Tom Petty: A refugee comes to New York
By Patti Dietz
The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, July 15, 1980
It's been a slow summer for concerts so far in New York City. Many top acts are choosing to either bypass Manhattan altogether or play in the city's smaller-capacity venues in hopes of just breaking even in the waning of the recording industry's financial crises. If the big shows have been sadly lacking this season, the quality of performances has likewise taken a downward turn: Billy Joel, who moved into the city's mammoth Madison Square Garden for five sold-out shows, was roundly panned by all of the are's major rock writers, prompting this smart-ass hometown-boy-makes-good to tear up a stack of New York Times onstage one night after a particularly apt critical drubbing in that newspaper.
Although Joel's shows were generally well-recieved by the throng who were lucky enough to get their hands on tickets, there was surprisingly enough, a large amount of disappointment voiced. All of which goes to show that this summer the majority of Manhattanites are too busy shaking their stuff at rock dancehalls like the Mudd Club and Irving Plaza to care very much about the quality of performances that cost upwards of $10.50 to see.
I thus approached Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers' show -- one of three during the July 4th weekend -- at the mid-sized Palladium on New York's lower East Side, a decadent, seedy theatre-turned-concert-showplace befitting a Patti Smith (yes, it's her occasional hang out, too). Not highly regarding this particular New York crowd's ability to distinguish between a worthwhile performance and a sub-standard one any more than their fellow rock addicts anywhere else, I figured Petty's triumphant return to the East Coast as a newfangled rock hero would go over big even if he played selections from Mickey Mouse Disco.
Petty is Southern California's newest and most promising rock star, and, befitting that state, is also one of its most smug (second only to The Eagles). Publicists love to jump all over Californian rock commodities if only for the glory of bringing an act to New York, shaking it in the face of the rock circles here, and gloating "lookit what we found." It's no wonder New Yorkers -- and its rock press especially -- are definitely wary of trends that blow eastward. Why, it took us almost a year after Heart Like A Wheel to really pay attention to Linda Ronstadt.
Petty is no newcomer however; he's been knocking around Los Angeles clubs since the mid-'70s, straddling the fence between New Wave and hard rock backed by a cult following. Striking it big on only his third album is actually admirable. But the aura of Southern Californian hype surrounding him is undeniable (though he originally hails from Florida) from the attendance of Miss El Lay herself, Joni Mitchell, right down to Petty's Jox sneakers. I'm almost disappointed. I didn't hear "mellow" one time all evening.
I can't see what all the excitement is regarding T.P. and The Heartbreakers, and, it seemed, neither could the Palladium crowd who listened to Petty attentively and patiently. They showed signs of life only during the two encores, too late in the set for Petty to take advantage of the energy that, I assume, he is used to recieving steadily from audiences. Rock and roll delirium -- what Petty and company must expect following the huge success of Damn the Torpedoes -- it certainly was not. It was an older crowd, too (mid- to late-twenties), and Petty seemed content tom make us all adolescent again (typical S. Californian youth ploy) by sweeping the audience with his spotlights, and enducing us, in vain, to clap manically along with the music.
Apart from this silliness, and Petty's tiresome, forced effervesence, the man is backed by a truly excellent band. Petty deserves points for keeping his original Heartbreakers intact since the first release in 1976, Tom Petty, using them both on tour and in the studio. What Petty lacks in showsmanship, The Heartbreakers make up for in tight ensemble playing. Petty proved he is dispensible as a vocalist on Torpedoes' "What Are You Doin' In My Life?" and the first LP's "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)" while, musically, The Heartbreakers moved through their material in a way that made Tom seem to be playing second string.
The producer of both Parker's current release, The Up Escalator, and Damn the Torpedoes, Jimmy Iovine was hailed onstage by Petty, and had Iovine been given the chance, his voice of experience would have no doubt told Petty that the pacing of his show was, at best, top heavy. Petty's hits "Refugee," "Here Comes My Girl," and "Don't Do Me Like That" all came relatively early in his hour and 45-minute set, and he left nothing exciting for the encore except "Century City," which paled by comparison to the studio version. Only "Breadkdown" and the Roger McGuinn-cloned "American Girl" -- the latter so reminiscent of McGuinn that Roger, himself, recorded it -- seemed worth of applause.
Much of Petty's material sounds vaguely alike; "I Need To Know" and "Even The Losers" are so similarly structured they could be the same tune. Performed live, consequently, they seemed to blur together, and it is only the precision with which The Heartbreakers salvage themselves from such monotony that is laudable. Whether Petty will become a convincing showman and learn how to sing remains to be seen. Damn the Torpedoes, as a recording, rightly earned him a wider spectrum of listeners, but from here, Petty and the Heartbreakers have no direction to go but forward.