday, 05.05.08 2:15 pm San Diego, CA