Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

A Tom Petty Superfan on The Band’s Summerfest Legacy

When the band returns to Summerfest July 5 and 6, they’ll bring their show total at the amphitheater to 15 – more than any other act in the festival’s 50 years.

The year was 1989. That spring Tom Petty released his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, an album that went on to be one of the songwriter’s most commercially successful albums to date. A few months later, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made their Summerfest and Marcus Amphitheater debut. Petty and his bandmates instantly fell in love with the city of Milwaukee, and it was triumphant hometown return for Howie Epstein, the band’s bass player at the time.

This year they also have another reason to celebrate – it’s their 40th anniversary. In those forty years, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have released thirteen studio albums and several live albums, many of which were chart-toppers and full of radio hits. For his part, Petty released three solo albums. Throughout the years, Petty has written a plethora of hits, including “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” “I Need to Know,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Learning to Fly,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Petty and his bandmates have a special knack for creating catchy three- to four-minute rock and roll songs, and creating anthems for living life. Petty also knows how to stand his ground when faced with battles with his record label that sought to compromise his art. Over the years, Petty has challenged himself to keep things interesting and reinvent himself with each record, while staying true to himself and not compromising.

While I’ve been a fan only a small fraction of those 40 years, Petty’s music has nonetheless been an important and influential part of my life. While I had been familiar with his music before I became a huge fan, it was 2002 where the genius of Petty really clicked. I was sitting in the back of my grandparents’ truck, opting to sit alone listening to the radio while others were shopping. “The Last DJ” came on and I was instantly floored by the catchy and ear-worm-worthy guitars, melody and chorus. (Looking back, it’s ironic that I heard the song on the radio, given its lyrical content about the old days, when Petty believed DJs had more freedom to say what they wanted to.) That moment in the back of the truck stands out in my memory. Most of my favorite artists had been recommended via word of mouth; Tom Petty came into my life by sheer happenstance.

I immediately asked for the album for Christmas. I then sought out the rest of Petty’s catalog, my amazement growing as I ventured deeper down the rabbit hole.

Like many of his fans, I am often drawn to Petty’s character- and story-driven lyrics about everyday life in America, standing your ground and fighting for what’s important. Songs like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” immediately feel motivational. Petty has a deep catalog of songs that run the gamut from happy to sad, and there’s a realness and honesty that comes with his lyrics. The band’s work ethic, tight chemistry and proficient playing also add to their charm. In a way, listening to some of the songs reminds me of my teenage years and the pure joy of really diving into an artist’s work.

In 2005, a few years after my initial discovery, I had my first opportunity to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live. My dog had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and on the morning of the concert, my family made the decision to put her to sleep. After some debate, we decided to go to the show anyway. And I’m glad we did. Petty and his bandmates put on a top-notch show, and the show helped me with healing and got my mind off my personal loss for a couple of hours.

Listening to music, including Petty’s songs, has helped me more recently with the sudden loss of my father last year. My dad is one of the biggest reasons I’m so passionate about music and why I like writing about music. In 2009, after a few years of studying journalism in college, I started freelancing and interviewing musicians, including one of Petty’s drummers. The previous year, Petty and his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch released their debut album. On a whim, I reached out to Randall Marsh, the band’s drummer, via his MySpace page to see if he’d be up for doing an interview. It was certainly a gutsy move for me only a few months after graduating. But to my surprise, he was more than up for talking. And talk we did. We spent a few hours talking about all things past and present.

About five years later, I had the opportunity to interview Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for national publication American Songwriter. He had just released his solo debut album. It was such an honor to get to talk to someone who was on so many of the recordings I had listened to repeatedly over the years. It meant a lot also that Randall and Benmont were so nice and down-to-earth talking to me on the phone. There’s a popular saying: “Don’t meet your heroes.” Fortunately that was wasn’t the case at all. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to get an interview with Tom Petty himself.

This year I’ll be seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert for the sixth time (all at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater). I know I’m in store for a truly memorable night. To last 40 years and still crank out quality music is a great accomplishment and a reason why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of my favorite bands.

With Summerfest celebrating its 50th and the band its 40th, it’ll certainly be a concert I’ll remember for years to come.



Joshua Miller covers music and culture for Milwaukee Magazine. He also writes for various other outlets in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. You can follow him at @JoshuaMMillerWI.