Tom Petty, repressed memories and occasionally cow turds
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In my latest stadium experiment, I got tickets to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Fenway Park this week. Petty is a legend and Fenway is intimate enough to not necessarily feel like an overwhelming stadium show. Add in the fact that I haven’t seen Petty play live in more than six years and it all felt like a layup. This has to happen.
The last time I saw Petty was actually at Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., which I was covering. Before the New England Patriots saw their undefeated season collapse against the helmet of New York Giants’ wide receiver David Tyree, Petty and the Heartbreakers played halftime that year in a surprisingly stripped-down performance. Beyond the fancy stage built to look like their heart-and-flying-V-guitar logo, the band didn’t do anything else but what they always do — play rock and roll and play it well. As they finished off “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” Petty smiled and waved, and it was back to writing and shaping stories for deadline that I’d ultimately have to delete anyway.
Getting the Fenway tickets led me to revisit The Live Anthology, his four-CD chronicle of the Heartbreakers’ surprisingly under-appreciated abilities as a live unit. Like one of his shows, it moves flawlessly from hits to deep cuts to covers, with the audience able and willing to sing along with every note. The crowd is especially vocal on “Learning to Fly” from the second disc, and as I was listening again, it felt strangely familiar.
And then I realized that I had been in the crowd for that one, kind of. That version of “Learning to Fly” came from the 2006 edition of the Bonnaroo festival, a fact confirmed by a deep look at the set’s liner notes. I’ve listened to it multiple times, but clearly never with the focus that led me to recall the warmth that song brought on a tense night.
Without going too deeply into specifics to spare myself and others, Bonnaroo was a nightmare almost immediately. Four of us were jammed into a car for two days and drifting into the third on the drive down to Tennessee and everything that could possibly annoy us was doing just that. When we got there the reality of the situation was pretty blunt: this was a farm full of cow shit and we would just have to pitch our tent on top of it and deal with the smell. One of the people in our car had a sinus infection he’d done nothing about and was quickly on the hunt for the wrong kind of medication. This takes place in Tennessee in the summer, obviously, so the heat and humidity were already intense and shade was scarce. And the car was also blocked in on all sides, so we were stuck here.
The festival itself is not really set up for intensive listening; if there are 120,000 people there, then 30,000 crammed near one of the smaller stages to see Buddy Guy or Ben Folds will still feel like its own massive concert. And there was also enough fighting going on that I was feeling pretty uncomfortable, so when certain parties justifiably stormed off before Petty’s headlining set that first night, I was obliged to follow.
But our camp site was situated on top of a hill that, ultimately, looked down over the entire main stage and an area built to handle most of the crowd. As soon as we got back, Petty and the Heartbreakers walked out and jumped into “Listen to Her Heart,” and my mood began to pick up immediately. I sat and stood in the space in front of the tent facing the stage for the rest of the night, watching on the big screens and listening with surprising clarity as Petty worked his magic on the masses.
In particular, “Learning to Fly” felt special. Petty stripped the arrangement down to little beyond his acoustic guitar, some sparse fills from the band and a few backing vocal flourishes by Stevie Nicks. The crowded immediately began clapping and singing in unison, and from the top of the hill it almost felt like the ones who were mostly sober and not on some ridiculous freak-out were swaying together in unison. Importantly, it was calming and gave order to the non-stop parade of chaos that had been the entire experience to that point. Petty’s set was the first real payoff of the entire Bonnaroo experience, from my apartment to that farm.
In compiling The Live Anthology, Petty discussed the phenomenon of all these memories flooding back to him as he listened to all the recordings, some relatively recent and some 30 years old.
“But if I always knew that there’s a special connection between music and memory, I guess I wasn’t fully prepared for how much of the past came back to me as I listened to the songs included here. When we started to play tracks for other people, I was really happy to see that the music kicked off their memories, just as it did mine. It reminded me that there are a lot of fellow travelers out there, scores of people who have been a part of this adventure over the years.”
For me, the memory was vivid enough that, on this pass through the set, it hit me that I had actually witnessed that version live. From there, Bonnaroo got better; the fighting slowed, we got better at figuring out who to see and how to beat the heat and accumulated enough solid musical memories on the last two days, from Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Beck, Gomez, Stephen Malkmus and Be Your Own Pet, among others. Lives change, people move on and these things kind of get buried underneath the rest of the clutter in the confusing desk drawers that our brains become.
Elton John, Kanye West and Jack White will headline Bonnaroo next week; I’m probably never going back. But I will be at Fenway Park in a couple of months, and beyond the initial excitement I already had, a happy memory was uncovered by a stunning song that was hiding with 40,000 other mp3 files in a library. And this summer, with any luck, there will be more, heavy on the music and free of most of the chaos and cow shit.
June 4, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com