October 2, 2017, Tom Petty died. That night I went to sleep, and this is what happened.
I found myself back at Antone’s. Antone’s on 5th Street. My favorite Antone’s.
It was such an inconvenient venue. The acoustics weren’t great. The liquor selection was… adequate. The staff wasn’t friendly. But it was Antone’s, Home of the Blues, and I loved it.
I was dressed in my old Antone’s standby: jeans, black blazer, black boots. It had been so long, I thought Betty was gone. Now I embraced her with the relief of a long-lost sister; I clung to her. I enrobed myself in her.
I made my way to the back of the room. There it was: the velvet rope, guarded by the ever-present large and taciturn, bald and tattooed bouncer. I looked automatically down to my left wrist for my VIP wristband – did I have one? The bouncer just smiled and said, “You’re on the list. Go on up.” Click… swoosh… the rope glided open.
I walked through the downstairs seating area. Tobacco stained walls… stale cigarette smoke still seeped in an invisible vapor from the porous paneling. Low ceiling, tobacco saturated asbestos: twice the cancer for half the price. Old black and white pictures lined the walls: loved locals and touring legends. Oh, the tales this room could tell. Near the stairs, just there: I kissed Flaco Jimenez on his forehead one night after seeing the Texas Tornadoes. He was still winded from the exertions of the final songs; his squeezebox was still strapped to his chest. He grabbed my hand – his trembled slightly – and his dark, watery eyes, framed by bushy eyebrows, held mine. I’ll never forget the ear to ear grin, showing wildly crooked, stained teeth and the salty taste of his sweat. I felt as though I had kissed the Texas Music equivalent of the Blarney Stone.
Smiling, I turned the corner and made my way up the rickety old wooden stairs. How did those stairs survive all those nights, all those feet, all those boots and heels, all those bodies, heavy and light, moving up and down? It seemed impossible that no one fell straight through. They were a death trap. It could only be the years of… resins, glueing them together. I reached the top and found myself bathed in the crimson glow of Antone’s VIP balcony area: my happy place.
There were five small tables against the balcony rail, each with four chairs. I took a seat at the middle table, against the rail, and a minute later the VIP hostess took my drink order. The Ketel One was cold and wet and familiar with the soda and lime. By the time I’d taken most of it down and ordered the next, the little door cracked, and the opening band emerged.
The room for the bands at Antone’s was just off the VIP balcony, and its entrance was a half-size door the band had to crouch or crawl through to enter or exit. Usually, the opening of this door was followed by a dramatic billow of smoke, and then a person would emerge mysteriously, as if through a portal. I had always found this one of the quirkiest oddities about the Antone’s experience.
And Oh! It was Tab. Tab Benoit. Tab was opening for Tom. He crouched through the door, straightened up, looked at me, and smiled, wearing a vividly colored, violently printed shirt. A swisher sweet was clamped between his teeth. The waitress handed him a glass of brown liquor, and he was on his way down the stairs, black Doc Martins clomping hard enough to cause the ice to settle in my plastic cup of top shelf liquor.
Tab and his band took the stage and began working through their set list. It was The Blues is Here to Stay, and oh sweet Jesus, that was Cyril Neville on the drums. Where did he come from? And then it was Bring It on Home to Me. I’d never heard him so… all-in. And it was I Can’t Hold Out. And It was Medicine. And then Night Train. And Nothing Takes the Place of You. And Shelter Me.
And I was lost, disconnected from reality… somewhere in the music, floating. And I was broken: he played I Put a Spell on You, and he had: a spell only broken when he broke an E string and I found myself back in my seat. I’d been sitting with my arms folded on the railing, my chin resting on my arms, completely unaware of my surroundings. I became suddenly aware that I had company. HE was there. Sitting next to me, leaned back, his arm around the back of my chair. Tom. It was Tom. Tom Petty was sitting at my table with his arm around my chair, watching Tab. And I had absolutely no idea how long he’d been there.
He smiled and nodded back at the stage. I looked, and my breath caught. Jimmy Hall was on stage with Tab. Muddy Bottom Blues. Bayou Boogie. And finally, New Orleans Ladies. They exited the stage; Tom and I clapped. I looked at him and he said, “One’s like THAT (he pointed) are rare.” All I could do was nod.
Tab did a solo encore – just the sweet stuff: Sunrise and These Arms of Mine, then he was gone.
I turned and looked at Tom; he was smiling… smirking? half-laughing at me. For a moment, I was at a total loss. What do you say to Tom Fucking Petty? I was so aware of him sitting there looking at me; I felt as though he was reading me, absorbing me, the same way I was trying to absorb him. This was Tom looking about 40. He was wearing a billowing red shirt, unbuttoned three down, not a chest hair in sight, Adam’s apple less prominent in person. The shirt was tucked into impossibly skinny, black belted and faded jeans. God, he was thin – to this day I’ve never seen a grown man with such small hips. In his black boots, I’d put him just under six feet.
His golden blonde hair hung to his shoulders. He was clean shaven, but I could actually see the stubble on his chin and neck and lip and cheeks, individual hairs, some thicker, some finer, varying shades of blonde. His teeth were almost white and severely straight when he smiled. He had bright blue eyes, framed in dark blonde brows… eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled. I didn’t realize how devastatingly… not handsome… compelling he would be.
He smelled (inhale) amazing… spicy…(bay rum?)… earthy…. (with a touch of sandalwood?) ….masculine (a touch of clean sweat) ….fresh tobacco… and a subtle lacing of cannabis…. I wanted to breathe it in over and over. It was intoxicating. I tried to rally…
“Can I just say, ‘2’ came out last year, and I was in love all over again. Mudcrutch sounded just like home. Your balladry was in peak form, and the instrumentation….”
He tossed his head back and laughed, a sound of genuine delight, and shook his head. “Of course, you’re a Mudcrutch girl!”
“I have so many questions.” I started to ask another; but before I could utter a sound, he shook his head.
“You don’t really want to ask about the music. You’re not Rolling Stone. That’s not why I came. You want to ask about what’s behind the music.”
His eyes boar into mine and I was paralyzed. His lips didn’t move, but I heard his voice… “You’re almost there. Don’t let it go.” And he reached out with his right index finger, and placed it in the center of my forehead, right between my eyes. I felt an intense tingle, a rush, and a RUSH. The room was spinning, and I was falling through the rabbit hole.
He had me by the hand, and as I fell, he said, “What if math, and physics, and religion, and philosophy, and music, are all just different languages describing the same thing? What if all the ‘dark matter’ in the universe are thoughts and consciousness? Think about the MASS of love and hate, of anger and joy. It can’t just disappear into nothing.
What if you could play a mathematical equation on a piano or guitar, if you had the right primer? If feelings have mass, and mass can be an equation, and equations can be music, then it all goes around, see?
Stop trying to understand the mechanics of the music. Don’t try to write like Rolling Stone. Write your experience; it’s unique and you have something to share that’s your own. Your voice is always better than your impersonation of someone else’s.”
He was still beside me, in the rabbit hole. I felt his fingers touching my hair, and his breath near my ear, “You remind me of her… so much like S…” fading into an inaudible whisper.
Then, we were back in the balcony, and he was saying, “I’ve gotta go, now… It’s show time!”
I was in my seat in the balcony, but wasn’t.
The band went on. I wish I had the words to describe the experience of seeing and hearing him that night. This was Tom with the stamina of his youth, and the maturity of his years, at the top of his vocal dexterity, firing on all cylinders.
They opened with You Wreck Me: “Tonight we ride, right or wrong, tonight we sail, on a radio song, rescue me, should I go down, if I stay too long in trouble town…” and it was the perfect intro to where he was headed.
He lead me readily and deftly through Listen To Her Heart, Don’t Do Me Like That, The Waiting, Yer So Bad, Learning to Fly, Scare Easy, You Don’t Know How It Feels, Trailer, and Refugee. I began to realize that time had become an auditory phenomenon, that I was living and reliving entire lifetimes in each song: they lasted five minutes, they lasted for millennia. Tom was 25, Tom was 65. It all flowed, effortlessly, each outcome paced and guided by the song, a soundtrack to a lifetime.
When the band exited the stage, it was just Tom and the most gorgeous vintage 12 string Gibson Hummingbird I had ever seen, the cherry sunburst aged into deep tones. I swooned with the resonance of the opening chords to his acoustic version of You Got Lucky. Walls. And then my heart broke into a thousand jagged pieces as he sang It’ll All Work Out, Room at the Top, and I Forgive It All.
The band came back and the whole experience was brought to a thundering finale with Swingin’, Spike, Good Enough, Free Fallin’, Into the Great Wide Open, Dreams of Flying, and then finally, American Girl.
I was in the rabbit hole… I was on my feet, clutching a wooden, tobacco scented pillar, as they rolled through the chords of American Girl… G… A… D… B… G… A… D…. And then, during the final chorus, he looked right into my eyes:
“Oh, yeah, all right. Take it easy, Betty, make it last all night. She was, an American girl…”
And it was over. I rushed down the stairs, instinctively knowing he’d exit that back door (deeper down the rabbit hole) and I’d never see him again (of course I would…) I flung around the corner of the VIP suite, and the back-stage door was open. My two realities still bifurcated, I was disoriented and completely lucid at the same time. He didn’t see me; he had already said his goodbye. But there, oh good lord, there, by the van, waiting, were Johnny, and, Gram, and John and George, and Townes, and Elvis and Roy… those just the ones I could identify from my distant view, each in their prime and smiling, arms open with a ready embrace. He crawled through that rabbit hole door, and I wondered if I was shrouded in a room of billowing smoke. He was smiling at them, ready. As the door closed, they all faded, melting into the night with the smoke, leaving whispering ashes blowing on the wind.
When I awoke the next morning, I realized Tom never brought me back out of the rabbit hole, and my soul was free, flying, in the great wide open.