If you want to know what it was like to be alive in 1965, you must listen to the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ album “Live at the Fillmore 1997.”
Now let me state right up front this 72 track package only embellishes Tom and the band’s image. This is not detritus, this is not the milking of the Hendrix vaults, one listen and you’ll marvel that these tracks weren’t released previously, when Tom was still alive.
It’s tough to be in a classic rock act. Because the people paying high prices for tickets only want to hear the hits, you end up becoming a human jukebox, thinking about doing your laundry while you sing well-worn numbers. You’re playing your instrument, but you’re no longer a musician, certainly not an artist, you’re just a nostalgia vessel. Set in amber. The music is more for the audience than yourself.
But not Tom Petty’s string of dates at the Fillmore back in ’97.
One wonders whether Tom could have sold out arenas at that point. The band had put out an album the year before, but its success was impeded by the fact that it was the soundtrack to a stiff movie, “She’s the One,” even if Ed Burns had credibility and a track record. Never hitch your wagon to a movie by cutting a soundtrack, best example is Wang Chung and William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” Possibly Wang Chung’s best work, the actually pretty good movie went almost unseen, even though it featured Willem Dafoe, but this was before most people knew his name. Wang Chung had had two big, credible hits with “Don’t Let Go” and most especially “Dance Hall Days,” but the band lost momentum with the soundtrack and when they ultimately returned to the charts with “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” they were seen as a disposable pop band playing to the audience and the act was done, there was one more album, but it made no waves, it didn’t radiate. (Sure, the act reunited decades later, but who doesn’t?) And I recommend “To Live and Die in L.A.” for the freeway chase and for the music, but… I’m just saying that Tom Petty was in a lull and it being the beginning of the internet era aficionados knew the band played for weeks at the Fillmore, but they never heard the music.
Tom Petty is showing his roots.
This is how it worked. We were all listening to the radio before the Beatles hit, but when the lads from Liverpool broke we grew our hair, bought instruments and tried to replicate their sound and success. And most eventually gave up, but some soldiered on and succeeded, like Tom Petty. But those songs are embedded in all of our brains. Even more we have memories. Of school dances. Of bar mitzvahs. Where the local bands played the hits of the day. If you were there, you remember this vividly. And when listening to “Fillmore, 1997,” one thing is for sure, Tom Petty was there too.
Most people did not know Van Morrison wrote “Gloria,” never mind releasing the initial version with his band Them on Parrot records. It got no airplay in America, maybe Tom knew it, after all he had that radio show about buried treasure, but the rest of us first heard the number in its cover version by the Shadows of Knight in the aforementioned ’65. And not only was the track infectious, it was simple, you could play its indelible riff at home, AND WE ALL DID!
Yes, the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”… There were certain staples, and “Gloria” was one of them. Listen today and the Shadows of Knight version sounds like garage rock, something Lenny Kaye would feature in a compilation album, but back then it sounded positively modern.
That’s one thing that’s been lost in this century. The darkness. Actually, Tom Petty has a song “Straight Into Darkness.” Our influences were English. A country which hadn’t quite switched from black and white to color. Where it rained. A land that was more cerebral than physical. And we are living in a physical era today. For all the glorification of tech thinkers, it’s got more to do with how you look, just check out social media.
And this darkness was a feature of Tom and the Heartbreakers from the very beginning, “American Girl” might be the song people remember most from the debut, but it’s the quieter numbers that reached me, like “The Wild One, Forever,” which is on this “Fillmore” set, and “Luna.” The debut is less about a star and more about a fan with confidence making his statement.
Not that I want to minimize the contributions of the band. That’s one thing about the mix, Benmont Tench really shines, and the dearly departed Howie Epstein too. As for Mike Campbell, without him is there a Tom Petty?
Now if you know your Petty history, the band broke first in the U.K. The debut made barely a dent in the U.S. until…the live version of “Breakdown.” It started on the west coast, on the free format KROQ, and then spread to the traditional AORs, and then, eventually across the country. Let me put this in focus. The initial LP was released in November of ’76 and I saw the band at the Whisky in August of the following summer and I had no problem getting a ticket. As a matter of fact, the mania didn’t really hit until “Damn the Torpedoes.”
Anyway, if you remember that live version of “Breakdown,” it had an incredible groove, but it was the way Tom talked in the middle that put it over the top.
Like in “Gloria.”
There are a ton of covers on “Fillmore, 1997.” As a matter of fact, the set opens with a version of “Around and Around.” Chuck Berry wrote it, but released it in 1958, and therefore many baby boomers had never been exposed to it, the first they heard it was on the second Rolling Stones album. And then there was that version that David Bowie did live at the end of the “Ziggy Stardust” shows. There’s a movie and an album, but believe me when Bowie came out and sang the song with the houselights up at the Boston Music Hall…that’s the definitive version for me.
The next cover is Little Richard’s “Lucille,” but I prefer the number that comes after it, “Call Me the Breeze.” Sure, it was written by J.J. Cale, but the version most people heard first was the cover that closed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Second Helping” back in 1974. Skynyrd may have been based in Jacksonville as opposed to Gainesville, but be sure Tom was aware of their cover, everybody who listened to the radio was, the performance here is an homage to his Florida compatriots.
And there’s a cover of “Time Is on My Side.” And even “You Are My Sunshine” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Even an almost unrecognizable at first version of “Friend of the Devil.” The band kills on “You Really Got Me,” almost as good as the Kinks’ original, and that’s saying something. And listening you wonder…how many times did Tom play this coming up?
And then GOLDFINGER?
James Bond is a joke now. Sure, Daniel Craig returned some gravitas, but you’ve got to know the real breakthrough was “Goldfinger.” Almost nobody saw “Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love” more and then…”Goldfinger” was a phenomenon! You sat in the theatre mouth agape, you took the film totally seriously, you weren’t laughing, you could barely eat your popcorn, after all we were still in the cold war.
And speaking of instrumentals (there are no vocals on this version of “Goldfinger”), there’s a take on “Green Onions,” one thing is for sure, Tom Petty was addicted to the radio, that transistor we all possessed, the iPhone of its day.
But it’s the run at the end of the package that is the piece-de-resistance. Starting with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” anything but a throwaway single from the greatest hits package.
Well, we can go back even further, “Shakin’ All Over” and “Free Fallin'” precede “Mary Jane”…
But let’s just start with the track after “Mary Jane,” “Johnny B. Goode.” EVERYBODY knew this number, if for no other reason than the Beach Boys’ cover!
And then comes “SATISFACTION!” I’d like to tell you it’s better than the Stones’ version, but it’s not. But it’s so energetic and brief it leaves you wanting more.
And then a cover of the Stones’ cover of the Bobby Womack song “It’s All Over Now,” even though for me the definitive version is Rod Stewart’s on “Gasoline Alley.”
The band is in the moment. It’s not studied. They’re playing on instinct. These numbers are in their DNA. And if you were conscious back in the mid-sixties they’re in yours too.
In any event, as much energy has been expended previously, the band is building to a climax, and the following number is…
LOUIE LOUIE! Two songs that everybody played… “Wipe Out” on the drums, or the table at school, and “Louie Louie,” which everybody was convinced had bad words that were slurred and buried so the track wouldn’t be banned, there was no internet to verify this rumor back then. But everybody with a guitar played the chords to “Louie Louie” and…
“Want to tell you about my baby
You know she come around”
The guitar is so right, so in the groove, you’re jetted right back to then.
“About five feet four
From her head to the ground”
Today she’d be 5’10”. Tall and skinny is everything. But most women are not skyscrapers, and most women are not that thin, the ideal was different back then, well, there was Twiggy, but not everybody wanted to be a model and if you were normal…you were desirable. (I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, you still are. Diet for your girlfriends, not the boys.)
And her name is…
Eventually the audience sings along, but after this first rendition of the chorus the track breaks down, this is when Tom starts to tell the story. And it’s not brief. And the audience is fully engaged. There’s call and response vocals. You’re just pissed that you’re not there.
And she ignores him.
And now Tom is Tom, he’s no longer in the Shadows of Knight, never mind in Belfast with Van Morrison.
And then Tom starts to pursue her, he’s testing the limits, he keeps asking for her name. Gloria starts running away, but he won’t let go, he keeps calling out to her. And twenty five years later all that’s going through your brain is you can’t get away with this anymore.
And then Gloria turns around and calls him a fool. Which blew my mind, because we never used this term up north, but my girlfriend from Tallahassee used it ALL THE TIME!
And now there’s a conversation. She wants nothing to do with Tom, she wants a man with career opportunities, not a scruffy guy in sneakers.
And then Gloria busts him, asks him if he knows how politically incorrect it is to chase a woman down the street for her name. And Tom sheepishly admits he knows this, but he testifies as to being so overcome by her beauty and presence that he thought they could get something going on.
And now Gloria is in charge, she has the upper hand. She’s got places to go and things to do, and certainly doesn’t want a man who lays around the house all day playing cards. She continues to put him down. And then…
Tom regains his confidence, talks about having this rock and roll thing. He’s got money coming in. As a matter of fact, he’s got a show down at the Fillmore.
And then everything changed. She started to look at him in a different way.
That’s the power of rock and roll. Not anymore, but back then. Before the internet. Before the billionaires. When rock stars were as rich as anybody, but even better they hewed to their own inner tuning fork and made their own rules, they were the essence of freedom, and they were artists, singing their songs.
And this is when the audience starts singing GLORIA! GLORIA! GLORIA!
It feels so good.
The band comes back in…
And then there’s that legendary riff, the one that closed the original record, albeit a bit extended, and then the song is over, WHEW!
The track ends and Tom Petty ascends into the stratosphere. He’s no longer a seventies rocker, in the shadow of those from the sixties, rather he’s a part of the firmament, their equal, with his face chiseled into the Mount Rushmore of rock.
I only found out about “Live at the Fillmore, 1997” Monday. It was not jammed down my throat. It’s almost a stealth release. And it’s made for the fans, not the gatekeepers. It’s not about picking a single and promoting it to radio, it’s about fans playing it and then continuing to play it when friends are over the house and the infection spreading like Covid. Only with music the infection never fades away.
“Live at the Fillmore, 1997” is really something, it’s an achievement.