Tom Petty: The Enigma
By Matthew Beaton
Gainesville Today — August 2011
Tom Petty, the man who wouldn’t back down, hangs over Gainesville, as an ethereal haze–always there, yet not always perceptible.
By all accounts, he hasn’t returned to the city since the documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream filmed his performance at the O’Connell Center in 2006. Efforts to tie his art to the city haven’t always worked out either. The legend that “American Girl” was about a coed who committed suicide off Beaty Towers was vehemently denied in the book “Conversations with Tom Petty,” printed in 2005.
He called it an urban legend and said, “That’s just not true at all. The song has nothing to do with that.”
Yet, still, he is the city’s icon. Emmitt Smith was not born here or Tebow or Wuerffel. No one of his stature can walk through Gainesville bearing the title: homegrown.
Buster Lipham, owner of Lipham Music, recalled the last time Petty visited his store. It was about 15 years ago.
“He had a straw hat on; he had his hair pulled down, kind of in front of his face,” Lipham said.
After finishing with a customer, Lipham approached his old friend and former employee, but Petty’s security guard intervened, placing a large hand on his chest.
“(Petty) said, ‘This is my body guard’; I said, ‘You don’t need a bodyguard in Lipham Music Company’; he says, ‘Well, Buster, he goes with me wherever I go… they pull at my hair; they pull at my clothes,'” Lipham recalled.
So he invited Petty back to his office for some privacy. They entered the room; Lipham shut the door, but it was immediately pushed open by Petty’s muscle. Lipham was incredulous. “It was weird,” he said.
Flashback to the young Petty. Marty Jourard knew him well. His band Road Turkey often opened for Petty’s Mudcrutch from 1973-1974. Stan Lynch, of Road Turkey, would later join the Heartbreakers.
One night, while taping a radio commercial, the bands realized they shared a similar sense of humor–really sarcastic and ironic, Jourard said. That bonding forged a friendship that remained as they played together, and slowly, Petty began to differentiate himself.
“You knew there was something going on with Petty at the time because of his songs,” Jourard said. “It wasn’t like he was this phenomenal singer or showman; I mean, you know, he was just a regular old hippie; we all were.”
At the time, Jourard said, “he was writing five, six, eight originals that sounded great.”
That made him unique because very few others were writing songs. Members of these bands were like siblings then; they were constantly mocking each other–all in good spirit.
“We would make fun of the way Petty would aim the mike down when he would sing,” he said. “We’d just goof on him.”
Showing his talent for leadership, Petty had assembled Mudcrutch. “He was really good at organizing… he was a main guy in Gainesville,” Jourard said.
As a rocker though, his trim physique could work to his detriment. “He was one of the guys… that was getting hassled by rednecks and big football player dudes,” Jourard said.
Now he has his own football player dude.
But where does he fit into the pantheon of great rock ‘n’ roll artists?
William McKeen, a rock historian and journalism professor at Boston University, sees Petty as a traditionalist.
“I put him in the category with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, sort of heartland musicians,” McKeen said. “Even though he’s from Florida, he’s very traditional in a way,”
McKeen also likened Petty’s sound to that of Roger McGuinn, the Byrds’ lead singer.
“(Petty) is a guy that really reveled in being a rock star and producing albums like ‘Southern Accents’ (which) was the sort of album an artist in the ’60s would have produced,” McKeen said.
Meanwhile, Indian University Bloomington rock ‘n’ roll historian and music professor Glenn Gass puts him elsewhere.
“I think one of the nice things about Tom Petty is he doesn’t really fit in anywhere,” Gass said.
“He came along with new wave and punk really… he didn’t get socked in that sort of niche and obviously he’s proved to be much more than that,” Gass said.
He also appreciated Petty’s work because it acted as a counterbalance to another genre.
“You have to go back to disco and the stranglehold that it held to remember how wonderful his early songs sounded–yes, right, guys with guitars in their hands playing real drums,” Gass said. “It was joyous.”