Running Down a Dream: Tracking Tom Petty's Florida Roots in Gainesville
Photo by musicisentropy via Flickr cc
When I told my brother I'd help him move out of his house in Gainesville, I planned to pay tribute to Tom Petty's place of origin by visiting sites that were important to him as a young man.
Jacksonville gave us Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tallahassee spawned Creed, Jim Morrison was born in Melbourne and went to Florida State University for a minute but was really a California guy. Tom Petty, though, was born, raised, and learned to play music in Gainesville. As far as the Sunshine State's contribution to rock music, Petty is ours.
I figured finding Petty's former hot spots would be easy. After all, Tennessee famously turned Elvis Presley's Graceland into a shrine. Every California guidebook has the address in San Francisco where the Grateful Dead lived. Hell, even Indiana has an "audio driving tour CD" where you can visit places important to John Mellencamp. But a quick internet search on significant Tom Petty sites showed nothing.
I asked a messageboard dedicated to Gainesville rock history and heard crickets. Some deeper sleuthing revealed old Gainesville phone directories where Earl Petty, Tom's dad, was listed. In 1950, the year of Tom's birth, there was an address at 1114 NE Ninth St. The phone book for 1958 listed him as living at 1715 NE Sixth Terrace. That was a start.
I found an address for Mudcrutch Farm where Tom Petty's first band, Mudcrutch, lived. There was a bar called Dub's Lounge that the group played at frequently before relocating to L.A. in 1974. There was also downtown Ocala, where, in 1961, a 10-year-old Petty espied Elvis Presley, who was filming a movie in town. It was there and then that Petty decided he would one day be a rock star. I considered this a meaty itinerary and packed my car and drove north.
Few things though go as smoothly as the chorus of a Tom Petty song. In Port Saint Lucie, my 1999 Ford Explorer overheated. Two separate mechanic estimates revealed fixing the motor would cost five times as much as the car's Kelley Blue Book value. No need to bore you with the hardships of figuring out what to do with a scrapped automobile when trapped between home and your destination, but I will express a newfound appreciation for cell phones. I sold the car in 24 hours to a junkyard and rented another.
I got a little sentimental as I cleared out the car -- all the random stuff, the CDs, the pens in the glove compartment, the roadmaps from when I drove to California. Wiser heads would admit defeat and head home. But my brother still needed moving, and I couldn't disappoint Petty -- the chronicler of the drifter, the traveler, the man who immortalized the lyrics "Into the great wide open." So north on the turnpike I went, a rebel without a clue.
Don't Come Around Here No More
With one fewer day in Gainesville, there would be no time for floating down the Ichetucknee River; it'd be all business, packing the rental SUV, and following Petty's footsteps.
We started with Mudcrutch Farm. I found a party flier from 1970 online that listed the address as 2203 NW 45th Ave. As we drove down the suburban road, a clap of thunder brought with it a summer downpour. Opposite a school was the spot where the address was supposed to be, but we saw only the back fence of a house and a dirt path that said "No Trespassing."
We asked an older man if he knew where Mudcrutch Farm was. "Never heard of it," he said and apologized for his ignorance with an earnestness you don't often encounter. We considered walking down the "No Trespassing" path, but the rain was coming hard.
So we drove to Dub's Lounge. If I had done more research, I would not have been so surprised to see a fenced-off pile of rubble. I would have known the site -- where in the early '70s Tom Petty played cover tunes five nights a week as the soundtrack to topless dancing -- was being razed to build a social security office.
Next, we went to Ninth Street, Tom's first home. As we tried to figure which side of the street had the even addresses, we saw a single-family home that had been transformed into a church, complete with a white cross on the front yard. We were on the correct block. Pulling into a driveway, we found a tiny pink house with a realtor sign advertising the place for rent. I was about to call the number and ask what the price would be to live inside rock history only to get a view of the number on the house: 1106. The next house over was 1116. We were looking for 1114. There was a slight space overgrown with vegetation that might have had enough room to be the first place Petty would ever call home.
But finally there was some success. The house on Sixth Terrace, Petty's childhood home, was still standing. The nondescript one-story house with its long blades of grass looked timeless. You could imagine a 1965-era Petty lying out on the front lawn feeling summer creeping in and getting tired of this town again. There were two cars parked in the driveway and a light on in the living room, but there was no response to a knock on the door.
As the day turned into night, reality was setting in. This trip had cost me a car, and I felt no closer to Petty than when it had started. We drowned our failures with bar food and beer when I took a good look at the bartender. He was wearing a Beatles T-shirt and had been knowledgeable about the menu, so I asked him if he knew any Tom Petty-related sites. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Maybe you can check on Google."
I was ready to head to an old hippie bar down the street and ask around when a man seated next to me butted in. "You should go to the dorm Beaty Tower. You know that song 'American Girl'?" Did I know it? It's only the most iconic song in all of Petty's canon. "You know it's about a girl who killed herself jumping off of it."
I did not know that interpretation, but suddenly my mood was raised on promises. The next morning after emptying my brother's house into the rental car, we headed to the University of Florida campus and looked at the high-rise dorm. The lyrics of the song mention 441, the road that passes right by the residences. As the song continues, it does seem to describe a girl who was no longer of this world. But then I had to go check the damned Wikipedia, which cited an interview with Petty in which he specifically says "American Girl" has nothing to do with Gainesville. He wrote it in Encino, California.
Driving back, I couldn't help but to feel a fool. Not only should I have had my car checked but I should also have put some thought into the major motif of Petty's lyrics. So many of his songs are about breaking free and escaping from your home. Why would his home state want to honor a man who made his name rejecting it?
My mind started working the way it does when you are alone and have nothing in front of you but open road. I started getting sad about how little permanence there is in this world. Homes we grow up in disappear, businesses vanish, and our cars get towed away. Before I could dwell too much, it finally happened. I had been keeping both cars' radios tuned to classic-rock stations throughout, and finally I heard a Tom Petty song. It was "Free Fallin'." In the last verse, it seemed Tom Petty was mocking my journey.
"I wanna free fall out into nothin'."
Gonna Leave This World for a While
Maybe Florida had followed Tom's wishes by obscuring any sign that he came from it. Our state never has done history too well. We build over Native American holy ground and burn down art deco architecture. But there's one thing we can't destroy no matter how hard we try: music.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. With Steve Winwood. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 20, at Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $25 to $131 plus fees. Call 561-795-8883, or visit livenation.com.
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