Into the Great Wide Open

Rarely do I write personal stories about my musical hero’s, but today my idol Tom Petty passed away. In my fandom and career, there are a couple of people I have kept myself at arm’s length from so I can just enjoy their music. Some talents reach me so deeply that I prefer to let my ears and imagination be the only encounters I want from them… Tom Petty was one of those artists for me.

I have gained so much from his music that I never wanted to meet the man in person. I heard stories of his crankiness, watched him live over 20 times, and was heartbroken when he fired Stan Lynch, but his music never stopped impressing me.

That’s why 2003 & 4 became once in a lifetime moment(s) – days – 3 weeks for me.

In 2003 a man got off an elevator on the wrong floor and walked right into my office. His name is Saul and he was looking for a music publishing company to handle some managerial business, funny he’d been going to that office and floor for over 6 years and never had this problem before. We laughed about the accident and that was that. I left the office late that afternoon and as I was riding the elevator down, the same gentleman got on with me (this time from the correct floor). We said hello and started talking. Nothing spectacular here as we compared notes and music industry stories. We ended up talking for over 2 hours on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, leaning against a mailbox. As we prepared to part, I asked him what he was working on. Saul said “I want to do a new record with Percy Sledge”. I responded with excitement about how I could be a part of it. He said “get me the money”… so that’s what I did and thus begins a chance meeting with one of my idols, Tom Petty.

We booked the famous Sound City studio to record Percy Sledge’s Shining Through the Rain. It was July 2003. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever recorded a record but Sound City is like the Notre Dame Cathedral of recording studios. Many famous albums were recorded there, from Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush to Metallica’s Death Magnetic, including six Tom Petty albums. We were in the big room and had made ourselves very comfortable. On the fourth or fifth day we got notified that we were being moved to one of the smaller rooms to finish our record. We bitched but they gave us a price cut and told us they had a long time client coming in on short notice. They didn’t tell us whom it was… we moved.

A few more days go by and Ron Blair is in the kitchen. We’ve met a few hundred times and say hello to each other. I ask him what he’s up too and he says the band is in the big room. They didn’t like the studio they were at so they came here. Now, you can rank me as a “top 10”music geek and The Heartbreakers and cold cereal have pretty much made me what I am today! I’m pretty excited to be breathing the same air! He hands me a coffee and we part ways.

A couple more days go by… recordings are funny things… what looks easy sometimes isn’t, and then sometimes it is… this was an easy recording for us so far, and now it’s July 19 and that’s my birthday. My gang and I (Percy, musicians, Saul and crew) are all in the kitchen giving me a cake. Mike, Ron, Benmont & Scott Thurston all walk in. They are reserved gentlemen and they take a corner and for at least an eternity just seem to be watching. They smile and wish me a happy day but pretty much just talk amongst themselves. Now, I’ve met these guys (not Tom) a bunch of times over the years but have never worked with any of them. They are friendly but they have a record to record and their minds are not on my birthday. But I’m feeling full of myself so I thank them for taking time out their schedule to come to my party. They laugh and Mike asks for a piece of cake, we socialize for a half hour or so and I tell Mike that he should come listen to Percy’s version of The Lonely Violin, a song he had produced for a Patti Scialfa solo record. He nods, but doesn’t commit and then as if a bell went off they all get up and head back into the big room. My only thought is how I can find a way to sneak into the booth to hear what they’re up to.

Saul drags me back to the present by asking me to come outside for a private conference. As we get to the front door two men enter, the first pushes us to the side and the second is Tom Petty himself. Saul says ‘hello Tom’, but Tom just eyes us up and down and walks past. We go have our chat and head back to our corner of the studio… more days go by.

We’re close to our last day in the studio and our record is sounding great! Percy was one of the best soul singers ever and we didn’t know this was the last original record he would record. Barry Goldberg produced this record and if you know Barry’s work, well he’s in a class by himself. We were about finished for the day when the door to our booth pushes open and in walks my birthday quartet. Yes, all four of them come into the smallest engineering booth Sound City has, we now number 9 in this tiny room and Mike asks if he can hear the song. I think it took about 5 seconds to get it cued up and then the heads start bobbing. Now this is when you know you’ve done something right, when the best musicians in the world are bobbing their heads to a song you helped put together. You can imagine the grin on my face… standing in a room full of my idols, enjoying music I’m involved with.

A roadie sticks his head in and says they have to go back to work. They thank us and leave. We wrap for the day and my crew leaves; the car arrives to take Percy back to his hotel and we all say our goodnights. As I’m packing my briefcase, I get a phone call so I stay behind in the booth to take the call. My call lasts for about 40 minutes and when I get up to leave the studio is dark and quiet. I pick up my bag and head down the hallway to the exit. If you’ve ever been to Sound City, you have to pass the kitchen to exit the building and as I do, I hear a very familiar nasally voice sing, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to the dude who bumped into me at Sound City, Happy birthday to you!!! My name is Tom!!!!!

Rest in Peace Tom Petty, you’ll have eternity to know what you meant to all of us through your music.