It's not often that one can claim to have witnessed history, but yours truly had just such an opportunity one fall evening back in 1976. The events transpired in rather innocuous surroundings... specifically, a shithole of a dive in West Palm Beach. I've forgotten its name, although I still recall there were peanut shells blanketing the floorboards. No matter. It was the music ricocheting off the walls that made the night so memorable.
The band making that music happened to be a newly rechristened Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and given the fact that this gig marked the band's official unveiling, the event takes on mythical proportions. At the time, Petty was a Gainesville transplant, not quite on the cusp of stardom, having recently morphed out of his earlier band Mudcrutch and signed to Leon Russell's Shelter Records.
As for me, I was the Florida promotion rep for the former ABC Records, Shelter's parent company. Promo copies of the band's eponymous debut album had recently been released, but like most of those who happened to be on hand that evening, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that my bosses were big on this band and wanted me to be there.
My personal introduction to Petty came courtesy of his imposing English manager, Tony Dimitrades. Short and wiry, his face framed by his trademark blond locks, Petty was the most reserved member of the group, though he clearly possessed a star's charisma. The other musicians — then-drummer Stan Lynch in particular — were amiable and outgoing, especially when it came to sharing their stash in the dark corners of the parking lot before the show. As for the gig itself, the band was tight and thoroughly rehearsed, their rookie status notwithstanding. The set list consisted of the first album in its entirety, highlighting a riveting version of "Breakdown," a haunting delivery of the dreamy ballad "Luna," and a kick-ass take on the soon-to-be classic "American Girl."
Consequently, the group had ample reason to feel encouraged as we chatted on the way back to the makeshift dressing room, a tiny space furnished with tables, chairs, and an ancient-looking refrigerator. But on reaching our destination, the good vibes suddenly dissipated. Scrawled on that refrigerator was a crude rebuke... "Heartbreakers suck!"
As it turned out, of course, this unjustified pronouncement proved only a momentary bump on a path that would soon lead to superstardom. Consequently, it was an auspicious evening for two reasons — the debut of one of America's most important ensembles... and most likely the last time they'd get panned under such improbable circumstances.