ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Long before Tom Petty’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002, long before he declared he wouldn’t back down, even long before the release of his breakthrough single “Breakdown,” there was Gainesville.
And there were boyhood friends.
“Pretty much everything he said would make you laugh,” says one of those friends, Rob Ellis Peck of St. Augustine.
“But he was really serious about his music,” Peck told First Coast News on Friday, just four days after Petty’s death at 66 in California.
Peck would know. A musician himself with chops to spare on instruments including harmonica, guitar, and lap steel, Peck remembers that despite Petty’s penchant for laughs, he had a distinctive air about him.
“He was different than the rest of us in the sense that he knew what he wanted from the very beginning,” Peck said, hinting of a business music acumen rare among Petty’s peers.”
In those days, he says, local bands stored their equipment and recorded in warehouse spaces, much like rented garages.
“You could walk by, and [Petty’s band] would stop playing because that was his way of protecting his original stuff from stealing.”
There was plenty worth protecting, as it would turn out.
“To this day I don’t know anybody that can take three and four chords, and make you remember every single word in that song,” Peck said in salute conjuring a few irresistible ad hoc attempts on my part to sing fragments of “American Girl” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
For those not in the know, Peck made it clear that Gainesville was a music mecca in the 1970s.
“I may be wrong but I think, per capita, there’s more Rock And Roll Hall of Famers from Gainesville than any other place in the world,” he said.
To wit, some of the college town’s most famous sons never completed college: Petty, Stephen Stills, and original Eagles Bernie Leadon and Don Felder all trace their roots to Gainesville. All of them – individually or by their band associations – have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Peck knew them all.
“Stephen Stills grew up down the street from me,” he said.
It’s well known that Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band was called Mudcrutch, whom Peck joined on stage at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in 2016, but even before Mudcrutch there was another band, The Epics.
“Tom was the bass player. And then there was this band called the Maundy Quintet,” he continued.
“One of those guys [Tom Leadon, brother of Bernie Leadon] moved out to California and became Linda Ronstadt’s guitar player, and he called one of his buddies from the [Maundy Quintet] – his name was Don Felder,” he narrated. “And they met up, via Linda Ronstadt, met Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and put this little band together called The Eagles.”
Felder, who penned many of The Eagles’ most recognized licks including the famous “Hotel California,” taught guitar at Lipham’s Music in Gainesville, where Petty was one of the students.
“Imagine taking lessons from Don Felder!,” Peck said with a laugh.
Those lessons, Peck says, were interspersed with less musical activities such as fishing – Petty’s father owned a supply store called “The Tackle Box” – and waterskiing.
“I remember we used to go fishing a lot on Lake Alice,” he said. “We grew up not being afraid of gators; I remember skiing, waterskiing over gators.”
As his music career took shape, Peck says Petty could be equally fierce as he was funny, bucking the system at times. One instance came when his record company complained that he was tardy completing an album. Petty’s response spawned the eventual album title.
“He sent in ‘You’re gonna get it,” separately, on separate words. They got scared and called the F.B.I. in!,” Peck said, explaining that the record company interpreted the message as a threat.
According to Peck, Petty also never forgot his fans.
“[The record company] tried to raise the price of his vinyl, and he said no, not gonna let it. It’s not fair to the people,” he related, continuing with what happened a short time later.
“His house in Malibu got burned down to the ground … mysteriously,” – that final word coming with a shrug of disbelief.
Peck says was closer to some of Petty’s bandmates than to Petty himself – he bought Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench’s piano when the band was paring down for their move to California – but that he first knew Petty sometime between the ages of ten and 12.
Asked about the kind of inside stories of adolescence that linger forever among friends, Peck laughed, hinting that only a few are suitable for a family audience. But one explains what led to one of Petty’s deeper cuts. As it goes, Peck, Petty, and some Heartbreakers bandmates had stopped in a gentlemen’s club for a drink.
“I think [guitarist Mike] Campbell was in there…” Peck said.
“This biker comes in with a choker on,” he continued. “You could just see [Tom’s] mind going. And he came up with the lyrics to “Spike."
That song would be among Petty’s lesser-known from the 1985 album “Southern Accents,” an album whose title track Peck counts among his favorites of all time.
“It was true to form,” he said, agreeing to my sentiment that the track “Southern Accents” could serve as a latter-day Confederate national anthem, minus any hint or ache of racism.
“I think you’re right,” Peck said. “There was no prejudice involved. I’m sure Tom didn’t have any, and nobody in the band had it. We were just about music.”
Something else Peck didn’t know Petty to have were any recent health issues.
“Sixty-six years old is way too young to pass away,” Peck lamented. “I really feel a personal loss.”
Harkening back to that Mudcrutch reunion in June 2016, I asked Peck what he might have told Petty had he known it would be boyhood friends’ final meeting.
“How much I appreciated him and how much his friends appreciated him, how much the world appreciates what he gave to us.”