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Tom Petty RIP

Rest in peace Tom Petty, another singer and songwriter taken from us too soon. His first UK hit “Anything that’s rock ’n roll” in 1977 was the first 12” single that I ever bought and I was privileged to see him at the Marquee Club in London a year later, a semi-secret gig for which a few of us queued up all afternoon to be sure of getting in. It was a week or two after the Black Sabbath gig which I wrote about here, in the weeks before we took our O-Levels. We sat on the pavement outside 90 Wardour Street revising as the afternoon wore on. 90 Wardour Street is not an address I had to look up; it’s lodged in my memory. More than once we saw the man with the placard who patrolled the West End back then: “Less Lust. By Less Protein.” (Wikipedia tells me, all these years later, that his name was Stanley Green.)

We were in plenty of time, got to the front of the venue easily and spent the whole of the concert pressed up against the stage, less than three feet from Tom Petty himself. I could, if so inclined, have touched his snakeskin boots at any time during the performance. I picked up one of Mike Campbell’s personalized red plectrums from the stage at the end of the show. The 88 bus took us back to West London, the familiar last bus home, departing at 11.14pm from the stop outside the Salvation Army on Oxford Street.

Later that same month a few of us had front row seats for a David Bowie concert at Earls Court. A photo of my ticket from that gig was the first picture I uploaded to this site, here, soon after Bowie died last year. Although the Bowie concert was on a Friday night I was also revising on the way there and back. We had a German O-Level paper the following day, the first time in many years that the Examination Board had scheduled an exam for a Saturday.

We missed Tom Petty’s only London show this summer, at Hyde Park, too disorganized to book tickets before it sold out. The last time I saw him was in 1999 at the Shepherds Bush Empire. It was just before my first trip to New York City, which I chronicled in some detail back in May, starting here. I was working in Leeds during the week and travelled back to London in time for the last three hours of the show, having missed the first 30 minutes or so. Fortunately I caught all the songs I most wanted to hear: “Refugee”, “I won’t back down”, “Free Fallin’” and, most of all, “American Girl”.

Just as I am always inclined to like people who share my birthday (as noted in this piece after Leonard Cohen’s death last November) I was inclined to like Tom Petty because we looked alike, or so many of my friends at the time told me. Occasionally there would be a photo of him in NME or Sounds and someone would always point it out. When he appeared on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” around that time my school friend Jono pointed him out to his mother and asked if she thought that Petty and I looked alike. “A little,” she said, but thought that I was better looking. “Much better looking,” she said, as Jono reported the next day, with understandable surprise. Most people did not share her opinion.

In my 20s, when any traces of blond had long since left my hair, and I had finally started to get it cut shorter than the in-between length it had been since primary school, my resemblance to Tom Petty was also gone. Instead I was compared to Ivan Lendl, the great Czech tennis player. A waiter at an Italian restaurant in West Kensington refused to believe that I wasn’t him and insisted on having an autograph. I wonder if he kept it. In my 30s the speed at which my hairline was receding progressed from a steady trickle to a river in flood. My previously skinny frame was now carrying an extra three stone (42lb, 19kg), my cheekbones were no longer Lendl-like, and I was compared more than once to the England footballer David Platt. The most fraught occasion was at the League Cup Final of 1996, when Platt’s former team Aston Villa were playing my team, Leeds United. I travelled to Wembley alone and was almost surrounded by a group of Villa fans before the game, pointing out my resemblance to their former player. I escaped unscathed.

But you don’t want to hear about all that. You’d be much better off checking out this classic performance of “American Girl”, from “The Old Grey Whistle Test”. It’s one of the great songs. Take it easy baby, make it last all night.


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