Thursday, October 7, 2010

Even the Losers

I decided to drive down to Florida for spring break in 1983. Not having much success with girls in college, I figured my chances had to be better in Daytona Beach. After all, girls went down there for anonymous sex, didn’t they? At least, that was the premise I was going on, and probably what was on my mind, when I missed the exit off I-75 for the eastbound road to the Atlantic coast.

Let me make it clear that I am not at all comfortable out of the city, let alone in rural Florida. I saw Deliverance and, let me tell you, it left a mark. But, with Gainesville ahead, I felt brave enough to pull off the highway. It was a college town, wasn’t it, and had to be a little civilized.

I was starving and found a McDonald’s drive thru. My gut told me to stay in the car, but I decided to be tough and enter the restaurant. It wasn’t bad. The local crowd wasn’t particularly scary and there were no signs of backwoods hunters forcing strangers to squeal like a pig. Maybe my images of the south were a tad skewed. Could be.

After I finished my three minute meal, I noticed a bar called The Cypress Lounge and, with my newfound inner strength, decided to stop in for a beer. Not my style, I know, and about as out of character as when I drank from the community bottle of Jack Daniels at a Rolling Stones concert. This seemed well thought out by comparison.

The bar was dark and almost empty. It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the dim lights. From the corner, there was the neon glow from a jukebox playing “Bits and Pieces” by The Dave Clark Five. I sat down, ordered a Bud, figuring that was the safest choice. I didn’t want to stand out, you know. Two seats over I noticed a guy with shoulder length greasy blonde hair and the sunken appearance of a skeleton. He looked familiar. Was it Tom Petty? Tom Petty had a couple of great albums a few years back, with some amazing songs – “Breakdown,” “No Second Thoughts,” plenty more. Then he disappeared. I never knew why.

“I love the Dave Clark Five,” I said, hoping to make a connection.

“Uh-huh,” he mumbled into his beer bottle.

“Excuse me, are you Tom Petty?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I’m a big fan.” I stuck out my hand, but he didn’t turn his head. Awkward, but I didn’t catch the hint.

“What’ve you been up to lately? I have both your records. They’re great. I love ‘Hometown Blues’ on the first album.”

He turned slowly to look at me, realizing I knew his work. Maybe that’s what broke the ice.

“Thanks for not forgetting about me, man.”

“It’s not that easy. Those were my favorite albums at the time, but you haven’t done anything in, like, five years. Are you working on something?”

Petty took a swig from his bottle of Bud, placed it on the bar and gave me a ferocious stare. “Don’t read the music magazines, do you?”

I got a little nervous. “Umm, no, I don’t. Sorry.”

It got quiet. “Hey, I’m really sorry if I stepped into something bad. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just curious.”

“Ahh, forget about it.” He paused. “You know anything about the music business? You know that it screws over hungry kids all the time?”

“Sure, I’ve read about guys getting ripped off. The Beatles, Springsteen, everyone, I guess. What can you do about it though, they’re powerful dudes.”

“Yeah, well I thought I could do something about it. Wanna hear about it?”

I nodded. “You want another beer?”

“Sure, you buying?” I said yes.

“You see, we had made those first two records and were doing all right, you know, but I realized I was getting ripped off. They stole my publishing for pennies. I signed those songs away – I thought it was, like, a contract making songbooks or something.”

I laughed, after he did.

“So, I was already screwed, like what more could they do to me, right?”

“Yeah, right,” I quickly agreed. This was really cool, sitting in a bar with a bona fide rock star, listening to his story. I didn’t want to lose the moment.

“Here’s where I fucked up, big time. After, the second album, it was on Shelter, remember, our label got sold from ABC to MCA, but we had a deal that we couldn’t be sold. I was scared to be in the hands of people I didn’t know, and I pushed back, hard. Gotta keep a little bit of pride, you know.”

He was getting a little drunker, and a lot angrier. Who knew how long he’d been sitting at that bar? I never met a guy whose records I had. I was going to keep this going for as long as I could.
“What did you do?” Not a great question, but enough to make him talk some more.

“Well, my manager told me I had no money. I was half a million bucks in debt and, if I declared bankruptcy, I’d be out of my contracts. So I said, let’s do that. I can tell you, the music suits were not happy and came down on me pretty heavy.”

“I still don’t get why you’re not making records anymore?” And I didn’t.

“I’m getting to that. There was this executive board meeting, and this big man comes in and says ‘Let me tell you something, kid. You’re going to forget this whole thing, make your records and shut up.’ I didn’t take to that very well.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah, it did. So, after hearing that, I pull out a switch blade and look at it menacingly. Then, I look straight at that guy in his expensive office and his fancy suit and say, ‘I will sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you. You can’t make records, you can’t sing.’ Then I got up and left. That’s the kind of guy I was then.”

“That’s cool.” And it was.

“Was it? I really thought they’d cave and I told the band that, but, you know what, they didn’t. They used their lawyers to get an injunction – we couldn’t tour – and they made it clear to every record company that we were through. Blackballed us up and down, there wasn’t a label that would touch us.”

Petty wasn’t angry now, just sad. I could see in his face that being a tough guy, a rebel, may have been a great image for a rock star, but it was a lousy approach to business. He knew it too and lived with it every day. What a wasted life, I thought. Was it worth the fight?

“You still playing?”

“Sometimes, around Gainesville. We started out in places like this,” he waved his beer holding hand in a circle, “and that’s where I’m back.” He got quiet for a while. Then he spoke.

“Hey, can you pick up another round?”

“Sure. I have a few bucks, even on a college student budget.”

We talked long after dark, countless sad stories of a guy who once was king, if just for a while.

Tom Petty’s early career was marked by a series of legal entanglements. First signed by Denny Cordell for Shelter Records, Petty gave up his publishing in return for a record deal. He later sued, and won, resulting in a royalty rate greater than the penny a record deal he was on. Shelter, distributed by ABC Records, was sold to MCA. Petty’s contract contained a clause that he could not be transferred without his approval. He balked at the move, MCA threatened and Petty declared bankruptcy. Since bankruptcy would void all contracts, Petty’s move shook the music industry to its core as scores of artists could follow suit. After a prolonged fight, MCA gained an injunction to stop Petty from touring. With new backing, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers embarked on their “Why MCA” tour and, soon after, a settlement was reached.


  1. Gives new context to a line from his cameo in _The Postman_:

    Postman: I know you. You're... famous.
    Bridge City Mayor [Petty]: I was once... sorta.