When Tom Petty first sent out word that he wanted New Jersey’s Smithereens to open concerts for him and The Heartbreakers in 2013, guitarist Jim Babjak found it hard to believe.
“It took us by surprise,” says Babjak, a Carteret native who has been with The Smithereens since they formed in 1980. “We got a call from our manager. He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but Tom Petty called and asked for you guys to be on this tour in the Midwest.’
“I [later] asked Tom, personally. I said: ‘Is it bullshit? ‘Cause they’re telling me that you asked for us.’ And he said, ‘No, no. Of course [I wanted the Smithereens],’ ” Babjak says. “He heard our song ‘Sorry’ on the 2011 album, on SiriusXM, and he loved the song. And he needed opening acts for this arena tour.”
After news broke Monday afternoon that Petty was clinging to life — he died at 11:40 that night, Oct. 2 — the memories came forth for Babjak and others in the Garden State’s music community. As they did, of course, for untold numbers of grief-stricken fans in New Jersey, across the United States and beyond.
The 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and native of Gainesville, Fla., would have turned 67 on Oct. 20.
The Boss of the New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll community feels the pain that so many others do.
“Down here on E Street, we’re devastated and heartbroken over the death of Tom Petty,” Bruce Springsteen said in a statement on Facebook. “Our hearts go out to his family and bandmates. I’ve always felt a deep kinship with his music. A great songwriter and performer, whenever we saw each other, it was like running into a long-lost brother. Our world will be a sadder place without him.”
Jon Bon Jovi posted, on Facebook and Twitter, a photo of himself with Petty, and a message that read, in part, “I’m crushed … (over) the loss of one of my great influences Tom Petty.”
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes released a statement, too, saying: “This one caught us by surprise. Tom Petty was a real Rock & Roller. We thought the world of him. His songs, craftsmanship, performing ability, attitude, and that absolutely fantastic band of his — The Heartbreakers — well, it doesn’t get better than that. Did it his way.”
In a Facebook post, keyboard wizard John Ginty of Bernardsville recalled a summer gig with his then-band about a decade ago.
“Citizen Cope was opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Denver. … It was amazingly cool to set my B3 [organ] up in front of” Benmont Tench’s equipment, said Ginty, who has recorded and performed with dozens of notables. Later, “I got to say hi to Benmont. He said, ‘Ginty? I’ve been stealing all your licks, man!’ Knee-buckling moment.”
Still later, the Heartbreakers were all set – but no Petty.
“Then the police escort appears. … The bus pulls up, and a beautiful woman gets out. Then Tom. He spins around and puts his arms out. She gently puts a suit jacket on him. He turns back and faces her, she pops his collar, brushes his shoulders, puts a cig in his mouth and lights it for him. They smiled at each other. He walks up the stairs, pulls off the cig, flicks it into the abyss, and puts his arms up in the air. Right at that moment, the spotlight hits him and the place goes bat shit. …
“The band charges into ‘You Wreck Me’ from Wildflowers. … They absolutely destroyed that night. … After the show, that caravan made a beeline for the airport, and, as I’m told, were wheels up for Burbank before the crowd was done cheering.
“It was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
The Garden State saw Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers a final time on June 16, 2017, at The Prudential Center in Newark. (Montclair High School alum Joe Walsh opened.)
Years before, under the auspices of concert promoter John Scher, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers played the Capitol Theatre in Passaic several times. Scher also was instrumental in putting together shows involving Petty and The Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan.
“Tom was a great performer,” recalls Scher. “Always had a good handle on what the fans wanted to see/hear at his shows. He was easy-going. … Tom was a very significant artist from the late ’70s until [Monday]. In his own way, he inspired country artists to delve into rock ‘n’ roll [and] that became a hybrid of many of today’s big country acts.
“He practically invented the ‘Americana genre’ and was greatly respected in the rock, pop, folk and country world. He will clearly go down in music history as one of the great ones!”
The Sussex-County based jamgrass band Railroad Earth certainly shares a kinship with the legacy of Petty and the Heartbreakers when it comes to roots rock, improvisation and lengthy jams.
“The impact and loss of Tom Petty is huge,” says Tim Carbone, violinist, guitarist and singer with the nationally touring sextet. “From his work with The Heartbreakers, his solo stuff, his work with Mudcrutch and The Traveling Wilburys … his creative voice will be sorely missed.”
Lisa Bouchelle, a singer-songwriter from Mercer County, says her first memories of Petty have to do with listening to his records as a young girl, with her mother.
“We danced around to ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ and other great songs, and would look at his album covers, and I thought he was just the coolest dude!” she says. “Tom has also had an influence on me as an artist and on my songwriting.
“I must say that it feels surreal to me that he has passed on. I am still feeling stunned about it.”
Babjak remembers Petty as being both articulate and on the quiet side.
“I did have a nice conversation with him a few times in the backstage area,” he says. “He was just a real, genuine, down-to-earth guy. I’m happy that he was aware of us, that he chose us. We had common friends like Del Shannon and people in the industry. We had things to talk about other than, ‘Hey, great set.’ ”
The Smithereens, who covered several Petty songs early in their career, remain proud of the dates they did in 2013.
“Tom’s crew told us that he was so happy we were out on the tour, because he said we were one of the best bands he ever worked with,” Babjak says. “So, it was very nice of him and very boosting to our ego, too, that people like him were aware of us and thought of us in that way.”
A concert poster from the Pittsburgh gig, signed by Petty and The Heartbreakers, hangs in a prominent place at the Babjak family’s home in Manalapan.
“Tom wrote on it: It was a real pleasure having you on the tour with us. So, that’s really special.”
After conflicting reports and a premature announcement Monday afternoon by CBS of Petty passing, his longtime manager Tony Dimitriades reported the sad news in a statement late that night.
“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of [Monday] morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 pm PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
Oddly, when Petty broke through nationally in 1977 with “Breakdown,” he and the band were marketed as being part of the New Wave scene. They were nothing of the sort – they played roots and rock music that owed a nod to The Byrds, The Beatles and others from their early youth.
Thomas Earl Petty could play a show of two hours or more, and it would be full of songs that were featured on radio for years and even decades. In fact, there wasn’t enough time to play all of them.
I know: I saw Petty and his band on June 22, 2005, before an absolute throng at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel.
The Arts Center, after its expansion, has a listed capacity of 17,500. The only other time I saw crowds there comparable to Petty’s was for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Allman Brothers Band, both in 2006. My estimate is that the mass of fans was the largest for the Petty concert — and it was multigenerational.
Petty and company were the kind of band that became a musical part of the lives of so many. They were not a trendy group with a song or two on the radio that soon were forgotten; their music became woven into the fabric of people’s lives.
“Damn the Torpedoes was the soundtrack of my 1980 summer after high school graduation in Bergen County,” says Joel Bachrach, a keyboard player whose decades in New Jersey bands include a stint in the Grateful Dead tribute group Wigjam. “Plus as a musician, I envied him for using – tops – the same four chords on every song, and still each (song) was a standout.”
The River Edge native and friends formed The Torpedos in the 1980s as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Petty’s album.
Around the time I saw Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 2005, ticket prices for classic rock bands had exploded into the price range of $150. I remember him telling his fans that night at the Arts Center: “I’ll never charge you” that kind of money. A lawn ticket for Petty’s Holmdel gig was around $30.
Tom Petty was that kind of guy.
Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.