Tom Petty holds a very special place for me – unlike anyone else, I can genuinely say that his music changed my life; it was something that I recognised as soon as it happened and reflect upon every time I listened to his music. Perhaps as a result, he is one of the few artists that I have almost certainly played every year for the best part of 40 years.
I had been dreading the interview at the London School of Economics for a place on their Geography degree course; 12 months before I had had a crash and burn interview at University College, London and, unsurprisingly, had failed to even get an unachievable offer from them. It was the only formal interview that I had had when I applied to universities in late 1977. My grades weren’t quite good enough for my first choice Hull or my fall-back position of Sheffield. While I was offered places through ‘clearing’ at some less renowned educational establishments, I suppose that I also realised that I wanted to move to London and not have the comfort blanket of being close to ‘home.’
Twelve months on, despite my not quite good enough A Level results, I was, perhaps, slightly more confident in myself – I had found a new Saturday job working for an old boss who, when I enquired about the job, S offered it to me on the spot without an interview; I had successfully found some new friends and was consequently going out a lot more and at the FE College I had gone to in Nottingham to re-take my A Levels; I had a great, inspirational teacher in A, who clearly saw something in me and was always really encouraging and positive towards me.
The night before the interview, I had stayed with J (see Lindisfarne – Run for Home) in Surrey commuter land and had gone into central London with the City workers and had plenty of time to kill before my late morning interview. I had wandered around the yet-to-be regenerated Covent Garden and had stopped at a record shop, probably somewhere near Shaftesbury Avenue and saw Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 2nd album on offer and with the few quid in my pocket had bought it. It was perhaps the best purchase of my life.
The interview had started with the contents of the bag – ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ (fortunately I didn’t get out the Albert Camus novel that was also there, as I suspect talking about that would have sunk me) and went onto talk about other musical likes and and a shared dislike of opera and Wagner. The Admissions Tutor, B, then wondered out aloud as to how we could get the interview back onto geography and I was neatly able to take it back through Tom Petty to Knebworth to J who I had gone with to Dale Fort Field Centre where I had met J to the coastal geomorphology that I had studied there. B was impressed with my transition whilst I was able to stick to something that I knew about and was confident in discussing. It set me in good stead for the rest of the interview. I was given an offer of much lower grades than the standard LSE Geography offer. In the end, I needn’t have worried about the grades – I did more than enough to get into LSE when I re-took my A Levels.
The Tom Petty album in the bag had been the starting point to one of my best ever interviews, changing something that I feared could go catastrophically wrong into a positive watershed in my life; a place that much of what has happened to me in terms of work, education and relationships points back to. As I am generally pretty happy with the way in which my life has turned out, I have a lot to thank Tom Petty for. The standout song from ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ was ‘Listen to Her Heart’ so it seems appropriate to focus on that here.
I saw Tom Petty at least a couple of times live, at Knebworth in 1978 where they were on stage mid-afternoon and were fantastic, the real highlight of the day; and at Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo) and when ‘touring’ my favourite album of his, ‘Damn the Torpedoes’, in early 1980.
Tom Petty’s death brought me to tears – more so than the passing of any other musician, it was more than part of my past having gone, it was the recognition that, without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. I have played him a lot in the days since his death – my vinyl copies of ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ and ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ are long gone, lent to a friend and not returned two decades ago. But the digital Greatest Hits, the re-purchased ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ and the 1981 Hard Promises have been on almost non-stop over the last few weeks.
Tom Petty – October 20, 1950 to October 2, 2017