POP GOES THE CULTURE: Meeting Tom Petty like running down a dream
By Mathew DeKinder
St. Louis Post-Dispatch — Thursday, April 21, 2011
It is said you should never meet your idol because you’ll only wind up being disappointed. Of course that’s all well and good when talking about someone else’s idol, but when it came to meeting the subject of my own hero worship I was more than willing to tell those who espouse such words of wisdom where to stick it. I was going to meet Tom Petty!
As long as I can remember having an opinion about music, I’ve loved Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This opinion only deepened during my adolescence when the band’s straightforward lyrics and driving guitar riffs offered some clarity amidst a confusing haze of breakups, acne and bad hair choices.
Even as I got older I kept coming back to Petty and his Heartbreakers and finding that the music still fit. With a rhythm that is classic, comfortable and never out of style, Tom Petty is the blue jeans of rock ‘n roll.
So when SiriusXM announced a contest where a few lucky fans would get the opportunity to meet Petty in person, I barely hesitated in submitting my entry.
Fans from all around the country were asked to enter questions they would ask Petty if given the chance. Those who asked what was deemed one of the best 21 questions would get to fly to Hollywood to ask their question in person as a part of a live radio show.
A forklift was required to lift my jaw of the floor when I received the news that my rambling question, which inquired about Petty’s working relationship with the Heartbreakers, had been selected.
With less than a week to make travel arrangements, ask off from work and beg my sister-in-law to watch our kids, my wife, Julie, and I somehow found ourselves on a plane bound for Los Angeles on April 14.
After acquiring our rental car, we located the nearest In-N-Out Burger and then drove to Hollywood. After experiencing the weather in L.A., it is clear why so many people live there. And after an hour-and-a-half in traffic, it is clear why so many people vow to never come back.
Still we arrived in plenty of time and even had a couple of hours to kill, so we played tourist along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, complete with a visit to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where I discovered John Wayne had surprisingly small feet. Who knew?
Anyway, we got to the studio where we mixed and mingled with the other contest winners. While Julie and I weren’t the youngest people there, we comfortably fell into the lower quarter of the age bracket, which I suppose is to be expected for an artist that burst on the scene way back in 1978.
We were ushered into the studio, which in spite of being the site of a visual-free radio broadcast was bathed in the unearthly mood-lighting of pink bulbs and blacklights. We sat in three rows of chairs in the order we would be asking our questions.
In front of us on a hastily constructed stage sat a small table and two chairs where Petty and host Meg Griffin, a renowned East Coast DJ, would sit. We all sat quietly, buzzing on the vibes of our good fortune when, with only moments to spare, in strolled the man of the hour wearing a tan suit and yellow-tinted sunglasses.
The show began almost immediately and for the next two hours we asked our questions and Petty answered with as much grace, humor and thoughtfulness as he could muster. Granted, it wasn’t exactly a Frost/Nixon level of interrogation as we were all adoring fan boys (and girls), but it was a surprisingly insightful and candid interview.
When the time came for me to ask my question, I wasn’t as nervous as I had anticipated, but when I sat down to hear his response I was absolutely flabbergasted to be making eye contact (OK, eye to sunglasses contact) with a rock legend while repeatedly thinking, “Oh, my god, Tom Petty is talking TO ME!” I had to listen to the rebroadcast of the show to actually hear his answer.
After the broadcast came to an end, each winner was given vinyl reissues of Petty’s first two albums and we lined up for our personal meet-and-greet in the same way eager 8-year-olds line up to meet Santa Claus.
When our time came, I stepped up on stage, shook his hand and glanced over at my wife, usually the calm, cool and collected one, and saw her transformed into a giddy teenager. This made me nearly has happy as meeting Petty himself.
He signed our albums, posed for a picture and chatted with us about the show last summer in St. Louis where his guitarist Mike Campbell passed out onstage from the heat. Petty was suddenly remarkably ordinary. Here he was, a dude the same age as my dad, and we were talking about how hot St. Louis is in August. In a weird way, this made him even more awesome.
The very next day we were headed back home and as I looked out of my window seat down into the Grand Canyon, I thought about how surreal the whole thing had been. Here was a man who had been a part of my life for an amount of time I could now count in decades and yet for only five brief minutes did I actually become a part of his life.
When I considered how blessed I was to have that five minutes to tell him how meaningful his music had been to me, it really brought home how one-sided the artist/fan relationship really is.
And yet what also became clear was the shocking realization that I didn’t really love Tom Petty. The man I met was just a guy. A stranger. A dude who pays his taxes, gets indigestion and gripes about the weather.
It is his music that I love and the man is just the messenger. But still, we almost never get to thank the messenger for the art we love the most and that is what I treasure most about meeting Tom Petty. OK. That and the autographed records.