For Tom Petty, the music remains the message
By J.D. Considine
The Baltimore Sun - April 7, 1995
Say the phrase "rock star," and what comes to mind is fame and fortune, glamour and glitz, big egos and splashy behavior. Think of Tom Petty, however, and none of that seems to apply.
Where other rock stars are happy to contribute to the cult of personality, Petty seems almost a cipher. He doesn't court publicity, rarely gives interviews (he has declined all requests during his current tour) and is seldom seen hanging out at hip nightspots.
As a result, about the only thing most fans really know about him is his music -- and that's one reason fellow musicians admire him so. "I'm a big fan of his," Sheryl Crow said recently.
"For a lot of reasons. Certainly the music and the songwriting and stuff. But I've never seen anybody who can consistently put out good records, have success with them, and not be in the media eye all the time. There's never any big controversy or any big hype around him. He comes out, he puts out something good, he puts out a couple of good videos, and his career's consistent.
"I have a lot of respect for a career like that."
Petty's current album, "Wildflowers," illustrates the pattern Crow described. Released late last year, the album has been a steady seller (sales are well past the 2 million mark) and has so far spun off two typically catchy singles, "You Don't Know How It Feels" and "You Wreck Me."
Interestingly, "You Don't Know How It Feels" raised some eyebrows, thanks to the couplet "Well let's get to the point/Let's roll another joint." But where another artist might have turned the controversy into a call for the legalization of marijuana, Petty took the opposite tack.
Rather than be seen as advocating drug use, he offered alternate versions of the song, one of which reverses the word "joint," so it becomes "tnioj," while the other changes the second line to "let's hit another joint" (as in "let's go somewhere else").
"I don't want to be seen as some advocate for dope," Petty told Musician magazine's Bill Flanagan. "It just seemed like something the character in that song would say."
Songwriting is probably Petty's greatest interest. Before he got a recording contract of his own, he worked as a ghostwriter for Leon Russell. "The way it worked was, I would write a song called 'Satisfy Yourself,' " Petty told Flanagan. "Leon would rewrite it as 'I Wanna Satisfy You' and I'd get no credit. . . . But I could never feel bad about Leon -- it was a great learning experience."
Of the songs on his new album, Petty seems proudest of the title tune, "Wildflowers." As he told Musician, "That's the only song that ever came complete to me in one spurt. It was first thing in the morning, I just plugged in the guitar and played it, made up the lyrics as I went. I kept listening back to it trying to figure out if I stole it from somewhere! I wish they'd all come like that."