Some of the most shocking nights in music are the ones that seem the most normal. My parents were in town for my son’s third birthday in September 2017. Ho-hum. Unbeknownst — or rather, very beknown to me – my mother’s favorite singer-songwriter, Tom Petty, was playing a three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl to close out his 40th-anniversary tour. The tickets were long sold out — and if you’re familiar with the Bowl, for a decent ticket, you know it’s going to set you back at least three digits.
My mother didn’t deserve that. I volunteered to cover the show for my former infernal freelance rag, OC Weekly.
I asked for the final night. Besides, on this tour, Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the same songs at each show. The Arroyo Seco festival took place earlier that year by the Rose Bowl for what seemed like it would be Petty’s only area gig. Since my son was, as you can decipher by basic math, two at the time, he was understandably zonked an hour before Petty hit the stage. Being the good father I am, I tried to bribe him with candy and toys, but alas, he was just too damn tired. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
Anyway, that said, the Monday night seemed like a fun way to show mom a good time, see her favorite. (Side note: I took her to see Petty in Anaheim two weeks after my son was born. Hopefully, my wife doesn’t remember that. Hi, honey!)
In my last minute request to the Petty’s team, I asked if I could shoot photos. I almost forgot about this. At this point, I’d been making good use of my Canon EOS Rebel T3 since you never knew when you’d have a chance to shoot legends. I’d photographed Petty before at Outside Lands a few years earlier, but this was special. This was the Hollywood Bowl.
As we walked into the venue and up the treacherous hill, mom got the VIP treatment, even if she had no clue. In line ahead of us as we got our tickets were Marc Geiger and Dave Grohl. She was neither phased nor impressed. By the time I ushered her to our dead-center box seats, I remembered there was a job to do.
Heading down to the photographer area, I noticed something weird: Where was everyone? Was I the only one shooting? Nah, not possible. Yet it was very much the case. I was ushered to the Very. Front. Of. The. Stage. The folks with the several hundred dollar seats were not thrilled, but tough shit — this was how it was gonna be for three songs.
Petty strolled onto the stage with Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and the boys. The crowd went apeshit, and hysteria ensued. First with “Rockin’ Around With You,” which was for the early fans. Then the pleasers: a swampy jammed out version of “Last Dance With Mary Jane” and Wildflowers’ “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
As I was snapping shots and trying not to step anyone’s feet or expensive drinks, I couldn’t believe my luck: How the fuck am I the only one here!!??! I knew folks shot Petty the previous night, but this was the last night! Crazy things happen, even on the most well-oiled tours. I’d shoot for a few minutes, then just look at the band and shake my head. I’m literally leaning on the stage watching one of my favorite artists. Incredible.
By the time “You Don’t Know How It Feels” ended, I had to check my camera and enjoy the rest of the show with my mom, who was thrilled. It was a wonderful night, and Petty seemed like he was in good spirits, albeit maybe a little stoned. Honestly, with a whiff of the air, who wasn’t stoned?
After the show, mom and I compared notes. I showed her some photos, and Petty seemed into it and excited. The tour was over, but it seemed like he had years left in him. After the final chords of “American Girl” rang out, we were delighted. It was a wonderful reprieve from everyday life for us. Me from looking for a new job and dealing with the stress of having a toddler, and my mother actually reaping some of the small benefits of what I did as a freelance hustle. We bought shirts on the way down the way (a lot easier than the climb getting up) and marveled at how on the band was.
Eight days later, we lost Tom Petty. It’s something that’s still incomprehensible three years later. I still can’t believe I was the only one there to officially photograph his last show.