The Stories We Could Tell

On the evening of my birthday, I went to see Tom Petty. It was a 45 minute drive up Highway 880 and through the Oakland Hills, the sky turning deep purple throughout, but the good news was, the car seemed to drive itself. It was like being in a Waymo or one of those new self driving ones. Instead of concentrating on the road, I was able to just space out and think about my life as my vehicle homed toward UC Berkeley.

Much has changed since I attended that school in the mid-ate 1980s but not the names of the freeway exits or the route from my hometown. Up the east bay I sped, 880–237–580–13, then down Claremont Avenue to Belrose and Waring and finally, Piedmont Avenue. As I passed the Clark Kerr campus I thought, ‘if I see a parking spot after crossing Dwight, I’ll take it, if not, I’ll pay for parking.’ But there was a spot, right on the corner of Dwight, across the street from where Bill Wyman’s old apartment, so I took it and started walking to the Greek. I was desperately in search of a scalper.

See, I didn’t have a ticket. I could have bought one, on Stubhub, for $70, but I don’t really like using that service and anyway, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go until about two minutes before I left for the concert. The gig had been rescheduled, which usually means lots of extra tickets, but I was getting pretty close to the venue without being solicited so it didn’t seem like that was going to be the case. Meanwhile, I walked past all the fraternities, which seemed to be in mid-party mode, and as I walked, and the shouts of the undergrads and the smell of beer and the familiarity of the sights around me mounted, I began to feel a little weird.

rush night on Piedmont.

So many memories, you see. Berkeley is the fount of it all, the place I learned to be a writer and a critic, the place I saw the most shows of all, the place where I was young. And, did I mention it was my birthday, and I was turning old? So…maybe not the wisest place to be.

On the other hand, I really love the Greek Theater, it is a magical venue. But as I closed in on it, what I noted wasn’t all good. For example, that new stadium. It wasn’t there when I was here, and it is…big. There’s a parking lot next to it and it said on it, “Show parking, $30.” THIRTY DOLLARS? That’s like…Levi Stadium bullshit. On the corner by the stadium, there’s this life sized statue of a bear that looks like it’s going to eat you. I couldn’t decide if I loved or hated that piece of art. On the one hand, it made me laugh. On the other, it was a bit like a commemoration of something extinct, like calling The Pruneyard in Campbell after the orchard it decimated, when the whole thing is one big cement jungle. No bears here now, that’s for sure.

The bear stands at the corner of Gayley Avenue where you turn up to Strawberry Canyon. We used to have morning practice there, and many a bad thing happened to me in that pool. It’s a little bit like my Abu Ghraib. So there’s that.

Also, across from the stadium, there was a building you could see into, and in the room that was lit up, there was a class in session. It reminded me of work. The students were staring at a giant smart board with a page from Canvas on it, just like my students will be doing tomorrow. When I attended UC Berkeley we didn’t have smart boards or Canvas, we just listened to lectures and took notes I guess. When I attended UC Berkeley I wouldn’t have dreamed of becoming a professor — nor am I one, really, not like the ones here, I am just a lame imitation of one, just like I am a lame imitation of a rock critic at this point. A simulacrum.

Presently I got to the Greek, and there were truly no scalpers around, and not only that, but a great shout went up and I could tell Tom Petty was going on stage. This surprised me, because I thought the show began at 8 and he’d go on at 9, but I guess I got it wrong and the show started at 7. It was 8:15 when he began, and I was outside the gates, considering my options. Stubhub had increased to $110, and the one ticket guy I saw told me he’d sell me a ducat for a hundred even.

“Nah, I think I’ll go home,” I said to my Man.

He seemed genuinely upset for me. “But you came all the way here!” Then he said, “C’mon, I’ll give it to you for less — what do you want to pay?”

But I was done. Instead, I sat on the curb for a bit and played on my phone, listening to Tom Petty from outside. He played “(I Dig) Rockin’ Around With You,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” while I sat there, and the scalper, still looking wistfully at me, let his ticket go for $60. “There’s still Wednesday,” he said to me, and I just laughed. I have a lot of other uses for $60 right now. Anyway, Tom Petty’s music actually sounded good out there, really good: the Rickenbacker chiming to the top of its bent. It was thrilling, that sound — a real rock critic would call it Byrdsian, but to me it sounds like REM and Robyn Hitchcock and all the other bands I heard just after I abandoned Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and the few other mainstream acts whom I worshiped in my youth. It’s churchy, at least to me. Indeed, just the other day I was IN a church — Szent Itzvan Basilica in Budapest — listening to a bunch of classical music played on their massive organ, and it wasn’t nearly as churchy as this.

When I was a youngster and attended UC Berkeley, you could go watch the shows from what’s now the lawn area for free. Now they sell those seats for upwards of $50. That seems to me to be a metaphor for the last thirty years. But the memory reminded me that there is something acoustically special about that particular block of Piedmont; and up I got and walked around. Across the street the sound turned to mud, but I criss crossed a little and sure enough, there was a spot on the steps of the stadium parking lot, 500 yards away, where the sound quality of the show was absolutely pristine. You could hear as well as if you were in the arena, no joke.

So I sat down and listened. He played a song called “Forgotten Man,” from his latest album (whatever that was, I haven’t been paying attention — I’m just quoting him); “I Won’t Back Down,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “Free Falling.” In short the hits kept coming, and they were so mainstream that you could have floated a boat down them, but at the same time, they kind of gave ‘mainstream’ a good name. I think it was that mainstream-y ness that made it so I could listen quietly to them, not even being in the arena, and enjoy them: there was nothing to see there, nothing Tom and his band and his many backup singers (whom I just had to picture in my head) could do to make the experience better; it was sonically just fine how it was.

“Don’t Come Around Here Any More.” “It’s Good To Be King.” “Crawling Back to You.” “Learning To Fly.” Some other songs I don’t quite recognize. And then I left, just before “Refugee” and “American Girl,” two of my favorites, but I didn’t need to hear them; I was satiated. Overall, though, you have to admit. His songs are just good, you know? The chords are so major. As I listened, I remembered a thing about him: I can play all these songs on guitar. There’s a song in particular that he used to sing that I learned when I was young — it’s actually by the Everley Brothers, but I associate it with Tom Petty.

And oh, the stories we could tell

and if we all blow up and go to hell

I can still see us sitting on the bed in some motel

singing all the stories we could tell..

All of sudden I was overcome with weltschmertz, I think it’s called, or some purely American variation thereof. Weltschmertz is a sadness for the distance between an ideal world and the shitty reality of it, and what I felt was like that only more tinged with nostalgia. That bed is just so very real to me. I sat on it so many times (allegorically)… At Bill’s house, for instance, down the street, and elsewhere in the vicinity. So I sat on the steps of the stadium parking lot, and I thought about that for a long long time, as the music of Tom Petty chimed out all around me; and then I got up and walked back up Gayley to my car. The frat parties were still raging, as they do, and to all intents and purposes, my birthday was over.

Bill and I on the road, Lollapalooza 92

Originally published at on August 29, 2017.