The night NJ Transit cut short my only time seeing Tom Petty in concert
I grew up on Tom Petty's prolific output of the late '80s and early '90s, not only Heartbreakers albums including "Into the Great Wide Open," but solo triumphs like "Full Moon Fever" and "Wildflowers," and also, his work with the Traveling Wilburys.
That's why his death Monday, bringing an end to a life lived in rock's consciousness since "Breakdown" became a hit in 1977, hit me so hard, especially on top of the massacre in Las Vegas that preceded it Sunday night.
I was lucky enough to see Petty perform with the Heartbreakers for my first and only time in 2008. It's one of the few impulse decisions in my life that's worked out.
My girlfriend at the time and I were in her dorm room at The College of New Jersey in February of that year, splitting a pizza and watching Super Bowl XLII, when Petty came out for the halftime show. We were both pretty big fans; back in the days when such things were tokens of romantic interest, the first mix CD she ever burned for me contained "Mary Jane's Last Dance." (I still get freaked out by that video.)
After Petty played — a typically tight four-song set of "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'," and "Runnin' Down a Dream" — we found out the performance was the kickoff to his upcoming tour. Not that either of us really had the money to do so at this point, but we decided to grab tickets that night for when he came to the area later in the year.
(By the way, waiting in the Ticketmaster queue while the conclusion of the greatest Super Bowl of all time played out is what we in the journalism field call "burying the lede.")
The day finally came: Tuesday, June 17, 2008, at Madison Square Garden. This was before the massive renovations at MSG, and our tickets were actually in the press box — phone and laptop hookups and everything.
We'd taken the train in from New Jersey, figuring it would provide a quick getaway at the end of the night with Penn Station directly below us. What we did not bargain for was that this would be a marathon evening of rock & roll.
The incredible Steve Winwood opened, playing about six songs as I recall. He'd later rejoin the headliner for a few tunes in the middle of Petty's set.
Somewhere in my parents' house, on a flip phone that hasn't been used this decade, I still have the Petty/Heartbreakers set list saved in a draft text message. I can't reconstruct it off the top of my head, but I do clearly remember him leading off with the very underrated "You Wreck Me," and never quite letting up from there. I remember the light crew creating a dreamy starscape during "Free Fallin'." And I remember being absolutely thrilled that the Wilburys' "End of the Line" made an appearance in the set.
Luckily, the gaps can be filled in by setlist.fm, a really cool (and generally accurate) site.
My memory still gets foggy, though, when I look at the encores. That's because, if you're familiar with NJ Transit's outbound schedule, you know that the trains out of town really thin out after about 10 p.m. I have no idea what the exact timetables looked like nine years ago, but on a weeknight in 2017, your options for the Northeast Corridor, which we were taking that night, are few.
I don't know if one of us had to work the next day, or if we were just 21 and apprehensive about sitting around in Penn Station as the clock approached midnight, but we definitely wanted to catch one of the trains in the 11:00 hour. That meant skipping out as the strains of "Runnin' Down a Dream," the first of the encores, echoed through the MSG concourse.
So we missed "American Girl." But at least I saw almost an entire Tom Petty show, and it was one of the most memorable rock concerts of my life.
One more Jersey connection...
A few months ago, I was in Princeton Record Exchange with my wife and my sister, raiding the $1.99 CD section in the back as I always do when I'm there. My wife, Kristen, and I like to compare notes before bringing our findings up to the cashier, and I noticed she had "Full Moon Fever" and "Into the Great Wide Open" in her hand.
"Why are you getting those?" I asked. "My parents have both CDs; you can just rip theirs the next time we're at their house."
"I thought we should have our own copies," Kristen said. And she, as usual, was right.
Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. His favorite Tom Petty song is probably "Don't Do Me Like That" ... or "Here Comes My Girl" ... or "Love is a Long Road" ... this is a lot harder than it seems. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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