Veteran rocker has never sounded better
By Rick Mitchell
Houston Chronicle - Sunday, July 9, 1989
'I love what I'm doing,' Tom Petty says. And a hot solo LP and new Heartbreakers tour prove it.
Tom Petty has been running down a dream for most of his life. He may have finally caught up with it. After eight albums with his band, the Heartbreakers, Petty recently released his first solo album, "Full Moon Fever". Resting comfortably in the Top 5 after two months on the charts, the album is beginning to look like his biggest hit since 1978's triple-platinum "Damn the Torpedoes".
The ready reception for "Full Moon Fever" comes on the heels of the overwhelming success of the Traveling Wilburys, a deliberately low-key super-session that included Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and the late Roy Orbison. Between working on his own album and playing with the Wilburys, Petty also found time to co-write Orbison's posthumous "comeback" hit, "You Got It".
These recording projects, along with the Heartbreakers' 1986/87 tour with Dylan, have brought Petty back from a mid-'80s creative and commercial slump to a position of increased stature. Although he has been regarded as a major artist from the first, Petty now is respected both by his peers and the public as one of rock's senior statesmen.
But Petty doesn't worry about growing old gracefully as a rocker.
"Doesn't bug me at all," said he said by phone from Florida, where the Heartbreakers are about to embark on their first American tour in two years.
(The tour will stop at the Summit on Thursday at 8 p.m. Opening for Petty will be the Replacements, the ex-punk band from Minneapolis still knocking on the door of rock's mainstream after four consecutive excellent albums.)
His speaking voice is deeper and more assured than the nasally, Dylanesque drawl in which he sings. Somewhere - probably from hanging out with the Wilburys - he's picked up a hint of a British accent.
"I'm certainly not embarrassed by what I'm doing. I love what I'm doing," Petty said. "I don't think I've ever loved it more, really. I'm consumed with it. I've done it since I was 14, but I think now I've really learned the art of enjoying it more than I might have 10 years ago.
"I'm pretty happy these days," Petty continued. "I'm happy to be back in my old group. The band sounds great. I'm sort of nervously excited about going out and playing in front of people again. We haven't done it in so long." As might be expected, the Heartbreakers weren't pleased at first to learn that Petty was doing an album without them.
"I think there was some confusion about it," Petty admitted. "They didn't know what I was doing, especially after I joined the Wilburys. They were probably ticked off for a while. I don't know because they're not really the kind of people who will call you up and tell you how they're feeling. They just kind of disappeared.
"This (tour) is really a reaffirmation of the Heartbreakers. I never intended to quit, and I didn't. They're a really incredible band, and they're my friends for half my life."
Petty grew up in Gainesville, Fla., with drummer Stan Lynch, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. They moved out to Los Angeles more or less together in 1975, added bassist Howie Epstein and formed the Heartbreakers.
Although they landed a record deal almost immediately with Shelter Records, the band has had its ups and downs. In 1978, Shelter was bought by MCA Records. Petty objected to being "bought and sold like a piece of meat" and attempted to have his contract nullified. A compromise was reached in court.
A few years later, Petty punched a wall and broke his hand in frustration at being unable to finish the "Southern Accents" LP to his satisfaction. The album sold in platinum numbers despite mixed reviews. The band hit its nadir on the next album, "Long After Dark", a listless product that left critics and some fans wondering if Petty hadn't permanently lost his creative edge.
"I wasn't really conscious of (being in a slump)," Petty said. "I knew I wasn't having as much fun as I should be. After working those tours with Bob, I did feel a little bit recharged. I really just liked the idea of getting out of the front light for a while, you know, and just playin' in the band."
Petty's renewed enthusiasm could be heard on the Heartbreakers' 1987 "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)". But as good as it was, that album pales in comparison to "Full Moon Fever". Song for song, it is the strongest thing he's ever done. Petty co-wrote most of the tunes with (former Electric Light Orchestra mainstay and fellow Wilbury) Jeff Lynne and co-produced the album with Lynne and Mike Campbell. Heartbreakers Epstein and Tench make brief appearances, as do Harrison and Orbison.
Several of the songs on "Full Moon Fever" are informed by the particular style of craziness native to Petty's adopted hometown of Los Angeles.
"Sometimes you're so impulsive, you shaved off all your hair/You look like Boris Karloff, and you don't even care," he sardonically observes of one after-hours club denizen in "Zombie Zoo".
But despite the troubled mood of some of Petty's songs, there is an undercurrent of optimism and humor running beneath "Full Moon Fever".
In the album's hardest rocker, "Runnin' Down a Dream", Petty sings, "I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/There's something good waitin' down this road/I'm pickin' up whatever's mine" Campbell comes in behind him with a stinging, ringing guitar solo that conveys more about the meaning of rock 'n' roll as a lifetime pursuit than words ever could.
Petty's work has never been explicitly political. Yet, the single "I Won't Back Down" is a personal declaration of independence that also serves as an anthem for a 30-something generation attempting to hang on to its cultural and political values.
"It makes me very proud, that song," Petty said. "I've got so many letters and had so many people comin' up to me, and it means something different to each one.
"When I wrote it, I meant I'm not going to give up my individuality, but it could be about a million things, you know. It could be political, it could be `I'm not going to become a yuppie,' it could be anything. I even see it on sports shows now. It's nice any time you write one and you see people embrace it - that it can give people that sort of reaffirmation."
Petty pays his respects to his classic rock influences on "Full Moon Fever". The synthesizer intro to "Love Is a Long Road" recalls The Who of "Who's Next", while the sarcastic social commentary of "Yer So Bad" was inspired by The Kinks of "Sunny Afternoon". But the most direct tribute is a note-perfect rendition of The Byrds' "Feel a Whole Lot Better".
"Oh, I love The Byrds," Petty enthused. "For a decade now I've read about The Byrds and us, and while we were influenced by The Byrds, none of us ever realized the extent we were.
"What can I say? We never attempted to emulate The Byrds per se, you know, but I guess we probably are the closest thing to what they were. I think they were very adventurous for a mainstream rock group. If there's anything that I could glean from them, I think it would be their spirit for adventure. They were great. I love 'em all."
"Adventurous mainstream" is a description Petty readily applies to his own band as well. "I've always found it more of a challenge to work in the mainstream than to be a cult group," he said. "I've been that. I think anyone can do that with the proper haircut. I always wanted my music to be heard.
"I think the biggest challenge in front of us right now for rock music is to make the mainstream "good", because most of it's just awful nonsense. I'd like to see integrity in the music."
In 1987, Petty turned down B.F. Goodrich's request to use his song "Mary's New Car" for a tire commercial. After the company created a sound-alike song with a sound-alike singer, Petty filed a lawsuit that forced Goodrich to pull the spots.
"I don't see it as a moral issue," he said of rockers who allow their songs to be turned into commercial jingles.
"I think there's much more important things to get upset about. I find it distasteful, but I can't really judge those who do it because I don't know their reasons. Maybe they need the money.
"The thing is, I wouldn't do it, and I know a lot of my friends wouldn't do it, but music has always been used for advertising. They're always gonna do that sort of thing. I wouldn't do it," he paused for effect, "unless I was really broke."
Like the other Wilburys, Petty was shocked and saddened by Orbison's death. "We were so close to him, and loved him so much," he said. "It's always sad when you lose someone like that. But I'm sure Roy's OK. I miss his physical presence, but spiritually I still feel that he's around me quite a bit."
Petty said another Wilburys project is a possibility despite Orbison's death. "I still feel that we're together, but we're all very busy with our own projects right now."
So how does Petty, who is married with two kids, spend his free time?
"Makin' these damn records," he said with a laugh. "I can't say I've actually had any time to myself for years. It's incredibly frantic. But I like it that way. In the last year, I've played on six records. I don't have to do it, and I could get out of it if I didn't want to do it; I just love doing it.
"I think my family likes what I do. We've all been on tour together for years. It's just part of life."
And running down the dream.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. | When: 8 p.m. Thursday. Where: The Summit. Tickets: $18.50. Available at Ticketron and Rainbow Ticketmaster locations. To charge, call 526-1709.