Tom Petty: The boy from the swamps with rock and soul in his veins

9:38 am on 4 October 2017

By Richard Langston* @RichLangston2

In 1980 I was a young reporter working for the Christchurch Star and living in a rather cold and draughty villa on Salisbury Street.

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Photo: AFP

A few of us in that sprawling household were music fans, and we would convene in our respective rooms to consume the latest sounds coming out of the UK. The UK, to us, was where it was at - The Jam, The Clash, Joy Division, XTC.

These were the sounds to mark a generation: angry, experimental, and veering from quirky pop to gloom.

But that same year another guy stared out at us from the record stack. He had a toothy grin, parted long blond hair, and a battered looking Rickenbacker slung over his shoulder. The album cover told us his name was Tom Petty, his band was the Heartbreakers, and the record was Damn the Torpedoes.

Tom Petty was not English, he was not punk, and he was most definitely not post-punk. He was mainstream Americana. He was as American as Chuck Berry and The Byrds and Bob Dylan.

He shouldn't have fitted into our little musical world. But he did. He bust down the door with that winning smile and his guitars ringing.

I might not have recognised it at the time, but there was a touch of poetry in there as well.

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Fans have been honouring the musician since news he was gravely ill came out earlier today. Photo: AFP

'Here Comes my Girl', 'Refugee', and 'Don't Do Me like That', and 'Even the Losers', were great mainstream rock songs, and 'Louisiana Rain' revealed more as you listened. Under those sparking guitars and melodies was a boy from the swamps of Gainsville Florida who had rock and soul in his veins.

But I had yet to hear what for me, and probably a lot of other fans, is Tom Petty's magnum opus: all the great qualities of his song writing boiled down to one glorious three minutes - 'American Girl' - one of my favourite singles of all time.

Those clanging opening chords, the drums hammering underneath, and then the melodic bass line coming in, and pow, dynamite chorus, and the momentum to carry you to that final harmonising outro.

And, if you're of an excitable disposition, you'll want to hear it again.

This is a song to start a party. It started my 21st that was held in the lounge of that mouldering Salisbury St flat. It charged out of the speakers many times that night. We might have played air guitar to it. Actually, we might have even played tennis rackets to it. Tom Petty could make you drop all your cool.

I think it was the song on the turntable when the stereo blew up. Pretty sure it was.

Around this time Petty played the Christchurch Town Hall. I can still see him in his black and white checked shirt, his long hair, and his guitar slung around his neck. What a contrast he struck to a band like The Clash who also played the Town Hall - full of post-punk combat chic.

But it's the Petty concert I remember more fondly - a great songwriter with a great band playing their hearts out.

That album, Damn the Torpedoes, was the high-water mark for Tom Petty and me, but I always listened and watched out for him (who could forget that great Alice in Wonderland video for 'Don't Come Around Here No More' ?).

A few years I was in a Philadelphia bar interviewing a guy who runs an independent record label in the city. The jukebox had a great selection, including 'American Girl'.

I dropped my coin and chose it. I grinned. My friend was quietly appalled and amused I should choose what to him was such a "mainstream act", the sort of uncool guy who packed out stadiums.

But I told him that song was 24-carat gold, a tiny and perfectly formed slab of lyrical American rock. It wasn't dumb. It was beautiful.

And it was written by the only guy to ever blow up my stereo.

* Richard Langston is a journalist, television director, and poet who has written widely about music. In the 1980s he was editor of the fanzine devoted to Flying Nun music, Garage.

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