Sunday, October 08, 2017

Tom Petty's Inferno

Scene: A tastefully understated bathroom in a Malibu beach house. The Pacific Ocean is visible through a bay window over a vintage cast-iron tub. On the toilet sits an elderly bearded man: Tom Petty. He’s smoking a cigarette and reading a book about The Shroud of Turin. Suddenly, a bolt of pain shoots up his left arm, paralyzing that side of his body. Petty stands, drops the book in the toilet, kneels to the marble floor and loses consciousness.

He wakes up on a bathroom floor, but not the one he passed out on. This is a non-descript, clean bathroom of the sort found in doctor’s offices. Outside the door, he can hear voices, feet shuffling, a lot of activity. He gets up, pulls his pants back on, brushes himself off and looks in the mirror: the same person. The book is gone, but all else remains the same.  Huh, Petty thinks, that was a cigarette I was smoking, there’s no logic behind this. Having been along for the ride on many similar drug experiences, he knows to roll with whatever’s happening.

He opens the door onto a bustling backstage area of what he recognizes as a TV studio: cables, the backs of klieg lights, stage curtains, fold-out director’s chairs, assistants hustling to and fro. Petty thinks this vision will require him to perform live since that’s the only reason he’d be at a TV studio.

Monty Hall: Wrong, Tom. You’re not here to perform.

The voice comes from behind him, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as most game-show host voices do. He turns to see Monty Hall approaching him in a green plaid leisure suit, as he was in the early 1970s, smiling broadly.  The only difference, Petty notices, is that he has two small horns sticking out of his temples, and the slight smell of sulfur accompanies his presence.

Tom: Monty Hall! Didn’t you just die a few days ago?

Monty Hall: Monty surely did. He’s with us now.

Tom: What? No. You’re Monty Hall.

Satan: No, Tom, I’m not Monty Hall. I’m Satan. I’m using Monty Hall’s visage to create your vision of hell.

Tom: Wait a minute. You’re telling me I’m dead? Man, I’m not even 70!

Satan: No one saw it coming, Tom, not even me! Keith Richards walks the earth, yet here you are!

Tom: What did I die of?

Satan: Massive heart attack while reading a Jesus book on the can. Just like your idol.

Tom: And now I’m in hell?

Satan: Literally, no. We’re at the gates of hell, figuratively speaking. We’re here to play a little game.

Satan: Bingo!

Tom: Are you sure my name is on your list?

Satan: It sure is! There’s no waiting in line for Tom Petty!

Tom: Look. I could be an asshole. Most rock stars are. You don’t get that far for that long without doing some damage.

Satan: Oh, you did. You were no picnic. The usual rock-star stuff. Drugs. Debauchery. Neglect. Pride. The shit that went on with Stan Lynch was pretty lousy.

Tom: Sure, Satan, but he was being a prick, too.

Satan: Undoubtedly so. But you should understand one of our circles down here features a Jimmy Iovine clone in a recording studio control room making drummers hit the same snare roll, over and over, for eternity, while constantly barking “again, again” and “I have Jim Keltner’s number on my rolodex, why don’t you take a break.” For eternity. That place is for aspiring drummers who come here, thinking they’re going to realize their lifelong dreams of being rock stars, only to find themselves locked in a recording studio with an irritating twat in a baseball hat calling them “asshole” for playing the same beat, over and over, and never getting it right.

Tom: That does sound like what happened.

Satan: You should be honored. You and Iovine served as inspiration for one of my better burns.

Tom: But so many people loved my music.

Satan: Me, too. Obviously, the long string of early hits, but when you later got into stuff like “Echo” and “Room at the Top” … I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat here in my lair, ruminating on the nature of mankind, and those two songs perfectly define how I feel. You had a real knack for writing lyrics that were deceptively simple, but suggested more profound meaning.

Tom: Thanks, I guess. But come on, now, there’s more going on here than me giving Stan Lynch the hard time he deserved.

Satan: Oh, there is. I’d call it vanity, more than anything. For centuries, this had been the domain of kings, rich men and heads of state. But in the past 50 years, musicians and actors tend to suffer the same consequence. Your talent endears you to millions of people who, on one hand love and respect you for your warmth and immediacy. But on the other, encourage you to see yourself as super human, special beyond comprehension. Thus, the one-night stands on the road. The brusque behavior with record-company and hotel staffs, assistants and band members. The purposeful distance with loved ones who knew you before you were famous.

Tom: That’s enough for hell?

Satan: It’s the gateway to hell. Remember all the times you were doing things that you recognized as wrong, stupid and abusive, there was that voice in your head, reminding you that this was wrong?

Tom: Sure, my conscience.
Satan: No. That was me. It's always me. That's one of the jobs God gave me, along with running hell. To give people fair warning of bad, potentially damnable behavior. I am your better angel. God gave you free will, so I have no control over your life. It's human nature to be sinful. That part of my job is easy; I literally do nothing. The hard part of my job is trying to subtly convince people that they should change their ways, and thus never lay eyes on me. I do this with the understanding that most people never listen to me.

Tom: OK. So I screwed around, like any other musician on the road. I got cross with people. I got moody and abusive sometimes. I didn't kill anyone. Start any wars. If anything, my music helped people keep their heads on straight and avoid going off the rails like this.

Satan: All good points. But the key to your vanity is that it will strip you of the self-awareness required to overcome it. That’s what I’m not getting about rock stars. You pride yourselves on connecting to the common man, of relating to every-day humanity and emotions. Yet, your personal lives are virtually no different from those of influential men from the past who lived like angry gods, as opposed to decent human beings. According to your songs, you’re only human. But the adulation heaped on you led you to believe otherwise. To the point where you accepted this illusion of superiority as universal truth. I think that’s the crux of why you’re here.

Tom: Other rock stars are down here?

Satan: (laughing) Sure! Far more than are in heaven! Pretty soon, we’ll have a Traveling Wilburys reunion! Jeff Lynne will be the last. We’ll get him more for the drum sound he created in the 80s than anything else.

Tom: So why am I here? Not hell. This TV studio.

Satan: Well, as you can see, I’m Monty Hall, and I’ll be hosting hell’s version of Let’s Make a Deal, featuring Tom Petty as the first contestant.

Tom: The band and I used to get high in the morning and watch game shows all the time. If I recall, Let’s Make a Deal made the contestants dress up like it was Halloween.

Satan: Correct.

Tom: So what will I be dressed as?

Satan: The Crypt Keeper. You really don’t have to change a thing.

Tom: Ha-Ha. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that one?

Satan: Probably about as many times as guys told you they once dated a girl in high school who looked just like you.

Tom: Yeah, a certain kind of guy always had that one girl.

Satan: I don’t think they were being complimentary.

Tom: No. They meant the girl was plain, sort of homely, and had droopy eyes from getting stoned. How do I know this? Because I dated a girl who looked like me in high school!

Satan: Well, if it’s any solace, you did look OK up through the mid-80s.

Tom: My greatest revenge in life was knowing I was an un-layable dude who, thanks to his musical talent, had sex with dozens of beautiful women who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

Satan: Well played, sir, well played. A fitting epitaph. That’s why guitars were invented. But that was then, this is now, let’s go!

Satan claps his hands, and he and Tom Petty immediately materialize in the cheering studio audience, Tom standing among a group of people dressed as sailors, witches, soldiers, cheerleaders. He’s standing next to Satan who is holding a thin microphone and laughing heartily.

Satan: So, Tom Petty, where are you from?

Tom: Originally from Gainesville, Florida, but I lived in Los Angeles.

Satan: Are you ready to make a deal?

Tom: Do I have a choice?

Satan laughs his bellowing, game-show host laugh again. A beautiful woman in a gown rolls out a deluxe Kenmore refrigerator to center stage. The audience gasps in amazement.

Satan: Jay, tell us about this wonderful prize.

Jay (a disembodied television announcer voice, speaking very fast): Monty, we have a Kenmore 50023 25 cubic foot, Side-by-Side, Stainless Steel Refrigerator. Fit more fresh food and delicious leftovers in this spacious Kenmore 50023 Stainless Steel Side-by-Side Fridge. Top-to-bottom storage space gives you plenty of room to stash away snacks, produce, leftovers, pre-made meals and household staples with room to spare. Gallon door bins means you won’t have to find a place to cram the milk, juice or wine while the tight-sealing doors help keep foods fresher, longer. Adjustable shelving and door bins let you organize the fridge just the way you like so everything, even the leftover lasagna, has a place in the fridge. Suggested retail price, $1,213.96.

The audience continues to sigh in amazement.

Satan: Tom, that’s a lot of space to store alcoholic beverages and scoobie snacks for the munchies.

Tom: That’s right, Monty. And my collection of human heads that I keep in mason jars, too.

Satan doubles over in laughter, as does an audience member dressed like the “devil” version of Satan. Tom stares in amazement as he realizes the audience member is Jeffrey Dahmer.

Satan: Tom, that dark sense of humor is going to serve you well here. But seriously, you know how the deal works.  You can have this wonderful Kenmore refrigerator, free and clear, or … we have other options waiting for you … behind doors 2 and 3.

The beautiful woman onstage strolls to her left. Tom looks more closely and realizes the woman is Marilyn Monroe. She raises her left arm, while waving her right arm up and down to showcase the doors that have appeared on each side of her.

Tom: Well, you know, Monty, the refrigerator is tempting. But since I’m in hell and have nothing to lose, why not chose one of the doors instead.

Satan: Always the gambler, always the risk taker, living by his wits, Tom Petty, which will it be Door 2, or Door 3?

Tom takes a moment to ponder his choice.  He looks at the audience and realizes Adolf Hitler is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and John F. Kennedy as a rodeo clown.

Tom: Is that Adolf Hitler dressed as Charlie Chaplin?

Satan: Tom, this is hell, not Burbank, California.  Of course, that’s Adolf Hitler. Adolf, are you enjoying yourself?

Adolf: Ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Much better than dragging dead Jews into mass graves you had me doing yesterday, danke, Herr Satan, danke.

Satan: Good, good. Tom, I should tell you, things work differently when you make a deal in hell. We’re going to show you what’s behind both doors, the full implications of each choice, and let you decide rather than have you feel terrible for making a bad choice.

Tom: That’s awful nice of you.

Satan: Well, let’s see what’s behind the doors before you make that assumption. Marilyn, if you will, please show us what’s behind Door #2.

Marilyn waves her left arm with a flourish as she walks in front of the dissolving face of Door #2. The sound of the French National Anthem plays … but it’s not. It’s the introduction to The Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” The scene that materializes from behind the door is the studio session that was filmed for worldwide broadcast on June 25, 1967. Petty remembers it like it was yesterday, as any time The Beatles or Stones were to appear on TV, he was on it. Something strange though.  There appeared to be a fifth member of The Beatles playing dual lead guitar, seated next to George Harrison. A skinny, young guy, blonde, shoulder-length hair … son of a bitch, Petty thinks, that’s me!

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #2.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. This prize is a membership in The Beatles for eternity. History will be revised just for you, Tom Petty, so that it will show when The Beatles fired Pete Best for Ringo Starr in 1962, they also hired a young American guitarist they had met playing night clubs in Hamburg, a certain Tom Petty from Gainesville, Florida who played in Gene Vincent’s touring band. Unlike George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will include you in their songwriting process so that you can share in the making of such hits as “She Loves You,” “Ticket to Ride” and “A Day in the Life.” They will consider you an equal creative partner and, in fact, you will serve as an important bridge between Paul and John when they start drifting apart as friends and songwriters in 1966. Suggested retail price is beyond comprehension for a music fan like you, Tom Petty.

Tom: Now, wait a minute. This is hell. There must be some catch, like in the movie Bedazzled. Everything I choose, no matter how rewarding and attractive, will be revealed as having a dark side that I didn’t anticipate.

Satan: Thank you, Tom, for noting one of my favorite movies that depicts me correctly. But, no, there is no catch or hidden agenda. You will become part of The Beatles and spend the rest of your after-life living that dream. Of course, the downside will be there too: pissing off Ringo so badly during the recording of The White Album that he quits. Lennon’s heroin abuse. McCartney’s ego. The fist fight between John and George during the making of Let It Be when John finally snaps over one of George’s throwaway insults about Yoko. As with any band, as you well know, shit happens. But you will also be a full participant in the creation of songs that will be remembered centuries from now. How about it, Tom, does Door #2 strike your fancy?

Tom: Satan, you’re like a lawyer, asking questions you already know the answers to.

Satan: (laughing) Well, funny you should say that Tom, everyone who has ever received a law degree from the start of time is hellbound, no matter what he does in his lifetime. Perhaps the only more certain bet on going to hell than being a celebrity! But no matter, before you decide, let’s see what’s behind Door #3. Marilyn?

(Marilyn Monroe sweeps back in from stage right, winking and curtseying before strolling in front of Door #3 as the door dissolves to show a wood-paneled family room circa 1965 in a middle-class American home. A thin, gaunt, bespectacled man in his 30s with a crew-cut and face similar to Tom Petty’s, but harder, stands glowering over a gawky teenage boy sprawled on the carpet watching an episode of the TV series, F Troop. I thought I told you to mow the lawn, the man snaps at the boy. Yeah, I will in half an hour, the boy replies listlessly, F Troop is on, Dad. The man grabs the boy by the legs, yanks him to his feet, and pulls back his right hand, where the scene freezes.)

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, should you choose, Door #3, your after-life will be to be spend a very long time in hell with your father, locked into a five-year period between 1963 and 1967. As you recall, Tom, this was when he was at his most angry and abusive, lashing out at you and your brother for no reason, irrational outburst of rage. You may also recall, your driving emotion at the time wasn’t reciprocating anger and fear, but the desire to find out why your father was this way. You will have a lifetime in hell to try to find out why your father was mentally and  physically abusing your family, then make him stop.

Satan: Well, Tom, what say you?

Tom: (still shaken from being transported directly to one of his more harrowing childhood memories) What do you mean, what say I? You’re telling me to choose between heaven and hell.

Satan: Tom, do you remember how Let’s Make A Deal worked? Particularly when we had a contestant win, let’s say, a set of Samsonite luggage?

Tom: Sure. That was a trick prize. The contestant would clap along gamely, thinking, oh well, I won some luggage. And then you’d say something like, “Well, now wait a minute, you’re going to need some place to take that luggage” and the door behind the luggage would slide open to reveal an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium.

Satan: That’s right, good memory. Jay, tell us where Tom can take his emotional baggage behind Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, if you choose Door #3, it will take you a very long time to convince your Dad he’s wrong, as you knew that stubborn Southern rebel streak well and possessed some of it yourself. There is no sense of time as you understand it in hell, but in human terms, it may take you decades of repeated abuse before you can break through and convince him that he’s wrong. But when you do, you will magically be transported to heaven, where you will spend the rest of your days hanging out, smoking pot, making love to blonde bombshells, playing your guitar and watching as many episodes of F Troop as you please.

Tom: So, you’re saying I get to be myself again.

Satan: That’s right, Tom. You get the rock-star lifestyle all over again, as does everyone in heaven.

Tom: Monty, one key question.

Satan: Shoot, Tom, shoot.

Tom: Where is my mother? I know Dad is in hell.  That makes perfect sense. But where’ my Mom?

The audience sighs knowingly, nodding their heads. General Custer, dressed as an astronaut, wipes a tear away from his cheek.

Satan: You can’t get anything past this perceptive young man! Yes, Tom, what you’re thinking is true. Your Mom, bless her heart, is in heaven. She was a no brainer for taking all that shit your father dished out, never once losing her composure and sacrificing herself so that her kids could be raised with some semblances of love and dignity.

Tom: So, you’re pretty much saying I can live out a lifelong dream for an eternity in hell. Or take decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse from my old man so I can see my Mom again.

Satan: That’s right. This is how we roll in hell. Door #2 with The Beatles will be indecipherable from how many people spend an eternity in heaven.

Tom: Monty, did you ever see the movie, Cool Hand Luke?

Satan: (laughing) Oh, I can see where this is going. The scene where they roll Luke’s mama up to the prison in the back of the jalopy for one last visit, with the understanding that she’s going to die while he’s in jail?

Tom: Exactly. I never mentioned this in interviews, but that moment had a far deeper impact on me than even seeing Elvis in person or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. All the more so thanks to Dad beating the shit out of me and my brother all those years. You see, instead of being in prison, I was a rock star, which was no prison at all. But it kept me on the road and wrapped up in my own affairs from the moment I left Gainesville for Los Angeles. When I saw Mom on her death bed days before she died, figuring I was going to be on the road or in the studio when her time came, I made a vow that I would do whatever it takes to see her again, this world or the next.

Satan: This is the next world, Tom, and that’s a long road ahead of you, should you choose it. Do you seek the redemption you never found in life?

Tom: I have no choice, Monty, I made a promise. I choose Door #3.

Instantaneously, Tom disappears from the studio audience and is transferred to his childhood self in the scene from Door #3. The action unfreezes, and his father’s open hand slaps Tom directly on the face, dropping him to the living-room carpet. His father expects him to start crying. Instead, Tom rolls over and smirks, the very same smirk displayed on his first album cover. He winks at the studio audience, who starts to fade from his view, with Satan leading a standing ovation. The last person in the studio audience Tom sees is George Harrison, smiling broadly and waving to Tom, dressed as The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.