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VINTAGE ST. PETE: Tom Petty, MTV and the Don

Bill DeYoung

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Photo @John Siebenthaler/Siebenthaler Creative

It was a Sunday, just after noon, and a film crew from MTV had set up light reflectors and a semi-circular dolly track on the expansive balcony outside the south-facing 8th floor suite of the Don CeSar Hotel. In 1930, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had vacationed in Room 800 (the living-room-sized balcony, in those Great Gatsby days, was known as a “moon garden”).

Fifty-five years later, on April 21, 1985, Tom Petty and his wife Jane were the registered guests; Petty’s manager Tony Dimitriades had the adjoining suite. The other members of the Heartbreakers, Petty’s longtime band, were booked into regular rooms in the lower reaches of the towering pink-and-white Don.

MTV was there for them.

The sun was bright; it was a typically hot spring afternoon when Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Stan Lynch and Howie Epstein took up their instruments, inside the semi-circle and between the moon garden minarets, and began to play.

It had occurred to someone that the Beatles had ended their 1970 documentary film Let it Be with a “concert” on the roof of their office building in London. Since the film crew was already there, to interview Petty and the other musicians while they were at the Don for a few days (ostensibly to receive the global press to publicize the new Southern Accents album), the planned MTV documentary could end with an exciting, “spontaneous” performance.

“I think it was a last-minute thing, which was pretty traditional with Tom,” recalls Lynch, the band’s founding drummer. “He flew by the seat of his pants. He and Tony had the two suites on the top floor, so my guess would be they’re up there looking out and Tom said ‘well, why don’t we just play right here?’ The next thing would be Tony calling me going “So! Here’s the plan.’”

Lynch, at 29, was the youngest member of the Heartbreakers. “It was literally like I jumped out of the pool and went and played,” he says. “Knowing me, I was probably on a Jet Ski 10 minutes before that. We didn’t have our own gear, so it must have been rental equipment. I don’t remember the drum set you see in the pictures.”

The Beatles’ “spontaneous” rooftop show had been famously halted by the police, after complaints about the noise from neighboring businesses. To ensure a similar outcome for MTV, Dimitriades hired a quartet of local actors, dressed in blue police uniforms, and had them wait inside Room 800 while Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers rock and rolled for the cameras.

At the prescribed moment, the “cops” were to “break up” the show.

Petty and the “cops.” John Siebenthaler.

It didn’t happen that way, however. Wearing the “Mad Hatter” top hat and tinted granny glasses he sported in the then-current video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty led the band through 40 unrehearsed minutes of oldies (“Route 66,” “Hit the Road Jack”) and songs from their catalog (“Breakdown,” “Strangered in the Night,” “Change of Heart”). Only one number from Southern Accents (“Dogs on the Run”) made an appearance.

When two men from the Don CeSar parking detail showed up to ask them to knock off the racket, a quick decision was made to allow them on-camera to “stop” the performance. The actors in the cop suits were paid off and sent home.

Nobody told the band.

“Honestly,” says Lynch, “that was probably privileged information and I never got to hear it. A lot of information in that band at the time was on a need-to-know basis. I didn’t need to know and I didn’t care to ask!

“At that time in my life, I was so self-absorbed, and such a pleasure-seeker … I just wanted to have fun. If something was fun, I didn’t question why. And if something wasn’t fun, I just did my best to get out of it.”

Although he has no recollection of the pith helmet-wearing parking monitor instructing Petty to pipe down, Lynch says, “I remember thinking it kind of broke up in a sad way.”

Before we began a lengthy interview immediately afterwards, Petty told me this was the first time all five musicians had played together, much less been in the same room, in the many months since they wrapped Southern Accents.

The full conversation is included in I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews (St. Petersburg Press, 2019).

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers flew back to Los Angeles a few days later to make the video for a song called “Make it Better (Forget About Me).”

Only a few minutes of the rooftop concert appeared in the MTV Southern Accents documentary, which has never been officially released in any form.

Here’s an edit of the footage that WAS used:

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Cavin Cunningham

    July 17, 2021at5:39 pm

    why would anyone complain? It was pretty tame, daytime, and outside.

  2. Avatar

    Naren Schoenacher

    July 18, 2021at2:02 pm

    Man this is so great! I saw them at Bayfront Arena on that tour when I was 14. I’m guessing they made that footage the day before or after that show. And to see them at Devil’s Millhopper is cool too. I was born and raised in St. Petersburg so I’ve been to a lot of places like that all over Florida. I wish MTV would release that documentary with a companion release of all the rooftop footage. I’d buy that DVD and/or download in a heartbeat!

  3. Avatar

    Susan

    July 18, 2021at5:55 pm

    Wish I was there!

  4. Avatar

    Heather C Herringshaw

    July 18, 2021at7:14 pm

    Much Love ♡

  5. Avatar

    Christopher "Smitty"Smith

    July 19, 2021at12:58 pm

    This is probably the most accurate story I’ve read so far ! Checking in ??

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