Editor's Note: Thanks to Sue Reaney for this scan!
Tom Petty Is Sorta Like God And Sorta Like The Rest Of Us, And Other Theological Insights
By Charles M. Young
Musician - March 1983
In religion, there are Catholics and there are Protestants. Catholics believe that by doing enough good works, you can earn grace. Protestants believe that good works are okay, but nobody earns anything from God. Either He decides to drop grace on you or He doesn't, and the most you can do is be ready for when it happens.
In the recording studio, there are Catholics and there are Protestants. Catholics believe that by accumulating enough overdubs, you can earn a good song. Protestants believe that overdubs are okay, but nobody can will anything onto tape. Either your unconscious drops a good song on you or it doesn't, and the most you can do is wait for that mystical union that musicians achieve only at moments unpredictable by humans.
The regrettably defunct Eagles probably qualify as the Popes of Overdub, going over the same tape five million times until it became (on their last few albums) a race between the right combination of tracks emerging and the tape wearing out. Tom Petty ranks among the top Protestant theologians in the Church of Rock 'n' Roll Verite, going through about five million miles of new tape waiting for God to pop with that optimum raw take.
"Working a song to death is pointless," says Petty, who bears no responsibility for the above analogy, and may throw up when he reads it. "You do a take and it has the magic or it doesn't. If you start listening to each instrument for what's wrong, it becomes sterile. Instead, you come back to the song later in a different frame of mind. You wait for the magic to happen rather than forcing it."
For example, take "A Wasted Life," the only slow song on Petty's latest album, Long After Dark (eighty percent live vocals). One night Petty was messing around in his basement, turned on his drum machine and tape deck, played a few chords on his synthesizer and began free associating lyrics. About fifteen minutes into the cassette, lo, there was grace: one complete verse and most of the chorus. Then one night the Heartbreakers were messing around in the studio. Stan Lynch hit the exact groove with his brushes, Benmont Tench hopped on it with the keyboard progression, Petty started singing, and pretty soon there was the song for the first time sounding the way it ought to outside of Petty's head. Grace again. Fortunately, the tape was rolling for most of it (they had to do a little doctoring) and the world is now blessed with one of those Tom Petty how-in-creation-did-he-twist-his-vocal-cords-around-that-emotion performances.
"We fire engineers for missing those moments on tape," says Petty, slumped in a lounge chair during a rehearsal break at a Universal soundstage. "They only happen once. At the end of an album, we have rooms and rooms full of tape. Sometimes we sell it back to the studio and have them bulk-erase it. We really have to explore songs to find out what's there, and that takes a lot of time (a year in studio rentals for Long After Dark at a cost of $400,000). The band is almost too smart for its own good. That self-consciousness can take over, so you almost have to trick them onto the record."
As you might expect, those rooms and rooms full of tape contain a lot of songs that no outsiders have heard: "We ended up with nineteen tracks, of which we used ten. Someday I'd like to release The Worst Of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with the outtakes. They're all good songs, but they didn't fit moodwise. Personally, I don't care what comes next when I'm listening to music. I can go from Led Zeppelin to George Jones, but most people don't like that kind of juxtaposition."
"Maybe the best singer in the world. The more believable singing is the better. In fact, that's the only thing that matters—believability—and George Jones has it."
In interviewing, there are Catholics and there are Protestants. Catholics (usually investigative reporters) believe that if you do your homework and ask good questions, you can browbeat your way into some interesting quotes. Protestants (usually profile writers) believe that homework and good questions are okay, but good interviews drop on you as a matter of mystical chemistry between two personalities.
The correct Biblical precedent for the mystical chemistry between Tom Petty and journalist is actually back one Testament in the Book of Job. Job is an okay guy—observes the Sabbath, follows the commandments, gives no backsass to Yahweh. Yet no matter what he does, there's no predicting whether Yahweh will reward him with a herd of camels or scourge him with a plague of boils.
Ask Tom Petty a reasonable question about studio technique and you might get a herd of camels in the form of the above stuff on the creative process. Ask a reasonable question about how he balances his career and his personal life (who doesn't have this crummy problem?) and you get a plague of boils in the form of panicked phone calls from his manager and PR guy: "He hates talking about his family. Figure out some more music questions." Ask a humdinger music question, one that takes ten minutes to get out of your mouth, about how a lot of his song narrators seemed poised on the edge of rationality and ready to leap into emotion (sounded smart at the time, anyway) and you get, "Yeah."
Hence the essential paradox of Tom Petty: on one hand, he's like the rest of us because he spends a lot of time waiting for something to happen; and on the other hand, he's like Yahweh because he's creative and moody as hell.
"If you want to keep some of your life for yourself, you have to be fairly blunt sometimes—just tell people to leave," says Petty in his mellifluous North Florida lilt. "But there's a fine line between doing what needs to be done and being an asshole. I guess right about fifty percent of the time."
At the age of thirty-one, Tom Petty doesn't look like God but is nonetheless pretty spectacular. His skull structure ranks second only to Carly Simon for Overbite Interestingness. And he recently tied Mick Jagger for number one in Sneers That Release Most Female Pheromones Per Square Inch Of Music Venue Air. Their sneers are, however, different. Where Jagger's seems to be saying, "Pork off, bitch, I lead my own life," Petty's is more along the lines of "I dare you to tuck my shirt in, but if you try, I won't break your jaw, because girls were the first sex to figure out that the proper response to rock 'n' roll was to scream and dance and carry on, for which I'm really grateful, and therefore they deserve better than the usual misogyny." Women seem to appreciate this benign approach (when Petty sings an oldie like "Shake, Rattle And Roll," he means it) so much that one might assume that being Tom Petty or one of his Heartbreakers is Heterosexual Heaven on Earth.
"Yeah, it probably is," nods Petty, leaving it at that.
Did he have any theory on why he and the Heartbreakers were the hardest rocking band with a predominantly female following?
"We're better looking," Petty laughs, then grows more thoughtful. "I enjoy girls immensely, and I think they're part of what a rock concert should be. Whenever I go to a punk show and it's all boys on the dance floor, I think, 'Hey, there's something missing here. Where's the sex?'
"We also draw the guitar hero fans and college kids. They're always good audiences, that's the weird thing. We play anything and they love it, which makes me worry that we rely on them too much. Ultimately only you know when you're putting it down. Our goal is just to be a good, high energy rock band that won't offend anyone's intelligence. We have no pretense other than being musicians. For some reason, that constantly confuses people. At first we were punks, then Springsteen clones. Most bands from the south are what they are, like Lynyrd Skynyrd. They lived what they played."
Rehearsal is probably the best place to interview Tom Petty because while you're worrying about whether you're due for camels or boils, you can listen to all this wonderful music. Barely a handful of rock 'n' roll songwriters can be described as in their prime these days and Petty is one of them. "Strangered In The Night," "Breakdown," "I Need To Know," "Listen To Her Heart," "Refugee," "What Are You Doin' In My Life," "The Waiting," "Nightwatchman"—try counting the songwriters now in their prime who can bat in that league and see if you can get past your fingers. (Petty himself attributes the current depression in record sales to a lack of great songwriting; "Where's John Fogerty? Where's John Sebastian?") Long After Dark continues in this tradition of excellence—particularly "Deliver Me," "Change Of Heart" and "Straight Into Darkness"—with a slightly harder edge to the Heartbreakers and even greater power in Petty's voice, creating the impression of Buddy Holly being strangled over early Bad Company. Then there are oldies: "So Ya Wanna Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," "Needles And Pins," "Anyway You Want It," "I'm Cryin'," "Girls Are Made To Love." Whatever the band feels like playing, it seems all Petty has to do is stroke a couple of chords to jog his memory and the complete lyrics to Everything That's Good Since 1955 are at his command. Someday he and Springsteen ought to have a battle of the bands in a supermarket parking lot just to see who's got the all-time greatest covers.
"Those Animals, man," enthuses Petty after a terrifically, well, sexy version of "Boom Boom Boom." "They were great, the way everything counted."
Weren't the Heartbreakers also in that tradition of no-wasted-notes? "We can't waste 'em, 'cause we don't know that many," Petty laughs.
Doesn't he have an album's worth of new songs to rehearse? Why's he screwing around with the oldies?
"Anything you play is going to pay off. When the band is playing well off each other, everything falls into place. Besides, I like doing oldies."
Surprisingly non-ideological in his taste, Petty follows the top ten but is also a big fan of the more experimental end of rock. "Without the lunatic fringe, nothing changes. It was a shame what happened to the Ramones. They were the Robert Johnsons of punk, and they really got dumped on. I saw them at the Roxy five or six years ago and everything they were doing then has become commonplace."
The guitars are so heavy on Long After Dark—could he also have been listening to AC/DC lately?
"Yeah, we did listen to them," says Petty. "I like all that power. I'm glad we did Hard Promises, with its more conceptual orientation, but I didn't want to repeat it. The sound on Long After Dark is more the touring side of the band."
Does he have a favourite AC/DC song?
"Probably 'You Shock Me.'"
See? Pick a band, any band, and Tom Petty will know their best song. And that's sort of how he leads the Heartbreakers. He doesn't order anyone around during rehearsal. If you didn't know who he was, it would take you awhile to figure out who's in charge. His is an organic authority, flowing naturally from the guy who knows what needs to be known and has the most hormones to act on it.
The niftiest thing about rehearsal, however, is the firsthand proof that Petty really doesn't need four hundred overdubs to sing that way. Every time he opens his mouth, some phrasing you never even suspected pops out.
"I used to think I couldn't sing at all," says Petty. "It's taken me a couple of years to get used to being up front. I finally developed the confidence to see that if I wasn't so weird, I wouldn't be interesting."
Any special preparation for his voice?
"No, I just get up and start screaming. I don't smoke too much after the show."
Yeah, but half the time it sounds like he's getting the garrote. Surely he most do something to protect the vocal cords.
"I try not to make too big a deal of it," says Petty with a hint of exasperation, in this case a considerate hint to let up before a plague of boils descends. "If you think about something too much, it will happen."
"The great thing about these guys is that there's no cocaine," says Jim Hoskins, percussion engineer and black belt security expert, between tunes. "They learned years ago that you can't get anything done with that stuff. I've been working with bands for fifteen years and this is the first one I've seen to understand that cocaine doesn't lead to anything but trouble."
"There have been so many deaths that it's well documented what people can do and can't do," says Petty later. "I'd be a fool to die of an overdose or mess up my brain now."
Don't rock stars have to live two lives? One as a rock star and one as a human being?
"Two lives—that's a lot of rubbish," Petty spits. "I'm not two people, I'm me. That's all I've ever presented. I don't have some character I put on for the public."
Don't your fans have an image that they expect you to live up to?
"People who meet me when I'm drunk and out of control seem not to be disappointed," says Petty, suddenly pensive. "If they meet me when I'm sober and quiet, it's, 'Come on Tom, do "Breakdown."' People who expect you to perform all the time can be a total drag. Can you imagine being a comedian? People expecting you to tell jokes all the time? That has to be the worst gig going."
The past year has been an exceptional one in Tom Petty's life because he has spent no time in the wilderness battling the forces of the Conglomerate Darkness. This is too bad for the rest of us because when Tom Petty broke an unfair recording contract with MCA and then forced them to back down on an album price rise, it was highly inspirational.
"Most of the last few years, I was ready to throw up my dukes at anything," says Petty, not cringing at any painful memory that might summon up. "Mike Campbell (Heartbreakers' guitarist) says I have trouble with authority, but I don't know. The attitude of give-somebody-a-badge-and-they-automatically-become-an-asshole, I hate that. I don't find it fun to be mean or hold a grudge. Me and MCA have developed a mutual respect. We can both be hardasses. They've treated me very fairly in the past year, but I do have my eye on them.
"Lawyers, you gotta hate them. The situation I was in was like blood on the water for a shark. I spent too much time with them in a feeding frenzy—my own lawyer's okay, though. A lot of my songwriting notebooks were stamped into evidence during the trial, and the lawyers had to read everything in them, so I wrote a song called 'Reptiles' about what scumsuckers lawyers are."
On "A One Story Town," the first song on Long After Dark, the word "shit" appears prominently in the lyrics and is not buried in the mix. Is Petty spoiling for a fight with the FCC, which (especially under Reagan, one would assume) still bars four-letter words?
"Jimmy (Iovine, his producer) may have mentioned that toward the end of the album, but no one in radio has said anything. If people are offended by that, they need to be offended. You can't have much to do if that's working you up. We do have a knack for staying in trouble, but it's nice right now to play music for awhile with no outside interference."
Some critics have felt that Long After Dark lacked the emotional depth of Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises, perhaps because he wasn't being afflicted with any major torment lately.
"It's not hard finding things to write about, if that's what you mean," says Petty. "I never thought about that much, but if I'm bummed out, I don't pick up a guitar and write about it. It's only later when I'm in a good mood that I can write about hard times. Then I can pick up a guitar and bum myself out all night."
It has been widely observed, for example, that John Lennon sang with more intensity when he was unhappy.
"I was glad that John Lennon could be happy for a few years," says Petty, a plague of boils rising in his voice. "If that made people nervous, so what?"
How about the impression that Lennon and a lot of guys seem to sing best when they're angry at women?
"If men could get along with women all the time, why would anyone bother with art?"
"L.A. chicks weird me out," says Stan Lynch, explaining why he lives in Florida and commutes to Los Angeles to play drums for the Heartbreakers. "They've seen so much, so they expect a lot more. Florida chicks haven't seen as much, so their expectations are lower. They're more like a bunch of dudes. Whether you have a house or a tent, a Mercedes or a VW, it doesn't matter."
In the Drumming Mass Spectrometer, Lynch falls more toward the Starr/Watts end of the scale than the Moon/Bonham end, although he does favor T-shirts emblazoned with the RAF symbol as Moon did. On the Heartbreakers Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Lynch plays large happy guy to Petty's short brooding guy.
Now twenty-seven, Lynch took up the drums in junior high. His parents then took up tennis and his band teacher told him he had no future in music. "He was right," says Lynch earnestly. "At the time, I had no attention span or perseverance." Despite such drawbacks, he was invited to join the Heartbreakers, at the age of nineteen. "In my first band, we used to beat on each other all the time, but when you're younger, you heal faster. When I joined these guys, I was told not to hit anyone. We've had our problems over the years, but we're united to make Tom's songs work. Hey, we're lucky. We got a guy who can write a cool tune. How many bands can say that?"
After awhile, the discerning journalist/theologian will shut up and pet Petty/Yahweh talk about whatever's on his mind, in this case fan mail. "We get some pretty weird letters sometimes," says Petty during yet another rehearsal break. "One we got was from this kid who hitchhiked to one of our concerts and the guy who picked him up almost raped his girlfriend. Another kid wanted two tickets to one of our shows because he was dying in a couple of weeks. We tried to check that one out, but it didn't seem too authentic. The letters are either weird like that, or they want to know why Benmont always looks so angry."
Petty bursts out laughing and it appears an opportune moment to ask keyboardist Benmont Tench why does he always look so angry?
"You aren't really going to ask that, are you?" growls Tench, looking so angry that he immediately leaps ten spots to second place (just behind Johnny Rotten) on the All-Time List Of Guys Who Make Interviewers Feel Stupid.
Three other Benmont Tench facts of mild interest but gleaned at high risk to feelings of self-worth: (1) Benmont Tench's father is a judge; (2) Benmont Tench had a good piano teacher when he was little; and (3) Benmont Tench listens to Little Walter on his car stereo.
"High school was great for me," says Stan Lynch during a post-rehearsal bull session. "I went to all five of them in Gainesville and did whatever I wanted. I moved out on my parents and was living with the guitar player in my band,"
How'd he get away with that?
"My parents were getting divorced and I played them off against each other. I was horrible. If my my kid ever pulled that on me, I'd beat him senseless."
Petty came close to that fate on several occasions with his own father, a Gainesville insurance salesman. "My father thought I had the devil in me. I can understand him being a little concerned. I was kinda failing at school. I got this report card with all Fs, except for one D minus in crafts, and he broke all my records. What gets me is I showed up enough to get Fs instead of incompletes."
"They're still talking about him at that school," says Jim Lenehan, a classmate of Petty's then, and now one of several smart roadies around the Heartbreakers (the guy just sold a screenplay to Walt Disney).
"Yeah, I was a problem to society," Petty smiles with such charm that you feel you're getting 8,000 camels. "My crafts teacher, the one who gave me the D minus, she wanted me to stop hanging out with musicians. 'Look at Elvis Presley,' she said. 'If he hadn't the talent and a good manager, he wouldn't have had a job to fall back on.' I always thought Elvis was kind of a poor example to prove her point."
Petty's academic career was further distinguished by a minor flirtation with vandalism. "We weren't the city toughs or anything," reminisces Petty. "A lotta guys could have whipped our ass, but we had this contest stealing hood ornaments. Ten points for a star off a Continental or a Mercedes down to half a point for any letter in the word Rambler. We never knew how many of us there were until they arrested us all in school one day. It's real hard explaining to your father why you just kicked off all the hood ornaments in a parking lot. They put me on probation. It was then that I took up guitar seriously."
Does he have any theories on why he had the strength to stand up to a crushing education system when most people just get crushed?
"Maybe it was getting my ass beat all the time for having long hair," says Petty. "I don't know, really. Some people just don't hit it off in school. It's not necessarily wrong for everybody. Being ignorant is nothing to be proud of. There's nothing more dangerous than being ignorant."
North Florida was a good place to take up guitar seriously in the late 60s and early 70s. Don Felder and Bernie Leadon (later Eagles) were kings of the heap in Gainesville and Duane Allman was tearing it up in Daytona. And when Tom Petty turned eighteen, there was Mudcrutch.
"My first gig with the band was in a bar backing these two topless dancers named Bubbles and Laura," Mike Campbell remembers. "Bubbles looked like Buck Owens. Laura looked okay but had terminal syph or something. I remember thinking, 'This isn't what rock 'n' roll is supposed to be.'"
Campbell's feeling proved prescient. Mudcrutch disbanded after a lot of futility and one single, "Depot Street," a reggae tune recorded before anyone in white America knew what reggae was. But it did bring together Petty, Campbell and Tench who later regrouped with a couple of other Gainesville natives (Lynch and bassist Ron Blair) as the Heartbreakers. This time, though, the lines of authority were clearly drawn.
"Tom is just a natural leader," says Campbell. "He has the vision and he's mentally dominant. He's like Dylan. He can walk into a room full of strangers and nail them all on their bullshit. Like the lawyers. They thought they were dealing with a bunch of dummies. And we didn't know much legal language, but Tom could cut to the heart of the issue better than anybody."
Nine months older than Petty, Campbell is probably the least known ace guitarist in the top echelons of rock 'n' roll, probably because he doesn't look the part, other than being skinny. His eyes are sad and thoughtful, his manner quiet, but his lead licks burn with the best. He is also coming into his own as a composer, having contributed the music to four tunes on Long After Dark and the transcendant "Refugee" from Damn The Torpedoes.
"I just gave Tom the cassette one day and he came back with these amazing lyrics," says Campbell. "I'm real proud of the song, but whatever I write now, the automatic reaction is, 'Well, it's good, but it's not "Refugee."' And they're right. After you've said, 'Everybody's got to fight to be free,' what else is there?"
If anyone could say anything after that, it would be Jimmy Iovine, who's been engineering and then producing albums (with Springsteen, Seger, Nicks, Stewart and Petty, among others) with a single-minded dedication that would shame Vince Lombardi. He doesn't drink or smoke or take drugs, he hasn't had a vacation in ten years (since he was nineteen), and when he wants to discuss something, he's been known to telephone a guy three times during the same shower.
"He's a prodigy and his credits are excellent," says Howie Epstein, the newest Heartbreaker, with something akin to fear in his eyes. Epstein took over from Ron Blair (now running a bikini store with his wife) at the beginning of the new album after gigs with John Hiatt and Del Shannon. "But he takes some getting used to. If something stinks, he tells you."
"He got his head taken off the minute he walked in," says Iovine, sitting in Pietro's Pizza Parlor on the top of Mulholland Drive. "He was real nervous at first and I wanted him to play like he'd been in the band for a long time, so I came on like a tornado. We had no time for him to be nervous. He was intimidated but the growing period was shorter. It was basically a confrontation. 'Here's this wonderful job, how you handle it is up to you. Win or lose, it's your decision.' And Howie came through with flying colors.
"If what you decide at any given moment in a situation is right, that's the mark of a good producer. I'm not talking about deciding on guitar sounds—I have no patience for sounds—but about how to handle people. Shelly Yakus (Petty's longtime producer), he has patience for sounds. I have patience for, maybe not people, but songwriting."
Iovine's relationship with Petty (roughly Yoda's to Luke Skywalker) goes back to the lawsuit with MCA. Iovine called out of the blue to offer a little moral support (he'd seen Springsteen go through the same mess) and the two became friends, co-producing Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises, and Long After Dark.
"Some artists you have to walk around the block," says Iovine. "Tom wants total honesty at all times. The point is to be what the artist needs. Producers who come in like a bulldozer and want to put their stamp on the artist will last maybe two and a half years on the basis of their first hit. I always remember I'm working for the artist—the moment you forget that, you lose. I only work with people because I want their instincts to come out as purely as possible. In Tom's case, he wants to be pushed, so I torture him on the writing. I call him every day and squeeze and squeeze until he's got every song out of him that he possibly could in a given period of time."
Does he agree with Tom's assessment of "tricking" the band onto the record?
"You keep them playing until the moment comes, yeah," says Iovine. "The recording studio is a very unnatural place to make music. It's dark, it's dead sounding, and someone is saying, 'This is take four, please be a genius.' The producer has to create the illusion of a good atmosphere for music."
Being a natural if unschooled psychologist, does he have any theories on where Petty gets his courage? Was it grace?
"It's what he ate for breakfast in the eighth grade," says Iovine. "Who knows? But if he wasn't like that, he wouldn't be here. He doesn't write his songs because he heard something similar on the radio. No one could write songs like that from that place in his head. He writes those songs out of commitment and courage. There's nothing calculated about Tom Petty."
Tom Petty and Mike Campbell change guitars like some people change radio stations—after damned near every song, but they do have certain favorites that they keep returning to: Les Paul Gold Top, Fender Strat, California Classic Telecaster and three (count 'em) Rickenbacker twelve-strings. Pickups and insides are standard. The strings, which they change "only if they break," according to equipment man Bugs, are Ernie Ball Regular Slinky. Ever loyal to their roots, both Petty and Campbell play through very cool looking Vox Super Beatle amps, jazzed up with Echoplex and MXR Dyna Comp.
Stan Lynch claims to have "about twenty-five" drum sets but prefers a black Tama outfit with which he's been monogamous for several years: 24-by-18-inch bass frum, 13-by-9 inch and 14-by-10 inch rack toms, 16-by-18-inch floor tom. Over these he stretches Remo Ambassador Batter drumheads, which he beats with Bunken Stan Lynch model sticks. For some crash with his boom, he beats Zildjian cymbals: 15-inch hi-hats, 18-inch crash, 24-inch ride, 24-inch Paiste Chinese.
Benmont Tench surrounds himself with: Hammond C3, Keyboard Products Leslie, Wurlitzer piano, ARP String Ensemble, Oberheim OBX-A (Petty has one of these, too).
They all use Shure SM57s, are mixed through a Davey Bryson console and are heard through Jensen Bulldogs.
Percussionist Phil Jones helps out in concert with Valje congas and a dimestore aggregation of bongos, timbales, duck calls, tambourines and shakers.