Date: ca. 1999
Interviewer: Jaan Uhelszki
Interviewee: Tom Petty
Notes: An edited version of this interview can be found in May 1999's MOJO magazine. As well, the last part of the interview itself is missing. If anyone has it, please send it along!
Tom Petty tells how a horrible fire helped him lighten up, and explains why we won't be seeing any more solo projects from him.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been one of America's most enduring institutions, despite the fact that they haven't released an album of new material since 1991's Into The Great Wide Open, produced by Petty's Traveling Wilbury sidekick Jeff Lynne.
Prior to Wide Open, some of the more cynical observers speculated that Petty would cut loose from his band of merry men, after he gained phenomenal success with his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever, and newfound cult status as a member of the Wilburys, an outfit made up of some of rock's biggest icons.
Although Petty rubbed elbows with Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison, his Beatle-booted feet always were firmly planted on the ground. The rangy Florida native, with his emotionally charged songs of outcasts, American losers, fleeing women, and rebel-hearted fantasies, forged an important link between the pantheon of the gods and the common man.
Two years ago, Petty and the Heartbreakers set up camp at San Francisco's historic Fillmore Auditorium for a 20-show residency to celebrate the band's 20th anniversary, and the chemistry generated between the former boyhood pals (sans drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair) reinvigorated their commitment to the band they formed in a Gainesville, Florida, carport so long ago. They headed back into a Los Angeles studio and came up with a record that takes the listener back to the band's very beginnings.
The appropriately titled Echo, produced by Petty, Mike Campbell, and Rick Rubin, is as live and edgy as anything on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled 1976 debut. The title track, with its lament about love gone awry, is the bleakest on the album. But "Free Girl Now," which they recorded in one take, shows a band at its apogee, without sacrificing any of the rawness of the early years. Petty and the Heartbreakers returned to the Fillmore in March for a seven-night stand, which was a thank-you to the fans who allowed them to practice group therapy in front of them two years before.
While he was in San Francisco, Petty talked to the Allmusic Zine about what it's like to be a member of a band, and how all that solo stuff is behind him. He's a man comfortable in his own skin and content with his choices. But that's not to say he's lost his irascible edge. He says the greatest misconception people have about him is that he's laid-back. Still angular and blond at 48, he reveals how the adversity in his life gave him new energy and testily insists that he isn't the pothead that people think he is.
Back to San Francisco
What's with the fascination with San Francisco? Two years ago you staged 20 shows at the Fillmore, and now you're here for seven days. What's up?
I thought the Fillmore would be the best place to do it, because the audience here is much more forgiving in as far as letting you experiment. And it proved true. They just went with us, to the point that we got very comfortable over that long run. I think the long run was a great idea, because we weren't promoting anything, and we had no reason to do it, other than we wanted to do it. We wanted to play a residency, which we hadn't done since 1970. When I first met Mike [Campbell] and Ben [Tench], we played like a residency in this club in Gainesville, Florida. So we did it and it proved very successful in terms of rejuvenating us, and making us feel good about the band, and whether we should carry this thing on a little further.
I think we took that sort of inspiration, or whatever it was, into the studio with us. It felt like we had a really good little rock and roll band, and we said we ought to make a record like we were a rock and roll band. It was kind of fun, because we tried to arrange the music to where we could get it mostly down in one pass. We didn't have anyone in the studio with us. Mike Campbell did the engineering, so he'd literally punch "record" and turn his guitar on and then we'd go. We did about 25 tracks that way. Mike and I had no idea which the best 25 tracks were. So we brought Rick Rubin in, and he helped us sort it out and finish the record off.
This record does have the raw feel of some of your earlier stuff.
It's kind of the way we did the earlier stuff. I don't even think the earlier stuff was quite as live as this was. It's a much better band than we were in '76. We're much more of an accomplished band. We can read each other's minds better than we could then.
And you get all the conflicts and personal politics out of the way by this time.
[Laughing.] You'd think so. [More laughing.] You'd think so, but you've always got new issues. But we get along really good these days. Really.
I apologize for leaving Scott Thurston out of my review of your show. Especially since he was once a Stooge, I feel doubly bad. But is he officially a Heartbreaker?
Well, he is really a Heartbreaker. I don't know if we've ever told him he is.
Well, then it's time you told him that you love him.
We tell him we love him all the time. We hug him and kiss him a lot. Maybe too much. He's been around 11 years now, but he's still the new guy. But I love him. He's really becoming my alter ego, I think. He's so talented. He's really added a lot to the band. He's added a lot of morale to the band. It's nice to have someone come in and say, "You guys are good. You should realize it, and cherish it."
A little praise goes a long way. But you think you'd hear it all the time.
It does go a long way. Especially because people think you get it all the time. But you don't. We don't. People are embarrassed to say too much, because they think we hear it all the time. Everyone thinks that, so you never get anything. Yeah, I like a little slap on the back now and then like everybody else.
An Embarrassing Moment
When I saw the Heartbreakers play on opening night of your Fillmore run, the fans were singing along from moment one. Was that enough love?
It's mostly that way in the arenas with lots and lots of people. That's kind of an overwhelming thing. You sit back and go, "Gee, it's louder than us." But it's nice. No, it's great that the songs mean that much to them that they know them better than I do.
I had an embarrassing moment last night. For some reason I decided I was going to play -- we'd gone way off the set list, way off; six or seven songs off it -- and I decided I 'm going to play "Learning To Fly." I start it, and the whole room starts to sing it, and midway through the first verse I realize I don't know it. And I just stopped and said, "I'm sorry I don't remember it." And I just went into another song. But they all knew it, but I'd forgotten it. [Laughs.] I thought I knew it.
But given your huge body of work, it's understandable. It always amazes me what people remember.
There's so many songs and that was one I probably hadn't played in five years. I thought I knew it because I'd done it so many times. But I didn't really know it. And them singing it actually put me off a little bit, because I knew they knew it. Then it was, "Oh hell, I'm going to do something else." And they were OK with it.
But that's one of the reasons they care. You are so at ease onstage, you're so comfortable. Doesn't anything ever embarrass you?
Yeah, sure. I'm embarrassed all the time. I don't really get embarrassed at the shows. It's kind of a safe environment. I know I'll be OK. I don't like to drop my tray in the lunchroom or any of those kinds of things.
Again, I think one of the reason for your enormous appeal is that you seem like one of us. You're the missing link between the common man and the gods. What with hobnobbing with people like Dylan, or recording with the Traveling Wilburys.
I've never thought of it that way, but I guess it could be seen that way.
That's what intrigues me the most. You're much younger than those guys, and they belong to such an exclusive club that they rarely initiate new members in that pantheon of icons.
I'm seven years younger than them now. They're like my older brothers. It's very strange, you know. I was telling a friend of mine the other day how odd it is that I never sought out any of those people. Any of my heroes. And somehow the ones that really matter to me, I got to know them all well. I got to know them past what we've done. I got to know them really well as people and became really good friends with them. So it's embarrassing. I never mention my friends to people because they think I'm bragging. But it is kind of cool.
And I've always been up-front with them too, about how cool I think it is. And they've been a big help to me in many ways. Especially George [Harrison] because he's someone who's been through all this. And I don't have an older brother, and he's always been there to advise me. He'd tell me, "It's like this," or says, "I wouldn't take that seriously at all." It's great to know someone who has been through all that. Because it's an unusual way to live sometimes, and to know someone who has been through it, it's great.
Do you have a relatively normal life when you're not on the road or making a record?
I hope so.
You give the appearance of being one of the more balanced celebrities.
I'm not really all that balanced. I'm really not that normal really. People see me as normal. I'm not really. I think I'm really very complicated. But I don't go around with bodyguards and play that game. But I guess I'm probably normal and not normal at the same time.
But aren't you nice to the little guys? Your fans? People who work for you?
But why wouldn't you be? That's just part of having fun. I can't even understand why you wouldn't be nice to your fans. But I hear these stories about people who really buy into that whole scene. But I personally never have even had time for that. I don't have time for anybody like that. I find it comical. So I hope and pray that I never become that way. Usually when you run into people who are like that -- this goes back to my Wilbury friends and stuff -- people that are really, really good don't act that way. I've never come across someone who was really good at what they did that had any reason to act that way.
I was especially enchanted with the cover songs you did the night I saw you.
What did we do?
"Call Me The Breeze," "Lay Down My Old Guitar."
That's the Delmore Brothers. That's really old. Scott taught me that.
Last night you did "The Letter," which I'm sorry I missed. So what are the criteria for choosing cover songs?
We did "The Letter." We did a pretty good "Heart of Stone." We didn't know we could it that good.
Do you talk about it beforehand?
Sometimes. Steve Ferrone, who joined the band four years ago, he's still not used to playing a song he's never played before. But I'll do that with him. I'll just start playing and just look at him -- and he'll start to play. But he gives me this look that says, "OK, what's this?"
You're doing some blues covers, and things I imagine you listened to in Florida as a kid, but I always pegged you as a British Invasion type. Did Florida bands have any impact on you?
I was a big British Invasion kid. Our music was all built on that. And then we used to play a lot with Lynyrd Skynyrd when we were Mudcrutch. This was before any of us had made records. They played around there too. I saw their music more taking off towards Led Zeppelin. They were definitely moving that way, but ours was moving in another. We respected them. I know we thought they were good. And we loved the Allmans. The Allmans was the first band I ever saw, but they were called the Escorts. There was four of them, and they wore Beatle suits and Beatle haircuts, and they just played Beatle music. And I thought they were great. Then they started to put Ray Charles in and stuff. And then I watched them move into that Allman Brothers Band thing. And that was really great. But that wasn't what we thought we should do.
It became so immensely popular down there, that people didn't really like us. We were expected to do long solos, which we could do -- we loved blues, we always loved blues and we learned to play it. But we've never really done it much on record. Which is another bone of contention that we were having the other night about why the blues gets thrown off of every record. It's always the first thing to go when the record is too long.
But it was a problem for us. We went up to Capricorn Records and made the drive up. I remember hanging around the studio with this band called the Marshall Tucker Band. They were making their first record, and they invited us in, and we sat around all day and waited for someone to listen to our tape. And the answer was, "It's too British. It sounds too English." So we decided then we were going to California. Florida just wasn't the place for us. We'd done everything we could do there. We had a huge following there. We could do a thousand people there. It had gotten to that when we left. But it wasn't going anywhere for us. So in 1974 we packed up and moved.
Is there any part of you that still feels like a Southern man?
Yeah. I grew up there. So I have roots there. I still have family there. I really think it really helped in some way where we grew up. It was a real musical place. You have lots of good musicians and lots of places to play because of the college. And you had to be good there, too. If you weren't pretty good you wouldn't get a gig, because there were too many people that were good. So when we were really little boys we had to practice and get pretty good.
When we got to California we were amazed at like how these bands were that we really looked up to and that had records out. We'd go to see them, and they were really weak on the stage. We'd say, "All they've got is haircuts."
The name of the album is Echo. What are you echoing?
I don't know.
"Echo" is a rather sad song.
I know it is. I think it was just meant as reflection. Reflection and refraction.
I don't know, I think the production values, some of the song content, and just the way it sounds, I think this album seems to hearken back to the beginning of the Heartbreakers.
It could be. It's really hard to nail down in words. I can't do it. But I can go along with it.
I think there's a certain kind of destiny, or following along a road. And maybe it's as simple as this is just another piece of the road. For years people thought there might not even be a Heartbreakers. And here you are with them again.
I never thought that. I always thought we'd come through. We did lose Stan [Lynch], which was a big part of it. For him to leave was a major change, so this is kind of Mach 2 Heartbreakers. I thought I saw Stan from the balcony when I was playing the other night. I looked up and said, "Oh my God, it's Stan." But it wasn't.
Being in a Band
Is there anything that reminds you of Stan [Lynch]? A song that conjures him up?
"The Waiting" always reminds me of Stan when I hear it, because he's the only drummer in the world who could play it. Nobody could play that song but him. That record is completely him. I mean it's all how the drums are played. I have never played it since he's been gone. I heard a record that Linda Ronstadt did of it, and she did it very well. But the main thing was that nobody could play that but Stan. That's the way he played. He played very lyrically.
The band is so tight. But it always seemed to be early on. There was a rumor that you rehearsed incessantly.
We're not as well rehearsed as people think. But it's like one mind. With just the raise of an eyebrow, or the look of an eye can say so much. I really think I'd quit if I had to play with a backup band or studio guys. I'd quit. I'm too spoiled. I'm in a good group. I really think they think I'm just a member of the group.
That's a question everybody always wants to know. Do you have your own dressing room?
I only recently got it a few years back. And that was only because I demanded it. And they could all have them too, if they demanded it.
But you have high-maintenance hair, and they don't.
I just need privacy sometimes. I've got more people looking for me, and I have to get away from it all. Even from people who are back there that can be back there can really drain you before you even get on the stage. I just hide out. They know if Mike [Campbell] wanted his own room, he'd have it.
How do you get ready for a show? Do you have any arcane rituals that you follow?
I need a little time to myself. I like to have a half an hour or so. Then I usually warm up my voice, get my guitar. Sing something and warm up a little bit, and get confidence the voice is working. And when that's OK, I have a cup of tea, and then I'm ready to go on. I usually have the band come down. They all come down to my room about 15-20 minutes before we go on, and we sit there and talk just so we feel like a unit. There's nothing like a band. It's a hard thing to pull off in music these days because your bass player never gets as much as your singer, so it's hard to keep them together. We're beyond a band. We're like a family. I grew up with these guys and they're closer to me than any relatives I have. We've spent all that time together. They really understand what I've gone through. I think I understand what they've gone through. But it's not the kind of thing you can tell people about. They're not going to get it.
It's hard to talk about the love/hate aspects of the relationship, I imagine. Do you see the band on your off time?
Not anymore. Not as much. We do see each other but not as much as we used to because everyone has their own lives -- they're so entrenched in their own lives and their own set of friends. I think we see each other more through mutual friends than we do by calling each other up and saying, "Let's hang out."
Have you gotten more antisocial as you've gotten older? I find I'm fonder of sitting home watching rented movies than going out clubbing.
I like to do that too. I love to watch movies. But I've made myself go out because I don't want to get completely removed.
What do you do when you go out? Go see other bands?
No. I never go see bands very much. I do anything but that. I don't know. Scott and I hang out a lot lately.
And don't you have a relatively new relationship?
Come on, answer the question.
Yes I do.
But didn't you marry your high school sweetheart?
No, I didn't know her in high school, but I have known her forever. But I got a divorce a few years ago, and I have a new girlfriend now, so that's exciting.
"Why Do You Want to Kill Me?"
When your house burned down a few years ago, you said that that was a watershed for you. You said you didn't write any angry songs after that. Can you explain that? Was the fire a metaphor for you?
Yeah. Without even getting poetic, that's what it was. It was so vicious and angry, that it completely scared all of that out of me. I didn't want to do anything except sing really light, happy music after that. In retrospect -- I don't think I always know this while I'm doing it -- but in retrospect, I wanted to go to some much lighter place. I was really glad to be alive and never had that before. I was like someone who had survived a plane crash. You're just really glad that they didn't get you. And they didn't get me. If you've ever had anybody try to kill you, it really makes you re-evaluate everything. Like, "Why do you want to kill me?"
Did they ever find out who it was?
No, they never caught him. But they were sure someone went for it. The funny thing was I kept insisting it was an accident, telling the investigators, "Who'd want to kill me?" And then 10 people confessed to the police. None of them did it. But they wanted to confess. It really turned me around. Fortunately I left on a tour days later. We went on tour and I didn't live anywhere. So it was all contained on the road luckily.
And you never had another incident where someone targeted you?
Well, it's not good to go into that. I've had it, but it's nothing I think about.
But let's get back to how the fire, and the knowledge that someone was trying to kill you, changed you.
I think it revitalized me. I kind of came out of it in a good spot. It just made me glad to be alive for a long time.
What about when you hit your hand into the wall after the recording of Southern Accents? Was that also a turning point for you?
A change for the better. Do you think that change is always positive?
I have to think that, or how can you go on? But the hand thing was sort of embarrassing when I look back on it, because I just broke it in a fit of temper, and temper is not good. Not to have that kind of temper. And I think the temper was fueled by drugs and alcohol. It was just a dumb thing. It was as dumb as being a football hooligan. I was just pissed off, frustrated and I really, really, really, really broke my hand. I pulverized every bone in it. It was just powder.
I broke my arm two years ago. I was learning to kick box, and I fell and broke my arm, and when I went into the hospital they X-rayed it. It was the same arm as the hand. Every doctor who would walk in, even doctors who weren't treating me, would walk through the room and see the X-rays and go "Wow! Will you look at this!" It was all the metal in my hand. "Come over here. Look at this," I'd hear all day long. No one was paying any attention to the arm. It was all the metal in the end of the hand. It's all wires and studs. But I've never set off any alarms at the airport. But better than that, my hand works really good. It was a long operation, and a long recovery. But I always thought it would come back. I was never worried about it.
What about the anger? Have you tamed it? You don't seem like an angry guy now.
Not today. I can get mad. But I'm better at controlling my temper now, I think. Yeah, I always worry about temper. I could never have a gun in the house. They won't let me have one. I've had mine taken away. Police took mine, because I'd just start shooting. I wouldn't shoot at people. But I'll go out and kill a tree. My dad always had guns. I'm good with a gun. I really like shooting, and when I'd get mad, I'd take a gun and kill some inanimate object. But finally I got it taken away from me because I was disturbing the peace. I think it's good. It's too dangerous. You don't need it. But I do shoot targets.
What's always impressed me is the way you portray women in your songs. Most men of your age are rather misogynist in their songs. Do you feel that?
I'm glad about that. Women are portrayed pretty positively in my songs. I have this reoccurring character that always comes back in different forms. This escaping woman kind of thing. But I can't write her out. I keep trying to. I keep trying to leave that character, but she always comes back in. I thought I'd gotten rid of her.
We went back to recut at the very end of the album. There was some dissonance about "Free Girl Now." It's a very rough track, it's a very live track and not slick in any way. Or not really what you'd look for when you're writing a record. But we all liked the energy of it, and I didn't want to change it. But Rick [Rubin] said, "Maybe you should have another go at it, since you only did it once." So we went back in, but none of us really had our hearts in doing it again.
So, we're all set up, so to keep from doing that, I just start making up something. Then this song "Swingin'" appears. We did it in one go, ad-libbed all the way through. We actually ad-libbed two of three songs that way. Just ad-libbed all the way through. The band followed me through and followed the changes. When we get to the end of what became known as "Swingin'" Rick says, "That's a good song. Let's do that one once
more." So I had to listen to that one, learn it. And we did it once more, and it was on the record. But the character is back. She reappeared out of my subconscious when I ad-libbed it. But I grew up around women. My dad wasn't around a lot. And I've always been sympathetic to them. I enjoy women's company. I never really looked down on them.
Do you have a name for this character? Is it someone who rebuffed you in sixth grade?
No. I'm fascinated. Sometimes I wonder if it's me. I wonder if I'm singing about me in some way, and don't want to do it, so I transfer it over to a woman. Because these other things that you know when you're writing.
I'm about to do this show Storytellers. I've always made jokes about the show. I love the fellow who does the show, Bill Flanagan. I have the utmost respect for him. But it doesn't make me stop making fun of the show. "They're making this shit up." Like when you write songs -- if I sat down knowing exactly what I was going to write about, I would never write anything. I always let it come. It's always in retrospect that I go, "Oh I see. That's what that one is about." But I never sit around and discuss my lyrics. When someone comes up to me and says, "I wrote this song and it's about this, this, and this." I know it's going to be shitty. There's no reason to be talking about what you wrote. But I have to go on this show and tell anecdotes about the songs.
Sometimes there isn't an anecdote. The songs just fell out. So I don't really know how I'm going to do that. Usually it's the words that come after I have the melody. I'm not good at taking words and sticking in the melodies. I like the words to fall out in the melodies. Usually that means something. That it's really close to the bone. Sometimes it comes as a narrative story. Sometimes it's so oblique you can't tell what it is.
One Scary Song
Everyone refers to "Won't Back Down" as your theme song. How did that song come together?
That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn't embrace it when I wrote it. I thought it was too much like me. It's so obvious. God, there's not a hint of metaphor in this thing. It's just blatantly straightforward.
Everyone else around liked it. And I said, "God, there's nothing to hide behind." Now I see that it was a good thing, because it meant so much to so many people. I get so many letters about it. I was so moved when a pro-choice doctor down in Pensacola, Florida, used this song. And they shot him. And then Eddie Vedder called me one day. I guess Pearl Jam were down in Pensacola and going to do that song. They had the doctor's son on the phone and we talked for awhile. Pearl Jam did it. They opened up with it that night, and they had the same response I do -- with everyone singing it. That was great. That's how I got my idea to do it the way I do it in the show. Because Eddie did it himself with just a guitar and let the room sing the song. So it was beautiful. But when I first did it, it frightened me.
I think some of your strength is not you're obvious, but that you're authentic -- that you're always caught in the act of being yourself.
It's more fun to be yourself all the time. I'm not saying I'm the perfect person, because I'm not at all. But I am right up-front all the time. Which is hard for people. It's hard for my family sometimes. My girls just can't understand why I won't grow up. My daughters just raise me. They're 24 and 17.
Speaking of kids, when I saw Jakob Dylan's band, the Wallflowers, I had a sense of a circle being completed. You paid homage to Bob Dylan early on in your career, and here's his kid saying you're the reason he picked up a guitar.
I remember Jakob sitting behind the amps when we were working for his dad back in 1986. He was just a little boy then. You don't think about what's going into their impressionable minds. We had two years playing with Bob. We pretty much circled the globe. I remember Jakob being around. I'm really proud of him because I think he's really good and I'm glad that he got to do this without Bob's legend resting on his back. He did it pretty cool. He got through that, and his dad doesn't seem to be an issue, and people tend to leave him alone. I got that record really early on before it came out, and I thought it was damn good. I played it over and over and over again. I love that song "Invisible City" that they never put out as a single. But I was going to do that song. I'm really proud that things went so well for him.
Speaking of the father, since you were touring with him for two years, what was the best advice he gave you?
[Laughing.] I don't know. I don't remember. I don't remember Bob giving me any advice. Maybe he was always giving me advice.
Do you feel that working with him changed you in any way?
I read this interview with him in Time or Newsweek, where he said he had this big bolt of lightning at some show with us in Switzerland. But I just remember it as being a show, being out in the rain. I didn't notice that Bob went through any big change. I don't remember him giving me advice. I think what I learned from that experience was what it was like to be behind the scenes, and to be supporting the singer -- trying to do
everything you can to make his thing happen. It made me really understand what a band has to do. I think that was really good for me. I think we also picked up some of his habits, like not being afraid to try something that you haven't maybe rehearsed a lot. Or he'll go for the feel of things -- that's much more important than the details of it. The heart of it is much more important than having every little thing in place. So if you feel it, get that feel of it across. Then your job is really done. I think we got better at doing that playing with him.
He's not as off-the-cuff as people think. We always had a rehearsal, and we'd always gone through the stuff.