When Vicki Peterson was a teenage guitarist in the ‘70s, she was disillusioned with Top 40 radio — until an unassuming frontman named Tom Petty re-calibrated her sense of mainstream possibility. Later, when Peterson’s band The Bangles became FM-pop hitmakers, they traveled in the same circles as Petty and his cohorts The Heartbreakers, but the novelty of befriending one of her biggest influences never lost its luster. “We’d call him, like, ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner?’” she remembers. “And it’d just be: ‘I’m. Calling. Tom Petty. Oh My God.’”
The appreciation was apparently mutual: In 1988, Petty enlisted The Bangles to record back-up vocals on “Waiting For Tonight.” The recording ultimately didn’t make that album’s final cut, but the collaboration loomed large as one of Petty’s favorites.
Peterson, now 59, recalls Petty’s wit, authenticity, and the unforgettable experience of performing with her adolescent hero one last time.
Growing up, Tom Petty meant the world to me. Throughout the ’70s, I didn’t like what was on the radio — musically speaking, I felt ripped off that my high-school years weren’t as cool as my older sister’s high-school years. Then, here’s this guy playing a Rickenbacker 12-string and making hit music with it. For me, it was a reinvigoration of Top 40, a reminder that you can just play what you like — and if it’s real and it’s true, sometimes it resonates with other people. For my generation, he created our soundtrack. In high school, I had a band with my sister and my best friend. We used to end our set with “I Need to Know,” played at warp-seven speed, a power-pop-punk version of that song.
With The Bangles, we’d never gotten into the whole “pop” thing — we are basically a garage band that moved onto the stage. The Heartbreakers felt that way too. So when we’d happen to be in the same city, out on the road, we’d hang out. One time we were in Amsterdam together for an event and our bands just made it known that there was this little love affair going on: We adored the Heartbreakers, they appreciated what we were doing and that was a sweet thing. Everybody in that band — they’re just the nicest guys.
With “Waiting for Tonight,” Tom came to us: “This song needs something. Help.” I was thrilled. It’s a beautiful song, we had a blast doing it and it did ultimately come out on a compilation [the 1995 box set, Playback]. So when [MusiCares approached Petty years later] and said, “We’re gonna do a tribute to you and you can pick whatever songs you want,” he told us the first thing he thought of was “Waiting for Tonight,” because that was a song that didn’t get the exposure that he wanted it to, which made me feel great.
In those MusiCares rehearsals, I felt like I was in The Heartbreakers for a few days. There’s nothing like hearing a band play when you are standing in the middle of them — that doesn’t exist even at a concert — and sonically, it’s very powerful. I definitely had so many of those moments of “Oh My God, this is happening!” And the guys, they were just so fun. They aren’t teenagers anymore, but they all just love what they do and that’s all they like to do. They’re just always creating — and that was Tom.
As a person, Tom was kinda soft-spoken, but everything he said was either hilarious or cutting, like, under his breath, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but–” Everything he did, though, was honest. He spoke from the heart and didn’t mess around. If he didn’t like something, he fought against it. He didn’t try to sing like anybody else, he wasn’t putting anything on. He was just always him.
He was also very succinct storyteller: Every line told a story, had an image, used no extra words or syllables, which is a lot harder than it seems. I didn’t really realize just how well-curated his lyrics are until The Bangles played a party after the MusiCares benefit that Dhani Harrison hosted. We got to sing “American Girl” again and we’re looking over this lyric sheet, picking verses. Jakob Dylan was standing there, going, “Pick a good one.” Then he goes, “Oh. They’re all good.” And I went, “Yeah. They’re all good.”