Remembering Tom Petty: Over decades, Florida icon always rocked Tampa Bay crowds
The last time he came to Tampa, Tom Petty admitted it felt like a hometown show.
“This is really surreal to be here all these years later,” the Gainesville rock icon said May 6, during his concert with the Heartbreakers at Amalie Arena. “I’ve got a lot of friends here, a lot of family. I got so many friends in the dressing room I had to buy a liquor license just for them. But I sure do love ’em all.”
All across Florida and beyond, the feeling was mutual. After Petty died Monday night after suffering cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, Calif., the outpouring of grief from around the world was enormous.
But it was especially acute along the stretch of I-75 linking Gainesville and Tampa. Tom Petty wasn’t just a rock icon, he was our rock icon. As a teenager, he dated an art student in Tampa and worked for a while at a funeral home in St. Petersburg.
And even though he moved to California after making it big, it still felt like we had a front-row seat to watch his growth.
When he and the Heartbreakers opened for Patti Smith at Curtis Hixon Hall in 1978, he “generated a nearly hysterical but well earned response,” wrote the St. Petersburg Times, “the type that occurs all too seldom on today’s industrialized rock scene. Paced by Petty and his aggressively clean guitarist Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers earned two encore calls from an overwhelmed audience."
Three years later, Petty and Stevie Nicks delivered an epic performance at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg.
“Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers should have a tour full of nights like Tuesday at the Bayfront Center,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote to open its review. Among all the highlights — including “eight bandanas, three hats and several bouquets thrown on stage” — was Breakdown, which the St. Petersburg Evening Independent called “the most theatrical of the night, the longest and, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching ... When it was over, Petty was spent; he was draped over the microphone, hands and arms covering his face."
By the time the Heartbreakers played the USF Sun Dome in 1985, fresh off their album Southern Accents, the band had added polish to their sound, and were “making a strong case for the soul of the South,” wrote the Times.
But that soul was clearly from another time and place.
“He looked weird,” a Times reviewer wrote. “Petty had on a psychedelic shirt under an old black suit, his hair down past his shoulders, sideburns creeping down his face. And when he donned the granny glasses and top hat he wears for the video Don’t Come Around Here No More, and smiled broadly as he did all night (he only smirks in photos), it was a look that would scare little children.
“A backdrop of tattered window frames and shutters were lowered behind the band every time a song from Southern Accents was about to start. The best of those was Spike, which is also the most intriguing regional characterization on the album. During Rebels, a huge rebel flag covered the back of the stage and much of the audience joined to sing.”
“It was a downright stupid thing to do,” he said. “People just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn’t be on flagpoles.”
On a ligher note, Petty actually performed on the roof of the Don CeSar Hotel in 1995, recording footage from an MTV documentary on Southern Accents:
He returned here every few years, without fail. “There is always a sense of homecoming when he plays the bay area,” the Times wrote in 1987, following another show at the USF Sun Dome. After a show with the Replacements at the Bayfront Center in 1989: “The love affair between Petty, a Gainesville native, and his Florida audience is as strong as ever.”
Every show was acclaimed and enjoyable. A 1993 show at the Bayfront Center was “off-handedly scintillating.” At a Sun Dome show in 1985, he sounded “likee someone with something to prove. Which may not be the way toward inner peace, but it makes for great rock ‘n’ roll.”
As he approached elder statesmanhood, his shows got no less entertaining. From a 1999 show at the Ice Palace: “Big pop beats and energetic guitar aesthetics are Petty’s specialty, and they drove familiar songs ...with a precision that can only come from a band that still enjoys performing together.”
“Oh, I feel that mojo in this room,” Petty said during that final show.
As we wrote in our review:
Any mention of Florida in general, and Gainesville in particular, drew huge cheers in which Petty basked, beamed and breathed, his aviator-shaded eyes cast all the way to the cheap seats. ...
As always, the Heartbreakers’ set screamed to a frenetic finish: Runnin’ Down a Dream, You Wreck Me and American Girl, each more insistent than the last, with Campbell and Petty wailing out solos like they might be their last.
“Before we leave here,” Petty said before American Girl, “I want to hold the world record for the loudest sound ever heard in this building.”
The crowd exploded, because what choice did they have? Here in Florida, Petty is royalty, and as the man once sang, it’s good to be king. Go ahead, Tom, and make it last all night. Your people have no place they’d rather be.
-- Jay Cridlin