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Once in a Full Moon
By Dave Zimmer
BAM — May 5, 1989
Tom Petty’s Solo Orbit Without The Heartbreakers
By the time Tom Petty became a Traveling Wilbury last year, he had every reason to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. Listen to “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “Even The Losers,” “The Waiting,” or his current single, “I Won’t Back Down,” and tell me he doesn’t belong in that company. But try to praise him and Petty looks down, cracks a nervous grin and humbly shakes his head. “Just one of the guys.” That’s how he’s always seen himself and why, even in the wake of the release of his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, he keeps reiterating the fact that he and the Heartbreakers are still a band.
Much of Petty’s new music combines a distinctive, acoustic guitar-based, rhythm-rock feel with flashes of electric muscle. It’s a powerful combination. Both Wilbury and Heartbreaker echoes waver through the mix, which is understandable once you learn Full Moon Fever was produced by Wilbury/ELO stalwart Jeff Lynne, along with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, George Harrison, flailing his acoustic guitar and providing some background vocals, also tosses in a bit of his signature style. Then there are cameos by Roy Orbison and Del Shannon, as well as Heartbreakers Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench. The single most significant element on the LP, however, is Petty’s voice — which has never exhibited such subtle strength and character. The ol’ nasally McGuinn-like quiver sounds both relaxed and dynamic, detailing such topics of interest as life in the San Fernando Valley (“Free Fallin'”), matters of the heart (“Love Is A Long Road,” “Depending on You,” and “Alright For Now”) and the backside of yuppiedom (“Yer So Bad”). Nestled next to a cover of the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better,” most of these new Petty tunes (seven co-written by Jeff Lynne and two with Mike Campbell) rank with his finest.
Inside an MCA Records marketing suite within one of the huge buildings that comprise Universal City, Petty eyes a poster of a ravishing model — head thrown back, face flushed with passion. He then scribbles some words on a scrap of note paper and tapes it to the poster — which suddenly becomes a brand new caption: FULL MOON FEVER DID THIS TO ME. “I just thought I’d give the advertising guys a little help,” Petty chuckles. Obviously in good spirits and happy with his new record, the LA-based, Florida-born musician slants his lanky frame across a cushioned office chair and, between frequent drags on a cigarette, talks slowly with a soft, Cal-inflected Southern accent.
This being your first solo album, did you consciously want to try new things and work with different players?
Not really. I just got in there with Jeff [Lynne] and [Heartbreaker guitarist] Mike Campbell. We had a basic band of us three and this drummer [Phil Jones]. I didn’t want to call all my friends and have this long list of famous people. It’s always tempting to do that. But I just wanted this little band.
Starting around January of ’88, we worked about three months, then stopped and did the Wilburys for awhile. When the Wilburys were done, we came back and did four more tracks, then pieced it all together.
What brought about your association with Jeff Lynne?
I met Jeff and George [Harrison] in England the previous September, when the European tour with Dylan ended. George came down and we hit it off real well. We weren’t even thinking about being in a band together, but we loved having a few beers and just talking, just visiting. Kind of like when you see people and feel like you’ve known them for a long time. That’s how I related to George and Jeff.
Then I came home and I was at a red light Thanksgiving Day , going to buy some baseball gloves, ’cause I wanted to play baseball real bad and the only place open was Thrifty Drugs. Now George had given me his Cloud Nine album just before it was released. I loved it and I’d been playing it all day before I went to get these mitts. So when I get to this light, and there’s Jeff, the next car over, it was like … He was going to produce Brian Wilson at the time. And he said, “Do you want to come to the studio with me.” I said, “Nah, I’m going to play baseball.” But we agreed to stay in touch and it turned out he lived in my neighborhood, just up the street.
So after George went home [for Christmas ’87], Jeff stayed in L.A. and we started playing around at home. I’d written this song called “Yer So Bad.” I played it for Jeff; he suggested a couple of chords, which made it so much better. I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. So we wrote another one, “Free Fallin’.” Being immensely pleased with them, I wanted to get them on tape somehow. The only place I knew to go was over to [was Mike Campbell’s studio]. The Heartbreakers weren’t even in town, so we called up Phil Jones, this brilliant drummer we’d known for years, and went in ad cut these two songs. When they were done, they were like records. They weren’t demos, by any stretch of the imagination. And it was such a gas to work with Jeff and have a whole new way of looking at things. These records were obviously not the Heartbreakers, so I just decided to press on and do a whole album on my own. But I wasn’t quitting [the Heartbreakers], it was like, “I’ll be back, see’ ya in a year, guys.”
While we were working on my album, Jeff was telling me that, for at least a couple of years, he’d been trying to get Roy Orbison to sing on some records. He’d even gone to Tennessee and talked to him. Roy was his idol, his ultimate idol. So he had Roy over one day and wondered if I wanted to write some songs with him. I didn’t really know him. That’s sort of when we first got to know each other and wrote a couple songs, “You Got It” and “California Blue.”
During this period [in early 1988], George [Harrison] would come and go. He was in town at the time and took Roy and Jeff to dinner. George needed an extra song recorded for a Cloud Nine single. He wanted Jeff to produce it. And Roy said he’d really like to help him out. So they called Dylan and asked, “Can we use your place, Bob?” He was really nice and said, “Sure.” That’s when I got a call from George. He’d left his guitar at my house and said “I’m gonna come around and get my guitar later, and I’ve got this session tomorrow. Do you want to play?” Well, I’d been wondering what I was going to do the next day. So I said, “Sure. I’ll be there.” Then Bob [Dylan] was in, so it was all of us, just sittin’ in the grass with acoustics. We didn’t have a roadie or anything. It was just us, diggin’ through boxes for wires, trying to get [Dylan’s] garage [studio] going. George had the idea for a musical chord progression, then everyone started to throw in a little something. It was such a great night, probably ’cause there was no one there but is. It was very warm and friendly. So George took this song [“Handle With Care”] to [Warner Bros.] and they said, “No way this is the back side of a 12-inch.”
And so the Wilburys were born …
Yeah, soon after that. George and Jeff had had this idea for a fictitious band called the Traveling Wilburys. So George started going, “You know, this is awfully Wilburys sounding stuff.” [laughs] Then they came over and said, “Do you want to be in the Traveling Wilburys?” I said. “Sure. Great. Thought you’d never ask.” [laughs] I didn’t really say that. But after they called Bob, and he was in, we all jumped in a car to go see Roy play [at the Celebrity Theatre] in Anaheim. We ran into Roy’s dressing room, threw everybody out and said, “We want you to be in our band, Roy.” He said, “That’d be great,” then gave this unbelievable show. The whole time we were watching Roy, we’d punch each other and go, “He’s in our band, too.” Couldn’t fuckin’ believe it. We were all so excited. That’s how it all started. Then we reconvened later.
Once the decision was made to record, how did you maintain the spontaneity?
There wasn’t a whole lot of time for decision making. Camp Wilbury is what I called it, ’cause it was like coming to camp every day. Here we go again. Same bunch. We’d get our acoustics, and the five of us would just sit on the rug and the coach, throw out ideas and start a song off. Everyone would throw something in, and if someone was really on the ball, we’d all back off and say, “OK, you take it.” Then we’d usually go up and cut the backing track and take a break for dinner. We’d all eat around the same table, pass the lyrics around and work on them all through dinner. Then whoever drew the straw would sing it. In nine days, we did five songs and the backing tracks. This was at Dave Stewart’s [home studio in LA]. He was in England [at the time]. A dear friend of all of ours. And the funny thing is, we all had mutual friends. By the time we’d done the Wilburys, we’d all played together, you’ve got to understand. They were on my record, we were all on Roy’s record. And we all knew Bob. So we just went on from there, eventually ending up at George’s in England. That’s when we got to exercise our arranging options and did a lot of backing vocals. We were really adamant that we play the instruments and sing everything. We did eventually get Jim Keltner to play drums, Jim Horn did the saxes and Ray Cooper added percussion. But other than that, it was just the Wilburys. And it was a blast, man. When I think about it, now, it was amazing. But we were trying a lot of different combinations. Usually whoever wrote most of the words sang ’em, or whoever sang best in that key. But we really all are on every track. Even the “oohs and aahs.” That’s really the Wilburys.
The nicest thing about that whole experience to me, truthfully, was just making some new friends that I was glad to have in my life, whether they played guitars or not. They’re really just such good pals to have fun with.
When you heard that Roy died …
I was home and didn’t take it real well. Now I think I’ve come to some place where I can put it in some perspective. All I feel bad about is that I just miss him so much, his physical presence. Because he was so sweet and lovely. He was just such a happy person. He wasn’t, like, a lonely guy like he was depicted in his songs. At least I don’t think he was. He was always really happy. He always seemed to be living to the max, appreciating every minute. He really did seem to enjoy just about everything he did. He never criticized anybody. Very positive all the time. As a friend, he was just a very fantastic person to know. A very deep man. Very intelligent guy. He wasn’t just some cracker. He was a real bright fellow and he loved being a Wilbury. That’s why it hurt us so badly, ’cause he was such a big part of the spirit of the group. Among the five of us, we looked to Roy for that encouragement and that spirit. To see Roy being a Wilbury was the greatest thing. When he’d do interviews as Lefty, Roy could just take that shit and run with it.
He called me a few days before he died. He was in Boston, I think. We were all going over to England. We’d just sold the first million Wilburys albums. He was just so pleased and happy. It was all happening for him.
Do you see the Wilburys carrying on in in some form without Roy or as a kind of tribute to him?
I really can’t say. But I wouldn’t put it past us [laughs].
Getting back to Full Moon Fever, not only does the sound of the record have a brighter, less abrasive feel to it, but the lyrics do too. It doesn’t seem like you’re lashing out like you were on your last record [Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)].
It wasn’t a real conscious thing. I think it was just a reaction to this being a solo record as opposed to being in the band, which is a nastier environment. So it’s sort of like I’m out on leave from the penitentiary. [laughs] I didn’t really mean that. These were all just songs I wanted to write real bad and I didn’t do a a lot of looking back. I just went straight ahead until I got stuck. These were a few I pulled out, a little bit later. That was because I had the luxury of taking a break to do the Wilburys. It let me live with the album and decide if I wanted to write other songs with this mood or that mood.
The lyrics to “Yer So Bad” are a pretty funny take on a yuppie life gone sour, your salvation being a good “bad girl.”
I wanted this album to have a sense of humor. But I wanted it to be where the humor illuminated some important things. That was the idea.
There’s only one song, “Love Is A Long Road,” that has a genuine Heartbreakers feel to it.
Yeah. That’s really just us kind of doing an imitation of the band. [laughs] It’s obviously them, like them, I should say, but [Heartbreaker bassist] Howie [Epstein] did song the background vocals. ‘Cause when we got to that point, I just said, “Sounds to be like Howie should do that, so let’s get him.” I wanted to have at least one song on the record that sounded like the Heartbreakers.
The song kind of reminds me of “A Woman In Love” [released on Hard Promises in 1981]. It has a bit of that ring to it.
Hmm. One of the assistant engineers at the time said the same thing. And I went, “Oh no, it’s not that one, is it?” He went, “Nah.” I went “Shhwoo, it isn’t that one.”
I interviewed John Fogerty recently and we talked about the legal hassles he had over being accused of plagarizing himself. Even though he was cleared in court, he admitted that now when he’s in the middle of writing a song, he gets anxious if it sounds too much like a song he already wrote. Do you ever have that problem?
It really doesn’t happen that much. When it does, I usually just stop or I’ll take the other approach and say, “Come on. Don’t be scared of that. Just go on, ’cause it’s probably going to come out completely different.” So I don’t really worry about that. I worry more if it sounds like somebody else, somebody else’s song, which you can do fairly easily if you’re not thinking. I’ll stay up late, working on a song, thinking it’s great, then the next morning realize it’s “Brown Sugar” or something and go, “No wonder I liked that one so much.” [laughs] These days, more than anything, I want to stamp out our thing. I’m more interested in that than sounding like the Rolling Stones.
So why’d you choose to cover the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better”?
‘Cause I just love the Byrds so much. I’m their biggest fan, to this day. It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes, ’cause I play these same albums over and over. I went to see them play when they played the Ventura [Theatre]. Jeff went with me. And when they played that song, I went, “Man, that’s a good song.” I’ve played it all my life in bgands. So I thought, “It’s a solo record. I can do this.” ANd it was a lot of fun. That’s the only reason. We spent one day doing it and had a ball. Then I thought, “It fits on.” I told the Byrds I was doing it, and they said it was OK with them.
You co-wrote seven songs on the album with Jeff Lynne. Did he just add parts here and there, provide some ideas, or was it a real close collaboration?
All of the above. We’d do a track, then on the next day we’d spend writing one. He’d come over to my house and we’d sit there and write. If it took us two days, it took us two days. We just kept doing it that way. A lot of the songs were worked out between the two of us, sitting on a couch. Like, I might have a lot of an idea, then he’d show up and we’d just start working.
This has been a very prolific time for me. It’s fairly magical, in a way. I feel kind of revitalized, musically. There’s a lot of music going in my head now and it’s been an inspiration to have so much input from a lot of different artists, not only the Heartbreakers. In our little world here [in Southern California], it’s funny, but I’ve never seen a period like this where there are so many people trading ideas and so open to it. ‘Cause [the Heartbreakers] used to be awful about that. We didn’t let anybody into our sessions. If you weren’t in the Heartbreakers, you didn’t come in. it was a very closed club. We lived like that. And I don’t really want to live like that anymore.
Since you haven’t been on the road for awhile, I’m curious how your attitude towards touring has changed.
It’s a bigger deal to me now, to take that much time, only because I’m much more interested in making records now. I always feel like going on the road … it’s good, it’s necessary, really. But it’s not the most creative thing you could be doing, ’cause you have to perform a lot of the numbers over and over, ’cause people want to hear them. You try and find different ways to do them, but you are still essentially working with the same material.
Right now, the Heartbreakers are planning on going out on tour in July. But I wouldn’t count on it being an incredibly long tour, because there’s too much we want to do. The Heartbreakers could take the rest of the decade to make a record, so we’re going to have to get into that.
The other side of the coin, now that you got me thinking about it, is that we’re good at it. We’re maybe one of the best performing bands that America’s got. So it’s a shame not to do it.
You spent so much time in the studio during the past year, I wonder if you ever forget how it really feels to be on stage.
Yeah, you do. I went on and played with the Byrds that one night and got a little taste of it again. The Heartbreakers did one show [last December], the Bridge Benefit [at the Oakland Coliseum], all acoustic. That’s the only show we’ve done in a year and a half. We did that and it was just so much fun, a ball to be back on stage. But right up until the time I went out there, I wasn’t looking at it that way. I was nervous and I felt like I was gonna puke, you know? I hadn’t done it in so long. But as soon as you walk out there and feel the love and warmth and all that in the room, it’s great. It brings out things in you. You sing so much more powerfully. It’s an adrenaline kick, I guess, and you’re just soaring. I love that. It’s just everything else about touring I don’t like. I’ve always liked getting on the stage. I don’t think I’ve ever had a night where I didn’t like being up there.
Looking at the state of rock ‘n’ roll in 1989, with heavy metal and hard rock being such a force, what do you think about that and bands like Gun N’ Roses.
What do I think about it? Well, there’s a big difference between Gun N’ Roses and the rest of ’em, as far as I’m concerned. I’m only a part-time listener to this kind of stuff, but I can see what’s special about them. I met Axl before and I really sorta liked him, thought he was an interesting fella who had a lot of music on his mind. The music in his mind goes a lot further than the records he’s made so far. So it’ll be interesting to see where they take it.
The other guys [laughs], it’s really sort of comic book stuff. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, by any stretch of anybody’s imagination. [pause] Now readers, don’t write me letters and stuff. I’m not trying to criticize the people who do it or saying I’m better than them. But in my opinion, it’s not incredibly original stuff. Most of it’s downright bad. If you were to play them on piano and really sing some of those songs, which may be unfair since heavy metal, I guess, is only played real loud. But I don’t hear a whole lot going on. [pause] There’s nothing really wrong with it and some of the odd tracks here and there are pretty good. Like Metallica seems to have something going on. But the other stuff is so silly. Like the back pages of BAM, we love them in the studio, because we always get ’em out and look at all these guys and just die laughing, you know? ‘Cause they really are all the same group. Turn to the back and have a look. Back me up here, readers. I mean, they’re all the same and it’s like they’re more interested in being stars than being musicians. In the era I come from, we all wanted to be stars, but we also really wanted to be good and have an original thought and do it that way. I’m being very critical of them, but I just wish they’d get on with it. [pause] I hate to tirade against anything like this, ’cause I don’t really have that strong a feeling about it. But it just does seem like such comic book stuff to me. You get the clothes and play this way. And you know, a lot of the roots of heavy metal just aren’t very good. If they all were like the Who it’d be another thing. But if they were like the Who, then I’m sure they would inherit some of Pete’s originality and his sense of you don’t stay in one place, you move around. It’s fine to have power and volume, and look good, but these guys may as well be the Village People. I think country music has more integrity than these fellas … except Gun N’ Roses. I don’t know why I’m being so nice to them, but they seem more like a rock ‘n’ roll band to me, rather than just one of those bands that just play riffs.
You mentioned country a second ago. You’ve periodically had strains of it in your music. Could you see yourself ever going completely country?
Probably not. Back in 1969, I was in a country group. We’d heard the Burrito Brothers and went towards that. But we weren’t real successful. Couldn’t get any bookings. We were just long-haired country players and nobody thought we could put that together in Florida. The thing is, I love the music, the real proper stuff. What’s on country radio now is as bad as the stuff on rock radio … really bad. So I don’t think I’ll ever end up a country artist, though I do have a certain amount of influence. It would be hard to be such a Byrds fan and not assimilate the country stuff. I’ve gone back and discovered Lefty Frizell and George Jones, Hank [Williams]. The good stuff I love, you know, Ernest Tubb? That old stuff you hear coming from truck stops in the South when you’re growing up, that’s the stuff. But most of the country groups aren’t very good. Rosanne Cash has done a couple of my songs and did a really good job. Emmylou Harris is great, too. So, basically, I like good country, but it’ll never be more a part of my music than it already is.
When BF Goodrich used what sounded like a remake of your “Mary’s New Car” in a commercial, did you object to them using it or were you just upset they hadn’t your permission?
Both. But, you know, I think part of the settlement was that I wouldn’t talk about it.
Then what about your feelings in general about using rock songs in commercials?
In general … I don’t want to be part of that. But I’m not going to be too hard on the guys who do it, ’cause I don’t know what situation they’re in. ‘Cause you know, I still really like Steve Winwood. it doesn’t really make much difference. But I would feel very embarrassed doing it and have turned down millions in the past, year after year. Sometimes, I admit, you think, “Shit, that was a lot of money we just said no to.” But the truth is we’re just not the kind of people who could look ourselves in the mirror after doing that. I think I would feel like I wound up in the wrong place or something. But I guess it’s inevitable that the popular music of a period works its way into advertising. It does hurt me, though, to hear all the songs I love so much as ads. ‘Cause I really love that music. I have just an incredible love for rock from the ’60s, and the ’50s, too. That’s really all I listen to. And probably all I ever will listen to. I hate to see it, but I just try to think of it as … well, it’s bound to happen. We never counted on it — the music of the late ’60s — being so good that two decades later, it would still be better than everything else that’s coming out. I always thought that rock would just continue to get better.
Has getting older affected how you approach rock at all?
Yeah, it gets harder and harder [laughs]. I’m 38 now, which is older than I ever thought I’d be doing this job. But I’m not very prepared or equipped to do anything else [laughs]. I’m just a … I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, more than I ever have, really. So I just want to keep refining the basic stuff that we do, with just four or five guys, you have a rock group, and there’s a lot you can do with that. It’s a challenge, always, to keep it going, year after year. I just wish there were more people trying to write songs, instead of trying to just play the guitar as fast as possible. I worry that between the guitar heros and the advent of dance records — where you have computers do most of the work — that the art of writing songs is getting lost. There are some people who do it very well. But I can’t help thinking, if we had more John Hiatts and Elvis Costellos, people who are willing to write and break through some barriers, it would be a much healthier music scene.
Over the years, I think I’ve gotten better at writing songs and the band’s definitely playing better, which is something we didn’t count on. We always figured when we started getting into our mid-30s we’d start to get shitty, you know? But really, they can play better. So I just hope to keep the enthusiasm and keep doing it. That’s the most important thing, to remain enthusiastic about it. That’s why I like this album so much, ’cause it feels so fresh to me. I don’t want to try and re-create the music of the ’50s and the ’60s. I just want to take it and go somewhere else with it.
Your attitude about music and your career seems a lot more positive than it was back in the mid-’80s, around the time you broke your hand punching a wall in the studio.
That was a very upsetting period, personally, for me. I was a mess really, just a fuggin’ mess. I think part of that came from frustration, looking back on it. It’s like we did three records and after Damn the Torpedoes [was released in 1979], I felt, ‘OK, that’s enough of that,’ which some people never understood and never will; but I was through with that then and I’m through with it now. So with the next record, Hard Promises, [released in 1981] I just had to get a stiff upper lip and do something different and see how it was received. And it was received well. But I think the band and Jimmy Iovine wanted to make an album more like Damn the Torpedoes. I didn’t. Then the whole time I was making Long After Dark, which is probably a better record than Damn the Torpedoes in a lot of ways, as a rock record, I was really more in a Southern Accents frame of mind. So I was not easy to live with and by the time Long After Dark came out [in 1982], everything was going to synthesizers and green hair and shit. So, after that record, I decided, whether I sell records or not, I was just going to do something different. That was when I decided to push myself rather hard. During the recording of Southern Accents, I was not sleeping much, up all the time, very temperamental, then I broke my hand [pause]. It was nine months getting back to some place. I think in a lot of ways I was lucky. I’ve been rescued when things got really down for me sometimes. When Southern Accents went platinum [in 1984], it was a great thing for me, ’cause I could say, “OK, we’re just going to keep trying things. Sometimes we’ll have really huge records and sometimes we won’t. But our mission is to maintain a quality that we’re proud of.”
You were on the road with Dylan for a long time in ’86 and ’87. How was that?
When Bob came into my life, I think that was good for me and good for Bob. For me, it was the start of a long process of gettin’ all my plugs firin’ again. And maybe for him, too, if I can be so bold as to say that. Bob is such a wonderful performer, a real showman. Just being around the guy and getting to know him as a friend was a great experience and the start of finding some higher ground. Good things seem to follow bad. It’s always been that way for me, anyway. You know, like when my house was burned down [in 1987], around the time Let Me Up came out, it was a tremendous blow, it was just an awful thing, but I’ve lately been able to look at it as a yin and yang type of thing. Somehow I feel like the Wilburys, and Jeff and George being such good friends and so supportive of me, sort of healed those wounds. One part of your life’s gone, so you find another. I’ve been lucky that way. I never get to fall too far before somebody picks me up.
When you look ahead, what do you see? Any goals as yet unfulfilled?
That’s something to think about. I can’t think about it too much, though, or I’ll scare myself. [laughs] I’m definitely not trying to get real big so I can go into movies or anything. I just want to play music. And hopeflly we’ll just become bigger people, rather than, you know, bigger stars. I think of Roy sometimes and I wish I could reach a stage in my life where I was just as good a human as Roy was, you know? He was very influential in that way. The way Roy saw life and just enjoyed it so much, it just brought home to me that you’re only given so many heartbeats and you’d better use every one.