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Passionate about Petty
By Keith Saliba
Gainesville Sun — Tuesday, August 19, 2003
These fans have a longstanding love for the music of Gainesville’s very own rock ‘n’ roll star.
Josh Smith was stoked. A Gainesville native, the Marine had just spent six months battling his way across the forbidding lands between Kuwait and Baghdad, but all he could think about was what was waiting back home.
Family? Friends? A break from being shot at all the time?
But it was a couple of thin cardboard strips that truly had Smith psyched about his July 3 homecoming.
Younger brother Jon, 19, had called with a bit of good news: Jon had just managed to win two tickets to see his brother’s favorite rock ‘n’ rollers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, at Daytona Beach’s Ocean Center concert later this week.
Josh, not yet born when Petty helped form the legendary group in 1975, couldn’t have been more thrilled.
“He has such an original sound, I’ve always loved his music,” says the 23-year-old, who last saw Gainesville’s favorite son when the Heartbreakers played the O’Connell Center in 1993. “He’s just natural, doesn’t care what people think. It’s just like, ‘Here I am.'”
And it may be, indeed, this “true to your roots” style of rock ‘n’ roll that has helped Petty remain relevant in an age of gangsta rap and boy bands.
Year after year, generation after generation, Petty and company have continued to spin their unique blend of poignant story telling, accessible hooks and downright blistering rock anthems.
A string of multi-platinum-selling albums and a 2002 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Petty and his Heartbreakers have secured their place in rock’s pantheon.
But, as always, it is in the words — and hearts — of fans where the true measure of an artist is found.
“Tom Petty’s music is just better,” says Jon Smith, whose along with his brother were introduced by Petty’s music by parents who had counted the venerable rocker as a schoolmate more than 30 years before.
“I could never really relate to the ‘big pimpin’ lifestyle,” Jon says with a chuckle. “His lyrics are about real-life experiences you can relate to.”
Gainesville’s Laura Campos decided to make Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one of her real-life experiences when the 33-year-old mother of two had the band’s logo tattooed on her backside.
And although her dream is to one day have Petty’s signature added to her tattoo, Campos is far from a wild-eyed rock groupie. The way Campos sees things, a bit of tattoo parlor discomfort was well worth it for a band that has given her so much over the years.
“Something about the stuff they put together just touches me,” says Campos, a veteran of no less than 10 Tom Petty concerts. “I like the fact that his songs are about something.”
Indeed, from his seminal days as a long-haired bass player in such late-1960s Gainesville acts as The Epics and Mudcrutch, the passionate, sometimes fiery-tempered “man with the Gator grin” has always had his sights set squarely on music.
Possessed of a hard-driving work ethic and an innate creativity, Petty quickly established himself beside the best of the storied rockers to emerge from Hogtown’s heady days.
Names such as Eagles alumni Don Felder and Bernie Leadon, along with past Mudcrutcher and present Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, topped the last.
Bernie’s brother, former Epics and Mudcrutch bandmate Tom Leadon, recalls the early days with Petty.
“Tom has always been very professional,” says the soft-spoken 50-year-old, now a guitar instructor for the prestigious Jan Williams School of Music in Nashville, Tenn. “He didn’t sit around and wait for things to happen. If we needed work, he’d go out and get us work.”
Not that it was all work and no play for Petty and the boys, says Leadon.
“Anybody from those times will tell you we had a lot of fun,” he says with a laugh.
Perhaps none more fun than the time Petty and company decided to put on a “mini-Woodstock” concert at a place known unofficially as Mudcrutch Farm, off 45th Avenue.
Searching for a new place to perform after disgruntled university officials had pulled the plug on the band’s Sunday afternoon Reitz Union jam sessions, the members of Mudcrutch looked to a rural property that bandmates Campbell and Randall Marsh had been renting.
Two days of raucous music and partying later — which included an unexpected helping hand from the Gainesville Police Department — and the concert came off without a hitch.
That is, until angry neighbors called the property’s owner the next day.
“There were wine bottles and trash scattered everywhere,” recalls Leadon with a chuckle. “We hadn’t had a chance to clean up. She evicted us on the spot.”
Younger sister Monica Leadon Copper remembers well the adventures at Mudcrutch Farm — and those of her childhood home when Petty, Felder and countless others would perform, hang out, even jot down phone numbers on the walls of her family’s storage room.
“The same coolness they have now is the day they were back then,” says Cooper, 48, who has since seen the Heartbreakers four times in concert. “The music was exciting. They just really knew how to play rock and roll.”
The same could be said of Petty’s sense of right and wrong.
Whether it was backing down North Florida bullies who didn’t approve of his long hair or fighting album price hikes advocated by his record label, the hometown rocker has never been afraid to stand up for what he believes in, no matter the cost.
Witness the firestorm created by his latest studio effort, 2002’s “The Last DJ.”
A scathing indictment of what he sees as today’s mega-merger radio music industry, Petty’s album has borne the brunt of receiving virtually no airplay from chagrined radio executives.
“I’m happy to see he’s still as feisty as ever,” says Tom Leadon, who maintains a friendship with Petty to this day. “He made some very good points on that record. When we were in Mudcrutch, we were able to get on the radio.
“But today, I think it would be hard for a local band to get any airplay because of these big conglomerates. It’s just bad for music.”
Bad blood and business disputes aside, it’s a good bet that Petty will keep doing things his way for years to come.
And it’s an even better bet that his fans will continue loving him for it.