Full Speed Ahead with Full Moon Fever
Full Speed Ahead with Full Moon Fever
A Q&A with Rich Kubicz
Of Damn the Torpedoes
By Geoff Gehman
Rich Kubicz was a high-school freshman when he really began hanging out in Tom Petty’s musical world. The invitation came from the MTV video for “Refugee,” where Petty roams a subterranean space, swinging around pillars, singing straight at the camera to wallflowers everywhere to stop wallowing in oppression, reminding them that “everybody’s had to fight to be free.” Kubicz considered everything liberating: the kick-ass words; the snaking melody; the biting rock-ballad verses; the slamming punk chorus; the cheeky charm of Petty, a pied piper with surfer-dude looks. The fact that the lean, blonde Kubicz could have been mistaken for Petty’s younger brother made him feel even more at home.
Three decades later, Kubicz is a part-time resident of Petty’s musical world. He plays Petty in Damn the Torpedoes, a decade-old band that performs more than 60 songs that Petty minted for the Heartbreakers (“The Waiting”), the Traveling Wilburys (“Handle with Care”) and himself (“Runnin’ Down a Dream”). The five musicians offer dyed-in-the-wool, lived-in versions of Petty’s stealth, subtle tunes that yo-yo between the yin-yang of ecstasy and misery, defiance and acceptance, growing old while remaining young at heart. Kubicz cannily captures Petty’s forceful, fresh guitar, electric and acoustic; the pinched yowl of his unmistakably Southern voice; the shabby-chic vibes of his jackets, vests and, occasionally, Mad Hatter hats. He and his stage mates honor a natural-born rebel, an outsider who wrote sharply and smartly about his insides, a rock ’n’ roll survivor who provided musical sanctuary for refugees before cardiac arrest killed him at age 66 on Oct. 2, seven days after he and the Heartbreakers finished a 40th-anniversary tour at the Hollywood Bowl.
Kubicz will lead Damn the Torpedoes in a Jan. 19 gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, one of the band’s favorite venues. Below, in an email interview from his New Jersey home, he gives shout-outs to his mother, who made him take piano lessons that hurt before helping; his wife, who empowered him to start a Petty tribute group to grease his musical wheelhouse, and Petty, the first musician who made him feel relevant as a musician.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: It’s hard to say if there is any ONE song that made me go crazy. I love music, so give me a great melody hook, a poignant lyric and some special dynamics and you can turn me inside out. There is a special feeling I get when all that stuff works together. I like to describe it as the little hairs on the back of my neck literally standing at attention, a certain chill that comes over me when all of those factors fall into place.
I remember the first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven”; it covers so much of what makes up a good song. It opens slowly with easy listening acoustic, the dynamic of the recorder with the little “scratch” of Page’s fingers across the acoustic guitar strings, then with each verse the drums begin to kick in that allow it to build ever so slowly and finally rock out to crescendo. And of course those poignant lyrics that seem so deep at certain moments, and so nonchalant at others.
I’m a child of the late ’60s so I was really a pre-teen when I started discovering what is now known as “Classic Rock.” I was lucky to have a friend my age who had an older sister who turned us on to this stuff. We weren’t old enough to buy our own records so we used to go listen to hers.
Q: What was the first tune from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that got under your skin, that convinced you this was a band worth following closely?
A: I think “Refugee” was the first of his songs that really made me want to hear more from him. But it wasn’t until the video of “Refugee” came out on MTV in the early ’80s that I finally got the Tom Petty bug. After all, he had some awesome rock songs and back then I actually looked a lot like him. Take the combination of me during puberty and being a freshman in high school who resembled one of the coolest rockers of that time and–guess what–this was a band worth following.
Q: What pivotal moment, event or person persuaded you that you were destined to play music in public for money?
A: Well, first of all, I was raised to believe two polar opposite ideas about the subject of MAKING MUSIC=MONEY. On one hand, I have an awesome mother who told me at the age of eight that I would regret not learning how to play the piano when I’m an adult if I don’t give it a try and take lessons NOW, age of eight. So, for two years, at my mom’s behest, I took piano lessons–AND HATED IT!
As I began discovering music by Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones and on and on, I tried a compromise with this piano thing. How about GUITAR? My parents complied. I took lessons for several years in my early teens until my teacher told me that I’d advanced beyond his capabilities to give me instruction beyond that plateau. I could either seek advanced instruction or simply take what I had and go on my own.
NOW, ON THE OTHER HAND, that same wonderful mom of mine had told me at the age of 10 that I WOULD NEVER MAKE ANY MONEY PLAYING MUSIC. It was too risky, you would need something to fall back on, your talent may never get to the level of monetizing music and you will struggle. So, growing up, I kept my sights on college to get a career that would guarantee me some dough. Being musically inclined was just so I wouldn’t regret NOT being musically inclined as an adult–LOL.
The person who persuaded me to play music publicly and led to this tribute [Damn the Torpedoes] was my awesome wife Adrienne back in the early 2000s. We never thought about the money, but it was always important to play as best as possible. Yes, there is money but to me that has only been icing on the cake for 11 years.
Q: You launched DTT partly because you had been told countless times that you look and sound like Petty. What was the biggest challenge in playing Petty’s music, and Petty, faithfully and magnetically? How sharp was your learning curve?
A: Well, first of all, it isn’t all about me. Yes, I’m front and center and most often the focal point, but there is more to it on the “learning curve” side. To some, the music might sound simple. Petty’s voice is not Pavarotti’s. However, the entire Heartbreakers sound attributes itself to the subtleties within the music. In order to make this the ultimate tribute, the entire band needs to capture the nuances that make the songs as good as they are. So the learning curve is quite daunting, and interesting at the same time. I’m lucky enough to have some very excellent, dedicated musicians behind me. We have Gary Castelluccio on keys, backing vox and harmonica, Ross Kantor on drums and backing vox, Jon Provan as our bass player, vocalist and musical director, and the incredible lead guitar work of Jimmy Alan.
Q: How has the Petty tribute-band landscape changed since the dawn of DTT? I’m curious about the change in the number of Petty homage acts over 11 years and if you’ve changed set lists, musicians, marketing etc. in response to the competition, if you want to call it competition.
A: I think there were a lot of Petty tributes around when I started the band back in 2007, but there weren’t any notable ones here in the NY tri-state area. I see a few trying to break through near us and I truly hope they can find some success. I would warn that the type of success we have gained does not happen overnight. We paid our dues and started honing our craft in the little bars as well, so I empathize with them.
I don’t necessarily see it as “competition.” If you are playing Tom Petty’s music, you are all right in my book–just make sure you do it RIGHT. The music deserves respect and I’ve seen some bad bands out there too and that can get under a real Petty fan’s skin.
The band is a business, so we invest in our equipment, our costuming and, of course, marketing. We appreciate the venues that host us to the point that we want to help those venues fill up. Over the years, we’ve gotten to be really savvy with our promotion through email, print ads and, of course, social media. There is nothing more exciting than playing to a full house.
Concerning set lists, we have a very extensive library of 60-plus songs. Of course there are the mainstays, songs that would be missed if they weren’t in the show. The top six are “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Running Down a Dream,” “Even the Losers,” “Free Fallin’” and “Refugee.” But it’s nice to be able to play different songs from show to show, and of course we continue to add more. We’ve gone much deeper in order to please both the casual fan AND the devoted fan, and the plan is to convert those casual fans into fanatics. We’ve had calls to go deeper into Petty’s catalog since his passing.
Q: Where were you when you learned that Petty had died? Were you surprised or shocked that he passed away so young, so soon after the Heartbreakers finished a major tour?
A: I actually got a text from a friend about an hour before any news outlets reported any of the bad news. My friend texted “I heard Tom Petty died… is that true?” To which I Googled and found NOTHING. An hour later, I got a news feed on my cell phone that said “Tom Petty Dead from Heart Failure” and now it became more suspect but more real. As the day progressed, mixed messages came through the news wire. The Tom Petty Nation FB page was buzzing and I was getting nonstop calls and texts. It became very fast and very REAL.
Q: Why was “Room at the Top” the first Petty song that DTT performed after his passing?
A: There are actually two songs that I think about to mourn the passing of a loved one. “Room at the Top” was the first one I thought of because the poignant lyrics, along with the drone of sadness, were written by TP to mourn the death of his first marriage [sample lyric: “I got a room where everyone can have a drink/And forget those things that went wrong in their life”]. The second song that we have performed, and will also be presented at some shows, is “Angel Dream” [sample lyric: “I saw an angel, I saw my fate/I can only thank God it was not too late”]. We will be changing the two songs from night to night in dedication to Tom Petty. He was part of my first marriage into relevancy as a musician.
Q: Did you have a significant encounter with Petty and/or receive a significant message from him?
A: Nope. Grateful he never sent me a cease-and-desist letter as well; LOL. But I would have loved to have known how he feels about tribute bands that play in his honor.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: I’m not a Bucket List kinda guy. I think I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted up until now. If you had asked me that question 30 years ago? I would have said I would like to fall in love with an awesome woman, marry her, have an awesome child I could be proud of, live modestly but not want for anything, and play music in front of people who appreciate it. So I’ve pretty much kicked the Bucket List to this point. Thank you Adrienne Miller-Kubicz, Tyler Kubicz, Damn the Torpedoes and, of course, Tom Petty.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Musicians have told me everything from an end to spirit-crushing religions to death to all snakes.
A: I say FUCK GREED. I think there is a piece of the pie for everyone in this world. I don’t care if you are smart or dumb, beautiful or ugly, gifted or awkward, healthy or lame. Every person in this world deserves dignity and a chance. I hate to see the scales so heavy in favor of those already heavily favored. They will be fine, but not at the expense of those less fortunate in this world. FUCK IT.
Rich Kubicz: The Scoop
He named Damn the Torpedoes after his favorite album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “During the time before I conceived DTT, I ran an online e-zine called Let’s Rock America. I used to give interviews similar to this one and many of the bands that I interviewed were tributes. I saw that tribute bands generally take their names from an album or a song from the artist. I looked around on the Internet and saw that the name was not being used by anyone else in the U.S. and I registered it.”
Shortly after starting DTT, he attended the 2007 premiere of “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” a four-hour documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who made his bones with “The Last Picture Show.”
His guitars include the Petty-endorsed Rickenbacker 660/12 TP, also known as the Rick 12. “I hardly use it because it’s incredibly temperamental. Most people will associate Tom Petty with Rickenbackers but he used a Telecaster more often than anything else as far as my research goes. That’s my guitar of choice for shows lately.”
He’s a dedicated listener of SiriusXM’s Tom Petty Radio channel and a devoted member of Tom Petty Nation, a Facebook group with over 25,000 followers.
He and the other members of Damn the Torpedoes are booked for a Petty tribute concert Jan. 20 at World Café Live in Philadelphia.
In DTT publicity photos he often wears a red silk shirt and a black suede vest he bought for the band’s first show in a second-hand store for a bargain-basement $10.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He watched Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and other Bob Dylan standards during the Dylan 30th anniversary concert in 1992 at Madison Square Garden. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.