Late Night With David Letterman’s 8th Anniversary Special Taping, Jan 24, 1990
The fifth time I saw Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers was at the Universal Ampitheater in Studio City on Januar but they weren’t even the reason I was there.
No, the reason that John, Nikki, Mark & I drove down to L.A. was to see the taping of the eighth anniversary special of Late Night With David Letterman, which was still my favorite pop culture thing in the universe, so seeing Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as the special musical guest was icing on the cake.
And in fact, they only did one song: “A Face in the Crowd,” which happened to be the sixth single they’d released from Full Moon Fever, and while I’d preferred if the song had been “Runnin Down a Dream” or “Free Fallin’” or even this one, it was still very important to me that despite having his hugest success as a solo artist, it was still very important to him to perform with The Heartbreakers, even if some of them — coughs, Stan Lynch, coughs — didn’t have especially nice things to say about Full Moon Fever when they initially heard it.
Unlike a lot of his singer-songwriter peers — even ones who were associated with specific backing bands (or Bands) like Bob, Neil, Bruce — Tom Petty always conceived himself as part of a group, and I’m not sure he ever performed live (and definitely didn’t tour) as a solo artist.
Anyways, “A Face in the Crowd” is one of the most casual, unhurried songs on Full Moon Fever, musing about the unlikelihood of a relationship.
Before all of this ever went down
In another place, another town
You were just a face in the crowd
You were just a face in the crowd
Out in the street, walking around
A face in the crowd
Right? It’s always chance and happenstance that throws people together: maybe they were a friend of a friend, or maybe they lived across the street, or just happened to be hired at the same job, and before all of that, they were just another stranger whose path you could have never even crossed.
It’s inviting you to think about things you really shouldn’t think too hard about: the randomness of the universe, though, of course, it’s in the universe’s best interests that you get together with somebody. So that’s a positive. Don’t overthink it.
“A Face in the Crowd” gets over on its lovely languid melody and — surprise, surprise — the guitar playing of Mike Campbell, who tosses in lovely chiming counterpoints during the choruses, and eventually plays an absolutely gorgeous slide guitar solo at the end.
If I recall correctly, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came on near the end of the show — surprisingly, their first and only appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, though they might have been on the Late Show With David Letterman later on — and they were all the way over on stage left whereas our seats were in the nosebleeds facing stage right. So it wasn’t the most immersive performance I’d ever seen from Tom Petty, though it looked fantastic on the completed special, which actually aired on February 1.
“A Face in the Crowd (Letterman Jan 24, 1990)”
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