Petty Delivers Rock, Pure And Simple
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune - September 1, 1991
Consistency Is The Key To His Laidback Success
When Tom Petty sang the line "I won't back down" on his "Full Moon Fever" album three years ago, it didn't sound like a macho boast.
Instead, he delivered it in a calm, measured voice, like someone who didn't need to shout to prove how tough he was.
When Petty talks, it's the same way. Although he's been a California resident since the '70s, he converses in a soft, gentlemanly drawl that bares traces of his Florida upbringing.
"I don't go back and listen to my records," he says. "But when I hear them on the radio, I always like them. It makes me feel good that when they come on, there's nothing that makes me want to hide under the seat."
It's a wonder Petty has created so much worthwhile music over the last 15 years, given the distractions and tribulations he has faced. It seemed at one point that he was butting heads annually with his record company on everything from album prices to contracts, once filing for bankruptcy and stalling his career rather than entering into an unpalatable agreement. He suffered a broken left hand that threatened his future as a guitar player in 1984 and weathered a 1987 fire that destroyed his home and possessions.
Yet he's managed to crank out nine records with his excellent four-piece band, the Heartbreakers, including the recent "Into the Great Wide Open" (MCA). In addition, he's put out a 3 million-selling solo record, "Full Moon Fever," and two million-sellers with his pals Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne (Roy Orbison performed on the first album) in the Traveling Wilburys. A national tour brings him to Poplar Creek Music Theatre on Friday. Petty's trademark has been consistency. If none of his records can be regarded as ground-breakers, several rank among the best mainstream rock of the last 15 years and all have at least a handful of songs worth savoring.
The art is a reflection of the man, whose low-key disposition is punctuated by frequent laughter. Even a few jabs at his songwriting in a review of his recent album don't get him riled.
"Aren't you the guy who wrote I stole a line from the Replacements?" he asks, referring to a review of "Into the Great Wide Open" in which he was accused of swiping the line "A rebel without a clue" from a 1989 Replacements song, "I'll Be You."
"I have to be honest: I never even heard the Replacements record," Petty says with a chuckle. "It's just a real common line that everyone says all the time-I think Meatloaf used it on one of his records, too. It's a cliche, yeah, but it just sounded so good in that place and it summed up the character so well that I had to use it. It's a phrase that's been around, like 'twist and shout.' "
"Rock is not really meant to grow," he says. "It hits a peak and that's it. By design it shouldn't reach any higher. That's not to say the music can't change and
evolve and find different styles. But it's a very narrow form. It's like jazz or folk or blues-take it too far and it isn't any of those things."
At the same time, Petty doesn't believe that making rock records has to be limiting.
"I enjoy the fact that I don't feel constrained to make a song like 'Refugee' over and over again," he says. "I think your music has to grow as you grow as a person, and you have to constantly keep finding a way that you're of some significance to the music. There's no need to buy the 10th Tom Petty album if it's not any different from the first nine."
"Into the Great Wide Open," which like "Full Moon Fever" was produced by Lynne, is a thoughtful collection of textured, mid-tempo guitar pieces. "There's a lot of people out there making rock records with their guitar amplifiers turned up," he notes.
Similarly, Petty's vocals are more relaxed, more conversational than on past albums.
"I think my voice sounds better, fuller, that way," he says. "That started from me singing to Jeff Lynne on the sofa a few years ago and he'd say, 'I want your voice to sound just like that on the record.' We first did that on 'Free Fallin' ' (a 1989 hit from 'Full Moon Fever'), and I thought it was such a nice warm sound- without any special effects on the voice, just naked-that I stayed with it."
"Into the Great Wide Open" is also among Petty's most sophisticated efforts as a lyricist. Many of the songs are open-ended narratives shot through with ambivalence and mystery, short stories about drifters, gunslingers, rockers and dreamers filled with doubt, hope and an uneasy sense of expectation.
"I like some ambiguity in the writing-it's more interesting to let some of the stories go where the listener takes them," he says. "It wasn't something I thought of when I started writing songs; I just wanted to get one out. But as I learned more about the craft, I realized those are the most enjoyable ones to write. "And I was able to take a lyrical idea and follow it through from beginning to end on this album, which has been so hard for me in the past. When I did (the 1985 album) 'Southern Accents' I came so close, but I didn't stay on the road. This one I felt like I kept on the road all the way through."
The record arrives at a time when guitar-based rock has almost vanished from the top of the pop charts. The Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Byrds-artists who are the foundation of Petty's music-once defined the mainstream. Now they're tributaries along a mighty river of dance-pop.
"The music business, whether consciously or not, has gotten in the way of the creative process right down the ladder," Petty says. "Once that system self-destructs, which it will, you'll see a lot of rock emerge again.
"Rock has been caught up in too many restraints, too many cliched expectations. It's become a huge big business, like McDonald's. Our reaction has been to just turn our heads from everything and just keep doing what we're doing because we like it. But I must say if I was interested in making hits or being really successful, I would make different music."
He said he felt no pressure to outsell "Full Moon Fever" with "Into the Great Wide Open" because "I've never gotten into the businessman's frame of mind. It's just too damn boring."
Nor is Petty interested in working the fringes of the pop spectrum. He specializes in the familiar, in updating rather than reinventing the rock tradition. "I always thought that rock 'n' roll was the widest umbrella I could work in, and I always wanted to work in the mainstream of pop music," he says. "I found that much more challenging than being a cult group, because I found that all cult groups really don't want to be cult groups. Everybody wants their stuff heard.
"I feel we've done well to get as far into the mainstream of music with this kind of stuff as we have. That's what I'm trying to continue, to keep offering up some good rock music on the channel that everybody listens to."