Tom Petty's Pet Sounds
Newsweek -- November 7, 1994
Tom Petty's house, in the hills of Encino high above Ventura Boulevard, is kind of a cross between a mansion and a garage. The living room is an airy two-story foyer with a curving staircase, balcony and enormous free-standing fireplace and chimney. There's lots of polished wood, spotless carpeting and a German shepherd guard dog named Enzo to greet you. But hidden behind the vast chimney is a platform where Petty has his band gear set up, rec-room style. There's a drum kit, keyboards and loads of amplifiers--a 1965 Kustom-brand rack in padded blue-sparkle vinyl, a tiny old Fender tweed with the word MUDCRUTCH stenciled on top. Mudcrutch was Petty's band when he was a kid. Even at 48, he likes to plug in his guitar and play, loud.
After 18 years and sales of more than 40 million world-wide, Petty has yet to venture far from his roots. This week he releases his 11th album, "Wildflowers" (Warner Bros.). Produced by Rick Rubin, the former metal and hip-hop dude whose recent achievements include Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," "Wildflowers" was made entirely with organic instruments - no synthesizers, no computers, no high-tech studio wizardry. Instead, Petty and Rubin went for Mellotron, harmonium and other archaic keyboard sounds that evoke experimental mid-'60s records like the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds." "That music's made such an impression on me," Petty says. "I have all the outtakes of 'Pet Sounds,' all the tapes of them rehearsing. I'll sometimes listen to one track being made for two hours, and it completely entertains me. It drives other people crazy."
Petty has always worn his influences on his sleeve. Since early hits like "Refugee" and "American Girl" made him an FM radio staple, his idols have been readily trace-able--maybe too traceable-in his work: Dylan, Beatles, Byrds, Stones. But in the past five years, through albums like "Full Moon Fever" and "Into the Great WideOpen" and his stint with the Traveling Wilburys, a mature sensibility has emerged. The video for "Free Fallin'," set on and around Ventura Boulevard, said it all: Petty is the strip-mall Dylan, translating those heady '60s icons down to a younger generation's less heady concerns.
"Wildflowers" contains some of his strongest songwriting ever. Petty is known more for archetypes than subtle emotional shading-his favorite character has always been the girl who loves Elvis and her car radio-but here he captures people at their most confused, frightened or revealing moments. Sleazy guys pick on innocent girls; solid marriages go awry; friends let friends down, and still despair gives way to renewal. "It's not all nailed down," says Petty. "Which I'm working at. I like things left ambiguous to some degree."
Petty's own life has a rock-and-roll story-book quality. He grew up poor in Gainesville, Fla., with a father who worked in the insurance business: "It was a cinder-block house in a subdivision. Hot as hell. No airconditioning." But life in the swamps had its peculiar charms. "We did things like go get crawfish out of the sewer," Petty says. "We'd make bamboo spears and try to nail these crawfish. I remember my mom: 'Jesus, he's been in the sewer all day!' We were really proud of this bucket of crawfish, and she's going, 'Throw them away! I don't want them anywhere around!'"
By the time he was 14, Petty was playing in bands; by 16, he had fallen for the Byrds. He began itching to move to L.A. "I always loved it, even before I came here," he says. "I thought, what a wonderful place it must be, to have the Byrds there. And then I learned that, oh, you mean that's where they make the movies too? What a wonderful place." Around 1974 he finally made it out of Gainesville, and in two years he released his debut album with the Heartbreakers. But Petty never really adjusted to the music business. His third album, "Damn the Torpedoes," was delayed because of a legal dispute with his record company; his fourth, "Hard Promises," because he was boycotting his label's decision to hike up his album price. In 1984, worn out and frustrated, he smashed his hand into a wall, breaking several bones. In 1987, somebody burned down his house.
Petty built it again. "I always felt like 'You didn't get me'," he says. "And I'm going to flaunt it forever that you missed." The arsonist was never found, but somehow the accumulation of events gave Petty a new focus. These days his life is on track. He is still married to his wife of 21 years, Jane, whom he's known since their high-school days. Their daughter Adria, 20, studies film in New York; Kim, 12, lives at home.
After the interview, Petty walks into the big kitchen, where Jane and a housekeeper are getting dinner ready. He's in a good mood, bouncing around the room, nibbling. Jane, who has long, streaked blond hair and a solid Gainesville drawl, goes outside onto the porch, and Petty follows her.
"Hey Jane!" he says, jumping kid-like down the stairs. "Wanna go skateboarding?"
"No!" says Jane good-humoredly.
So Petty and Enzo the dog go play on the lawn. They run around and chase each other, fading left and right, twisting in circles. Petty has done it a thousand times before, but he never gets tired of it. He never gets tired of the things he likes.