The Upstart Wilbury
By Stephen Ostick
Winnipeg Free Press - June 10, 1989
Good timing placed Tom Petty in illustrious musical company
"You know me," Tom Petty says with a chuckle over the phone. "Always on time."
And he is, calling from the Los Angeles home of Stan Lynch, drummer in his Heartbreakers band. But while Petty jokes about his punctuality, the fact is that if anybody in the music world has had good timing over the past year or so, Petty's the bloke.
Take the time George Harrison decided to drop by and pick up a guitar he'd left at Petty's Los Angeles home last spring.
The former Beatle described a project he was working on with a couple of friends, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. They had this silly idea to play under some country bumpkin pseudonym like, say, the Travelling Wilburys, and just have some fun recording each other's tunes.
Petty ended up joining the group—he's Charles T. Wilbury—which soon included Bob Dylan, whom Petty and the Heartbreakers had backed up on a 1986 tour.
As everybody knows by now, The Travelling Wilburys Volume One was a smash success, selling more than two million copies in the United States alone. In Canada it's still at No. 14 after more than half a year.
Despite having sold millions of records himself, Petty, 38, was virtually an upstart Wilbury, the others being some of the most influential singer/songwriters of this generation. At least in the early going, it could have been an intimidating experience.
"Not at all," he said, gravelly tone belying the high-pitched tone of his records. "It was a marvellous time. There's so much that can be said about the Wilburys. It was just such a good experience, very comfortable.
"I was really thrilled to have worked with all of them and they were thrilled to have worked with me and each other."
Despite knowing Orbison least of all, Petty co-wrote You Got It, one of the late great's last singles.
"I only met him a few weeks before the Wilburys started," Petty said. "He'd come around and visit sessions for Full Moon Fever."
Petty put his solo Full Moon Fever album (No. 5 in Canada today after just five weeks) on hold to make time for the Wilburys.
"That's when we did those records, actually—You Got It and a couple more—during the same sessions," he said. "It'd just be like, 'OK, today's going to be a Roy Orbison record,' but it was all the same people."
It's not surprising Petty would feel drawn to the company of stars whose careers were firmly rooted in the past. He remembers driving as a youth from his Gainesville, Fla., home to nearby cities to take in travelling rock 'n' roll road shows.
"I'm a fan of the '60s music," he said. "I just like the songs. Most of the mid- to late-'50s and '60s was an incredible time for rock 'n' roll, really much better than what we have now."
But that doesn't mean he wants to duplicate what's gone on in the past. The attraction to the Wilburys, for instance, stemmed from the fact that the music was new.
"I'm not a nostalgic person," he said. "I don't think nostalgia is a healthy thing because it just means nothing's going on now."
The Heartbreakers are about to start rehearsing for a national tour to kick off July 5 in Miami. No local word yet on a Winnipeg date, but Petty said Canada would be included in late summer.
While only Heartbreaker Mike Campbell appears on all of Full Moon Fever, Lynch, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and bassist Howie Epstein helped out on a couple of tracks.
"I think they felt a little left out when I said I was going to make a record without 'em," Petty said. "But we'll always drift back into each other's path. It's too good a group to just throw away."
He hasn't always felt that way, mind you. This is, after all, the same guy who once had to call off a Heartbreakers tour because he broke several bones punching his hand through a wall during a particularly frustrating recording session.
"There are times when I can feel pretty beat up, but I think everybody has that in them a little bit."
"Actually, I've been pretty lucky. I think there's a lot of people who've been through rock's wringer that came out in a much worse place than I did," he added.
Petty and his Heartbreakers have a well-earned place in American rock. The band has produced several million-selling albums of consistently high quality.
The Heartbreakers have proven their staying power. Five years after establishing a strong presence with 1980's Damn the Torpedoes, the band recorded one of its most successful singles, Don't Come Around Here No More, on its Southern Accents album.
Throughout his career, Petty tossed the accolades aside several times to stand up for what he saw as matters of principle.
In 1981, he took his record company to court to prevent it increasing the price of his albums by $1. The parties compromised in court.
Two years ago he sued the B.F. Goodrich tire company for hiring a soundalike and using one of his songs in an ad. He won.
"I think it's real important, more than ever in 1989, to have some principles, because they're such a vanishing concept," he said. "If you know you're right, then you should definitely always stick to that belief and demand what's coming to you."