Tom Petty Concert Guitar Thief Tribute

“Get him,” Mike Campbell screamed, “He’s got my guitar!” The room was filling up with the staccato sound of excessive feedback as the cord that had connected Campbell’s beloved guitar to the Stage Amplifier system had been violently ripped out of its connection point. I turned and began to push my way through the crowd, not really knowing what to do next. How do you escape through a crowd of Heartbreaker fans when you just took the Lead Guitarists’ instrument away from him during the middle of a song? It was a real dilemma, as I did not want to get caught by either the Police or the Band Roadies. Out of the two though, I feared the Roadies more, as they would have no compulsion to treat me with any rational behavior. If they caught me, I would get hurt real bad, so I was desperately trying to push my way through the crowd.

The night began with a group of my friends gathering in the parking lot as we were trying to get into the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert without going through the screening and search at the doors. We had an ongoing feud with the Police in Reno, as they had continued to make claims about keeping the concerts in Reno drug free. We felt an obligation to prove them wrong. The solution to our dilemma for the Tom Petty concert came in the form of the Cow Pavilion’s structure, as it was a Metal Building. Although we had snuck into the Pavilion before, there was some apprehension, as we suspected that the authorities were looking out for us to try and sneak in the same way again.

This concern was founded on the security of the building, as the Police and the Security Guards kept looking at the space that existed between the building and the hedge plants that served as a cosmetic enhancement. In the past, our method of getting into the concert without being searched at the door was to pop a couple of bolts off of a building seam and bend back the metal. Once the structure was breached, a steady stream of concert goers would enter the building through our makeshift entryway and bypass the security measures at the main entrance. People were indiscriminant in using this entryway, as ticketed and non-ticketed concert goers used the makeshift passage.

As soon as you entered the building, there were large bleachers that needed to be climbed. Once you were at the top, there was always the possibility that security would see you climbing over the rails, which signaled your illegal access to the concert. Our answer to this problem was to wait until we had amassed a significant number of people before we topped the bleachers. By storming the obstacle with a large group of people, we were able to get almost everyone past the feeble attempts to stop us from reaching the main floor where it was easy to disappear onto the floor and the crowd that was milling around waiting for the bands to begin playing. When a swarm of 25-50 people charge a nominal security force, very few people get caught, if any.

Our normal plan was not working this particular evening however, as the Police had found our access methodology at the last concert that was held at the Fairgrounds and they were meticulously guarding the walls. As we gathered in the parking lot, we soon realized that we needed a diversion. “Hey Tom,” I said, “why don’t we get someone to start a fake fight outside the gate and see what happens.” “Hey, that’s not a bad idea Bill,” Wade chimed in, “Who wants to go start a hassle/” There were probably 50-60 gathered together in the parking lot by this time. When we huddled and came up with our game plan, two guys volunteered to act like they were going to get into a fight. We designated a meeting place for them in order to give them any paraphernalia they needed to get past security, and we them made sure that they had two tickets. Once these minor items were in place, they went to the front of the building and looked for their chance to create the distraction. Sure enough, within minutes the Police and Security Guards received a radio call to immediately go to the front of the building, as a fight seemed to be breaking out. As they took off to stop the fake fight, the guys with the Bolt Cutters zoomed over to the designated point on the wall. They quickly removed the bolts and folded back the corrugated wall. “Come on everyone, hurry!”

The mob started squeezing through the small opening and waited on the inside of the building. Once we were all in, we swarmed, and our plan went without a hitch. No one was caught and kicked out. Once we were on the inside of the concert hall, we gathered at our pre-designated places in order to be with friends and to distribute whatever needed to be passed out to the concert crowd. Within a short time period, the mood of the crowd changed significantly due to chemical and narcotic enhancement. I was no exception to this event. I had recently attended a concert in San Francisco at the Fillmore where ‘Richie Blackmore and Rainbow’ was the headliner at the event. Blackmore did what so many of the guitarists were doing back in the day of the major Stadium and Concert Hall days of Rock and Roll. At one point in the concert, he took one of his guitars and busted the thing up, throwing the pieces out into the crowd for us to fight over.

I decided I wanted to try and instigate a similar occurrence on this particular evening, so I made my way to the stage when the Heartbreakers took the stage. “Come on man, break up your guitar and throw me the neck!” I screamed to Mike Campbell as he approached the edge of the stage. The Cow Pavilion had a unique stage set up, unlike most places where concerts were held, at the Pavilion there was no gap that separated us front the stage itself. We could get up close and personal with the musicians at this venue, which made it a unique place to see your favorite bands play.

I continued to prompt Campbell to be a crowd pleaser and not a heartbreaker concerning his guitar, but he would have none of it. Tom Petty had not been one of my favorite bands as a youth, as I thought he was a little to Country Western and Ballad, and I was into Blue Oyster Cult, Johnny Winter and KISS, among other harder Rock bands. Still, Concerts were fun events where you listen to good music, get high, mingle and experience life. What I did not know was that Mike Campbell was a guitar aficionado and he would not part with one of his instruments, nor had he brought a cheap guitar to destroy, as that was not his style.

As the LSD I took began to take over, my persistent harassment of Mike Campbell began to get to him. After my insistent calls to quiet being a bogart, a buzz-kill, a guitar hog and various other assorted other derogatory names and inferences, he responded. Mike came over and addressed me personally. His response was classic. “You want my Guitar? You’ll have to take it from me!” As he finished shouting out his challenge and laughing about his comment, he swung the neck over my head, being careful to not get to close to the edge of the stage before turning around and stomping off to his designated spot to Rock out.

A word of explanation is due here concerning Mike Campbell. To say that he was an animated guitarist at the time would be a fabrication. Mike was generally stoic, standing in place and releasing mazing riffs that enhanced the songs that the band was performing. My heckling continued and Mike responded. As the performance continued, he would occasionally march over to the edge and swing his Guitar over my head, laugh and retreat. It had become a game to him. On one of his taunts, Mike made a fatal mistake. As I had said, there wasn’t a security barrier that separated the crowd from the stage, but the stage was fairly high. It was slightly above my shoulders, and I stand a little over 6’ tall. As Campbell went to swing his instrument over my head, he bent down and he had actually inched a little to close to the edge.

My moment had arrived. As I saw the golden opportunity unfold, Mike’s Guitar was easily in my grasp. With a quick leap into the air, my hand wrapped around the neck of the Guitar. As I jerked on it, a look of terror and shock enveloped Mike’s face as he stumbled forward. My left hand shot out and I slid it under the strap and slid it over his head. Within seconds I was on the ground with a Guitar in my hand.

I ran into a buzz saw of fans. Some were shocked, some were angry. Everyone wanted a piece of the Guitar. As I struggled to maintain my hold on the instrument, I looked over my shoulder and my worse fear was being realized, as Roadies and Security began to pour over the Stage, coming for me. I knew I was in trouble and was looking for a way out.

Desperation took over. I threw the Guitar up and screamed, “Who wants it?” As people jumped up, I dropped down onto my knees and promptly began to crawl away, escaping the detection of those who wanted to introduce themselves to me in a rather violent way. It worked. As I disappeared into the crowd, the Roadies secured the Guitar, and gave it back to Campbell. With that, the Concert resumed. And my dilemma increased in intensity. As I made my way over to the group of people I normally associated with, I was barraged with a steady stream of comments like, “Did you see what you did?” And “You’re crazy man!”

I tried to center myself into the crowd and away from the pathway that people walked on. It was a preservation move, as all of a sudden the room was filled with Police Officers and Security, and they all had one common goal, find me and arrest me. My buddies went and checked out the exits, and sure enough, they were all covered. What made matters worse was that I was known by the Police, due to numerous encounters over the years. I thought I was totally busted and that I would be going to jail for a while.

Suddenly, I had a thought that might prove to be productive. I had snuck into the concert, why not sneak out? The lightbulb went off. After gathering about 50 friends together, I had them flood the walkway in front of the bleachers that we had snuck over earlier in the night. As I went low and hurriedly made my way through them, their diversion worked. None of the police presence saw me. As I made my way up the bleachers, people kept saying things like, “Hey, there’s the guy that snatched the guitar!”

Once I had ascended the top, I quickly vaulted over the edge, scrambled to the ground, and ran to the spot where we had opened up the wall. I quickly bent the metal and walked away into the night. Eventually my buddies caught up with at my apartment, where we had a good laugh. I have to admit, I kept waiting for my door to come crashing down as the Police entered to take me away, but it never happened. For the first seven years following the event, I wouldn’t talk about it, as I wanted to make sure that any Statutes had long since expired. That fear combined with my conversion to Christianity, and my story faded into obscurity until many years went by and I began telling it.

The late Tom Petty entered into the story years later, as he was being interviewed about his prolific career in the music industry. In the interview, Petty was asked what the craziest thing was that ever happened to him in a live performance. He quickly retorted that “man do I have a story for you.” “Mike Campbell decided to be a rock-god one night, as he stomped around the stage swinging his guitar around like a madman.” “All of a sudden, this crazy guy jumps up out of the crowd, nocks him down and takes his guitar from him!” “It was the wildest thing I ever saw.” Said Tom Petty.

 

1 thought on “Tom Petty Concert Guitar Thief Tribute

  1. Donna Diorio

    Crazy! You were quite the wild child, Bill! I was in the concert business during that time and have my own wild stories …which I am still not ready to open up about. 😉

    Reply

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