Tom Petty disillusioned but still loves the music
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune - November 17, 2002
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — "We're very proud to say we're on this tour tonight with no corporate sponsor," Tom Petty is saying on a cool, clear Southern California evening at the Santa Barbara Bowl, the opening night of a national tour that brings him and his excellent band, the Heartbreakers, to the United Center on Dec. 11.
"We're brought to you by . . . you," Petty drawls.
It's what passes for a manifesto in the world of the Florida boy who has spent the last 30 years living just down the Pacific Coast Highway from this idyllic coastal town. California is where he realized his dreams of becoming a rock 'n' roll star, and also found out firsthand about Rock 'n' Roll Inc. Like a hungry stray that's just found a bone, Petty does not let go easily once he sinks his teeth into a subject that's been an obsession since he first picked up a guitar. His latest album, "The Last DJ" (Warner), is all about the promise of rock 'n' roll, and the wariness it instilled in him.
There was no use in pretending/ No magic left to hear/ All the music gave me/ Was a craving for lite beer/ As I walked out of the arena/ My ears began to ring/ And money became king
--"Money Becomes King," Tom Petty
But it's also much more than merely an indictment of the record industry, Petty cautions in an interview the day before the concert.
"I never wanted this record to be just about the record business," he says, sipping coffee in a motel room overlooking the ocean. "That would have been shooting fish in a barrel. They've always been crooked, corrupt and laughable. The record industry just happens to be something I am very familiar with, and it was a good metaphor to work with, so my album has some references to it. But if you get past the first quarter of the album, it becomes more about morals and personal freedoms that are vanishing."
Petty's blond hair falls like straw from underneath a crumpled cowboy hat. A few lines crease his still boyish face, but at age 51 his frame is still as scrawny as a malnourished teenager's. He tried a bunch of jobs as a kid--everything from washing dishes to digging graves--and never lasted very long at any of them. College was something he could neither afford nor stomach. Music was his way out of the dead-end life of Gainesville, Fla., a promise and a desire eloquently laid out in new songs such as "Dreamville" and "Can't Stop the Sun."
Kid in 'Dreamville'
What did music mean to Petty when he was the same age as the kid buying his first guitar in "Dreamville," a kid who sounds a lot like Petty?
"Only everything," Petty says with a smile. "Music was a safe place to be. I think that in many ways I had a pretty tough childhood, and the music actually became a safe haven for me. That was where I escaped to. It really is the only true magic I've found in this world. Most magic is a trick of some kind. But music is actually a healing thing. It has this power to heal and inspire and to lift you right up.
"I think I'm blessed in that I somehow found that door and stumbled through it," he adds. "Because it overtook my whole life. I never thought of anything else after a certain age. It has sustained me ever since."
At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Petty and the Heartbreakers are reveling in that atmosphere. "There was rock 'n' roll across the dial," Petty sings in "Dreamville." Later, he rips into one of the songs he surely must have heard in a time when rock bands were first popping up in garages across America, the Count Five's delirious "Psychotic Reaction." It's a galvanizing moment, with the guitars of Petty and Mike Campbell jousting over a groove as inexorable as a freight train.
"Rock 'n' roll still consumes me," Petty says, but he doesn't make any pretense about keeping up with current bands. The Heartbreakers are steeped in the sound of the '60s: Beatles songcraft, Stones swagger, a dash of Dylan's bohemian metaphysics, a pinch of psychedelia, and the 12-string free-flights of the Byrds. "If I were a young guy getting hooked into contemporary music, I don't know if it would have the effect it had on me back then. Because it was more honest back then. I think contemporary music is really lacking a sense of truth."
I tell Petty he ought to get out more, because he'd discover plenty of rock 'n' roll thrills outside the narrow margins of commercial radio, but his point is well taken. For more than a decade, corporate interests have turned the pop mainstream--which once made room for indelible one-shot wonders such as the Count Five--into a highly efficient assembly line that values marketing readiness over musical artistry.
Bucking the system
Petty, meanwhile, has spent a lifetime bucking the system that made him and nearly tried to break him several times.
He had to sue his way out of an onerous publishing deal that bankrupted him after his first record deal, and successfully fought his old record label when it tried to raise the price of one of his albums to a "superstar" level of $9.98 from the then-standard $8.98. He has never allowed one of his songs to appear in an advertisement, has refused to tour with corporate sponsors, and has consistently held his ticket prices below market rate (on the current tour, top tickets are going for $57.50, well below the price charged by Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Stones, The Who and Paul McCartney on their recent tours).
Petty doesn't plead poverty. The system he faults in "The Last DJ" has also made him wealthy. Does he have the right to bite the hand that feeds him?
"I can say anything I want, but if anyone thinks I'm a liar or a poser, I can only say that this is me saying something that I have been saying all along," he says. "I'm not against making money for your work. There's nothing wrong with making a profit. But the problem with the world in general, not just the record industry, is that somewhere along the line we got into an attitude that we want to make all the money we can possibly make. It's no longer about doing something creative and good; it's about how much can we make doing this.
"We've got it backward, and that's a dangerous place to be as a country," he adds. "Good things start to happen when business thinks more about the product and the consumer, and less about going after every penny."
Petty hopes "The Last DJ" is heard in that light. Not as a complaint, but a tonic. As our interview ends, he gently admonishes his 10-year-old stepson Dylan to put his shirt on so he won't catch cold from an ocean breeze filling the room. Though he doesn't directly say so, Petty has made an album that reads like a letter from a scarred veteran to a younger sibling, an album that's less about him than about the next generation of kids who see the music as a refuge just as he once did.
"I don't want to be viewed as this old guy bitching about how things aren't as good as they used to be, but they're not," he says with a chuckle. "I wish I could say that things are better now. But everyone has their 'Dreamville,' some moment in their life when things were crystal clear and beautiful. If you give up striving for that, you won't get it back. If this record conveys some of that, I'll be happy."