Tom Petty: On his own terms
By Don McLeese
Herald Statesman - Tuesday, March 29, 1983
Tom Petty's story is a familiar one. It starts with years on the bars, first in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla., then throughout Florida, then across the South There's a cross-country van trip in hopes of a record contract, only to have the band break up before congratulations are completed.
Another band, another shot -- even some success this time around. Then things start to get weird. Because of various business entanglements, years of threats and lawsuits follow. Music is still of paramount importance, but music can seem almost peripheral within the music business. Too much time is spent in court and conference rooms, too little in concert or recording sessions.
Petty's stubbornness has been well-documented: his refusal to let record-companies trade his contract as if he were cattle, his refusal to let his album be used as a trial-balloon for an industry-wide price hike. In both instances, he was risking everything he'd dreamed of. In both instances, he was right, he stood firm, and he won.
Tom Petty is now at the height of his popularity and touring America's arena circuit as a headliner with his band, the Heartbreakers. The tour comes to the metropolitan area this week for two shows: Thursday, March 31, at the Nassau Coliseum, and Friday, April 1, at the Byrne Meadowsland Arena.
Petty was determined for as long as he can remember to be a successful rocker. So are a lot of people. What sets Petty apart is not his determination to make it, but his determination to make it on his own terms. Adversity, it seems, just might be character building.
"We always had food on the table. but it was very working class," said the soft-spoken, hard-willed rocker. "I left home when I was 17, and then I was really poor, really had to hustle. And when you go through that, you get kind of -- well, I've got certain rights that mean a lot to me. No matter what, we're all equal in that respect.
While some of his words may sound cocky in print, Petty seems uncommonly free of star-trip affectations. There are simply lines that he will not cross. And those lines have been there for a long time.
"I remember we drove one time from Gainesville to Birmingham, Ala.," he recounted of his bar-band days, "and that's a long drive. We set up, got ready to play. And the club owner comes out and says, 'Hey man, you can't play wearin' tennis shoes. We've got tablecloths on the tables here."
Petty wasn't sporting an extensive stage wardrobe at the time, but it's doubtful that he would've changed even if he could've. They told the owner what he could do with their tennis shoes. "We walked out, packed up."
Of course, Petty didn't get where he has on will alone. Underlying his confidence was the realization that he had the talent to back it up. His rock 'n' roll instincts are seemingly unerring. During the '70s -- a period when rock, especially Southern rock, was mired in mindless boogie and endless soloing -- Petty remained true to the principle that classic rock starts with classic songs.
When Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first album in 1976, it was an early indication that the classic rock song was making a comeback. People didn't know what to make of Petty -- or a lot of other folks who were emerging around the same time. Was this punk? New wave? Power pop? What united artists who were otherwise as dissimiliar as Petty, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe (Petty's opening act on this tour), and even the belatedly appreciated Bob Seger was the combination of passion and craftsmanship that has consistently marked the best rock.
Anthems such as "Refugee," "Even the Losers," and the new "One Story Town," represent rock that is very commercial without any sacrifice of feeling or integrity. This is music that reaches a lot of people on a lot of different levels. Even songs that initially sound as though they're about getting a girl turn toward the deeper issues of making a life -- on your own terms. With the possible exception of Springsteen's E Street Band, the Heartbreakers -- guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Stan Lynch, and new bassist Howie Epstein -- are making the richest rock of any mainstream American band.
After facing all the hassles of the music business, does Petty still love the playing as much as he once did?
"Maybe more," came the quick reply. "I think these days you really cherish getting to play. Like on a tour, out of the whole day, those two hours -- if those don't go well, the whole day's wasted. You can have it except for those two hours."
Has he ever regretted his career?
"I just didn't want to do anything else," he said. "I didn't have any choice ... Even if I'd, like, sold shoes during the day, I'd be doing this at night. You can't get it out of your system once you start."