Editor's Note: Thanks to Sue Reaney for the scan.
Tom Petty's New Tales Of The Old South
By Gary Graff
Creem - October 1985
First there's The Hand Story, or how Tom Petty learned that—as Johnny Mercer once wrote—when an irresistible force meets an old unmovable object, something's gotta give.
He learned the hard way. What gave in this case were several bones in Petty's left hand.
It was one night last October, and the 33-year-old Petty was in the studio of his Los Angeles home working double-time with two engineers, humping to finish the mix on his new Southern Accents album to maybe have a release by Christmas—meaning it would be his first record in two years.
Things were running late and Petty was getting a bit edgy. He rubbed his temples, took a deep breath and decided maybe a bit of fresh air might help.
"I was going up the stairwell from the studio to my house," he remembered. "I was frustrated or something, so I just slapped my hand against the wall. I wasn't trying to hurt myself."
That he did, though. He broke several bones in the hand he uses to make chords on his guitar and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital for a long night of X-rays and, eventually, an operation to insert several tiny metal pins in the hand to hold it together. The album was put on indefinite hold and, more important, his career was in danger. Doctors said he might never be able to play guitar again.
And it didn't take long for members of his group, the Heartbreakers, to start referring to Petty as the "L.S."—lead singer.
Petty surprised 'em all, though. Through several months of intense therapy and electroshock treatments, he regained almost full use of his hand. He still can't lift much weight, he said, but by the time he started the Southern Accents tour in June, Petty was playing his guitar up to three hours a day, and his doctors felt that was doing him as much good as the treatments they'd prescribed.
And, the pop star added, the whole incident taught him to be a lot calmer about life's little hassles.
"It's taken that temperament right outta me, let me tell you," he said.
You can say that with Tom Petty, it always has to be something. A broken hand before Southern Accents just seemed to fit the long line of turmoil that's preceded Petty's best albums.
Before his 1980 breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes, he fired a few shots at his record company. In 1979, MCA bought out ABC-Dunhill Records, the parent company of Shelter Records, which had released the first two albums by Petty and the Heartbreakers—formed in 1973 as Mudcrutch in their Gainesville, Fla. hometown. Petty didn't like the idea that his contract was blindly transferred to a new company, so he asked to be let out.
MCA took him to court for breach of contract, and when the smoke cleared, Petty emerged victorious, signed to Elliot Roberts's high-powered Lookout Management (which he shares with Yes and Neil Young) and Backstreet Records, which is distributed by MCA.
His next album, 1981's Hard Promises, brought a new set of tribulations. MCA wanted to put it out with a $9.98 list price, then unprecedented in the record industry (talk about the good ol' days, huh?). Petty's "no way"—he even threatened to title the album Eight Ninety Eight—resounded throughout the music press, causing MCA to be swamped with letters.
"The $9.98 thing, I really didn't know what I could do," he said in an interview two years ago. "I just hung in there. The public and the press and those millions of letters really did the job. (The company) will never tell me why they really dropped the price.
"All that controversy is really a pain in the ass," he explained. "I don't like to fight any more than anyone else. It's never anything I did for attention; it's probably something everybody goes through but doesn't face up to.
"Lately the record company and I seem to understand each other. They seem to understand me a lot better after all this."
Oddly enough, Long After Dark—the one Petty album that came out sans any pre-release tension—was the closest thing to a failure he's had. It didn't sell nearly as well as Damn the Torpedoes or Hard Promises, and critics (even Petty himself) felt the album was a bit same-sounding and lacked the dynamic, jugular approach of those records.
So now comes Southern Accents, following a physical trauma by making it into the Top 10 and making Petty hot property again. Is he thinking about what needs to go wrong before he releases his next album?
"We do have a knack for some strange things happening to us," Petty admitted with a laugh. "I'm not looking for them, let me tell ya. I hope people don't expect me to go through some huge trauma before every album."
The key in The Hand Story, however, is that it became the focus for people's attention, glossing over perhaps the most disturbing problem Petty has ever encountered in his 15-year musical career.
Two years ago, when Petty came off the road from the Long After Dark tour, he was suffering a distinct lack of enthusiasm for his career. He was tired of it all—weary of touring, drained by the various business hassles and, most damaging of all, afraid that his creative juices might have spent too much time in the same pitcher.
First of all, he agreed with detractors of the Long After Dark album, critics and fans who thought that the record, unlike his previous releases, didn't "say anything" the way his other material had. "It's funny," he said, "When I hear Long After Dark now, I say, 'This is great. Why was I so down on it?'
"It's just a record of pop songs, but I was feeling pressure, people saying that, 'You didn't send us a message!' Well, I didn't have any message to send. That's a hard expectation to live with; it's flattering in one way, but I've never been able to look at myself well in that light. I get too self-conscious...
"It's hard to complain—what you're really striving for is to inspire someone. But it does seem in the last few years there's a certain great expectation of us, and that can cause a certain amount of pressure."
The pressure started to split the seams of the Heartbreakers even during the Hard Promises tour. "I think I started to take it all too seriously," he admitted. "I really wanted to part the Red Sea every night. I felt I had to."
That attitude caused some infighting and cost the band original bassist Ron Blair, who decided to chuck the group and open a bikini store with his wife in Florida. And when Petty's bid for a straight pop album with Long After Dark wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm, things started to get grim in the ol' Heartbreakers camp.
"We'd been out there for seven years and had fallen into a routine," Petty said. "Just the routine of it wore us down. I was bored with what we were doing; I couldn't get behind it anymore. We said, 'This ain't why we started this band.' I didn't even intend to do any more shows when he stopped that (1983) tour. I planned to quit the road. I needed a few years to get out of it."
The other Heartbreakers seemed to concur with Petty's sentiment. Guitarist Mike Campbell stretched out to work with Don Henley, while keyboardist Benmont Tench recorded and toured with Stevie Nicks, then produced Lone Justice. Drummer Stan lynch and bassist Howie Epstein joined that pair to do some recording with Bob Dylan and the Eurythmics—all with the boss's blessings.
"I thought it was great they were doing it," he said. "I didn't realize they had played on so many records. They don't consider themselves session players—they usually don't even ask for money.
"And this way, I know we're welcome in most dressing rooms around the world."
Petty, meanwhile, slowly found a way to get excited about music again. He looked to the South.
It's hard to remember that Petty is a Southern boy. Born in Florida, he spent 23 years in that region, drinking moonshine whiskey, playing in bands and making trouble. But with only a slight drawl remaining after 10 years of living in Los Angeles, his beach-blond looks are distinctively Californian and his music has more in common with the Byrds and mid-'60s British pop than the twang-drenched boogie of Southern rockers like the Allman brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But he described himself as "about 65 percent Southern" and 35 percent whatever else. He still speaks with lots of Southern expressions—"let me tell ya," for instance, or "Don't Come Around Here No More," the title of the first single from Southern Accents—and he still likes to visit his father and brothers in Florida with his wife and two daughters.
"It's hard to beat it all out of someone," he said. "When I'm down there, in a minute I feel real comfortable and at home. It's a romantic place; any place with a culture that strong is pretty interesting. There's some bad aspects to it too, but there are good people down there, really friendly and polite.
"I'm glad we've had a chance to make people understand that we are Southern," he explained. "I spent more than 20 years down there. The music was formed there. I like it mainly 'cause there is so much music down there, from the old hillbilly stuff to the Stax stuff from Memphis."
Petty started writing about the South during the Long after Dark tour in Atlanta, and he continued from his home after the tour ended. He began drawing from his own experiences, crafting stories about good ol' boys, strong-willed women and rebels with "one foot in the grave/and one foot on the pedal." "It was a nice change," Petty said. "I could assume characters instead of going into it saying, 'Here's what Tom Petty has to say at this time. Here's what's on his mind.'
"The funny thing, of course, is when you're playing characters, it's pretty revealing about yourself in the end, I'm afraid."
There was a musical direction to ponder as well. He knew he wanted to change from the straight rock style he'd pursued for 15 years, particularly after he heard Robbie Robertson's down-homey production on a song Petty had written called "The Best Of Everything." "I said, 'Wow, there's a lot more we can be doing,'" Petty recalled. "All of a sudden, I was interested again."
Initially, he wanted to keep with the spirit of the songs, so in its first incarnation Southern Accents was full of literal Southern styles. But then he decided that could be a bit much to ask of his listeners.
Enter David Stewart.
Petty met the musical leader of Eurythmics through producer and close friend Jimmy Iovine, also friends with Stewart. Petty professed his admiration of Eurythmics—"those guys are so good, better than all the English groups that go bop-de-bop"—and one night in Los Angeles Iovine introduced the two of them.
The normally shy Petty and the wacky Stewart—he who once jumped onstage with Simple Minds saying his body had been taken over by a "cerebral orgasm"—hit it off at once. Within minutes of meeting, Petty showed Stewart a song he had been working on. Stewart made a few suggestions, like using a sitar. In 20 minutes they had written "Don't Come Around Here No More."
They spent the rest of the night finishing that song and finding out they had a lot in common. Like being obsessed with their home studios. Or loving old rhythm 'n' blues music, reflected in the second single they wrote for Southern Accents, "Make It Better (Forget About Me)." "The best thing that came out of it," Petty said, "was I got a really good friend out of the deal."
And he also got plenty of musical inspiration. "Being with different people and in different surroundings, the temptation to experiment was even greater. I didn't worry about how far we went."