When Heartbreaker Mike Campbell met a young fan, he didn't just string him along
By Griffin Black
It's not always easy being a classic rock fan while my friends are listening to rap and hip-hop, but I'll take bluesy guitar riffs and meaningful lyrics over synthesizers any day.
I guess I should explain myself a little bit. I am 14, I live in Virginia and I love to play guitar. My interest in guitar is why I enjoy listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan more than more recent artists.
I have left out one key band in this list of legends, however. I'm not just a rock fan, I'm a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fan.
In January, having never seen the Heartbreakers play in person, I was enjoying YouTube videos of past performances while saying to myself, "Please don't retire! Just one more tour!" Then I stumbled upon a video labeled "Mike Campbell (All the best Bits!)." Campbell is the lead guitar player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and in this video, which was obviously from 20 or so years ago, he walked out onstage with a brilliant red '60s Fender Telecaster around his neck. It was unlike any guitar I had ever seen. It had three pickups, where there should only be two, and a shiny whammy bar.
I wanted to learn more about this guitar, but found little. I did, however, find a video of Mike playing the guitar in the video for "Refugee" (my all-time favorite) and the guitar was called "Red Dog." It was used on the band's breakthrough album, "Damn the Torpedoes," so I had to have it. But how could I get hold of a guitar like that? It had obviously been modified several times and was not a standard Fender model. I had never built a guitar before, but I decided to build my own Red Dog.
Over the next three months I endured hundreds of eBay searches, many calls to local music stores, constant e-mails to dealers and a slow, sinking feeling in the pit of my wallet. Finally, I got everything I needed on a table: a body, a neck, two Gibson pickups, one Telecaster pickup, a pick guard, a Bigsby B5 tremolo kit and enough wires to supply electricity to my house. Three days later, I no longer had a table of parts. I had Red Dog.
But my story isn't complete; it hasn't even started yet.
An idea slapped me in the face over sushi one night: "What if Mike Campbell signed my guitar?" I had tickets for the band's upcoming tour, and that meant I would see him soon. From that point on, I could settle for nothing less than meeting the master himself. My dad helped me find Tom Petty's manager online. I punched in the number in my cellphone and waited. I quickly asked if the company managed Mike Campbell. The answer: no. DEFEAT. The lady on the phone quickly put me on hold to someone else. I stated the question again. The answer: Yes, we manage all of the Heartbreakers. SUCCESS. I quickly spat out my story, and she seemed impressed, but I knew they heard this sort of thing all the time. I got her e-mail, sent her my information, and nothing happened for a few days.
At this point, I was playing guitar with my friend at summer camp. My phone rang, and I fumbled around to find it. I picked up, and a woman named Ramona Mark (who works for Petty's manager) told me Mike Campbell and his guitar tech saw my Web site! They liked the project and wanted me to come backstage at the Philadelphia concert on July 31. By this point, I was freaking out.
Question: "Are you excited, Griffin?" Response: "Yeah." (This was all I could say on the phone and still sound composed).
I'll fast-forward a few days. It was Saturday night, and I was on a train with my dad to Philadelphia. I was about 20 minutes from Philadelphia when I received a call from Laurence Freedman, a member of the Heartbreakers staff. We decided to meet at 6:45 at a gate of the Wachovia Center. He would then take me backstage to meet Mike.
Laurence met me and led me through a doorway and down a dark staircase. I was officially backstage at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert. The backstage reminded me of a school during summer. There were desks lying around, a cafeteria and deserted rooms. I was the only non-personnel person there, which made me feel rather special. What I was doing finally hit me. I was about to meet the greatest guitarist in the world, someone I had respected and looked up to for years.
We passed a door with a laminated sign on it: "TOM." I peeked in and saw Tom Petty, in the flesh, sitting on a sofa with his eyes closed in a sort of meditative state. Then, standing three feet away from me was Steve Ferrone, the drummer! We kept walking past more doorways: "Benmont" (keyboards), "Ron" (Bass), "Mike"(if you don't know who he is, you have not been reading my article carefully) and "Scott" (vocals, guitar, harmonica). Finally, the last door on the right was the snack room, providing the band with anything they could possibly want, from water to Raisin Bran.
Next to the snack counter were two couches facing each other. And facing me was an incredibly rare Rickenbacker 12-string, made in the '60s, plugged into a vintage Fender amp.
By this point, I was getting a little nervous; at any moment -- oh my, he just walked in! Mike was wearing a leather vest, purple collared shirt, jeans, a crazily tied tie, and a sick guitar cloth hanging out of his back pocket. Even though he was about to play guitar for two hours, he still wanted to look sharp. He put his arm around my shoulder, smiled for the cameras and exclaimed, "Here we are, two guitar lovers!"
Once the introductions were done and the cameras had had their fill, he asked, "So where is this guitar?" I unzipped the case and he quietly stated, "Oh, yes. This is Red Dog." He held the guitar in his hands and told me it was heavy, just like his. Without wasting the time to sit down, he planted his boot on the coffee table and began to play my guitar. For a split second his playing reminded me of my countless hours practicing guitar -- then he quickly ripped out a speedy, powerful riff, and the thought was gone.
After a test shred, the guitar was deemed amp-ready. Mike asked me to explain the pickups, and how long the build took me. He plugged it in and continued to play. I congratulated him on the new album, "Mojo," and told him I loved how the entire album was completely about the guitar! I explained what inspired me to build the guitar, and as soon as he heard "Refugee" was my favorite song, he began to play it. "Do you know this part?" he asked as he began the crunchy smooth intro to the most powerful song ever written. "The key to the entire solo is letting the E string ring," he said.
I stared in awe at how he manipulated the strings and neck to make the tone he wanted. He began to do something I like to call "death-bending." This is when you bend one string upward so it matches the pitch of the next, higher string. When these strings are picked fast, they begin to blend into one dynamic note that can crumble an arena.
"Can I play it?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, rather puzzled.
"No, I mean onstage. I would like to play this for the second song, "You Don't Know How It Feels." My amazed response: "Absolutely."
Then I asked if he could sign my guitar, three records, and a shirt for my uncle. His reaction made it plain that his reason for being there was not to sign my guitar and leave; it was to meet me and encourage me. With a quick "Oh, yes, of course!" he signed everything with messages like, "To Griffin: Awesome Job!!" or "Keep Rockin'!!" Before leaving for dinner, he shook my hand and said, "Have you started writing your own songs, because you should. I waited too long to start."
Later, just before the Heartbreakers came onstage, the lights dimmed, the filler music stopped and the crowd exploded. I was lucky enough to get third-row tickets in front of Mike. We could all see those dark silhouettes moving toward their positions. The high hat on the drums started pulsing. *tap tap tap tap* Bursting from within the amp came the familiar opening ring of "Listen to Her Heart." The song sounded amazing, but all I could think about was the next one.
The song ended, and Mike's guitar tech ran onstage to hand him his next guitar, MY guitar! "You Don't Know How It Feels" hit the audience with a heart-stopping beat. As if from a dream, Mike Campbell was right in front of me, hitting each powerful chord with Red Dog. His guitar fills were bleeding out from the amps and flooding the arena. I was jumping up and down and screaming my head off. Mike (I had told him where I was going to sit) saw me, smiled and lifted the guitar up in the air. A guitarist's salute! Mike started death-bending with my guitar! (I almost feel bad for my guitar now, because it will never experience that again.) I was enveloped in the song around me, breaking the spell only to look and smile at my dad.
Laurence returned my guitar after the show; my ears were still pounding with the amazing songs I had just heard. I had just witnessed "Refugee" burn a hole in the world with solos, and "Free Fallin' " filling it back up with body-swaying chords. Laurence told me that when Tom had heard about my guitar, and me, he was so impressed he had left a "surprise" in the guitar case for me. When I got back to the hotel, I opened the case to find Tom's signature right next to Mike's. Mike's read, "To Griffin: Amazing Job!! Mike Campbell, 2010" and Tom's read, "Hi G! Tom Petty."
In the 1989 song "Runnin' Down a Dream," Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell wrote the lyric "Something good's waitin' down this road, and I'm pickin' up whatever's mine." So what did I pick up that night? I picked up an amazing, ear-numbing concert. I picked up seeing my guitar played onstage by Mike Campbell, in front of 25,000 people. But something I will never let go is a friendship with the most powerful, cool and kind guitarist, whom I will continue to look up to for the rest of my life.
And I won't forget the first part of the "Dream" lyric: "Something good's waitin' down this road." Something tells me that this story is not over and that I must never stop experiencing, enjoying, sharing, remembering and picking up "whatever's mine."
Griffin Black has been playing guitar for three years. He'll begin his freshman year at Georgetown Day School this fall.
August 16, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
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