City Limits — December 3, 1982

Editor’s Note: I only have a cover scan and the full-text for this. If anyone has the article scan it would be greatly appreciated.

no images were found

Download the PDF!

Tom Petty
By Cynthia Rose
City Limits — December 3, 1982

With his 1976 debut album, Tom Petty became a rock star. It seemed he was cast in the classic mould – a hip young American gunslinger (this time from Gainesville, Florida) who authored sparse, often sparklingly hard songs about love, letting loose and exposed nerves.

Yet Petty’ first hit single – ‘American Girl’ – revealed something new: an understanding of the opposite sex based on common dreams, background and friendship. “The ‘American Girl,” says Petty today, “is just one example of this character I write about a lot – the small-town kid who knows there’s more out there for them but gets fucked up trying to find it. Like the song says, she was raised on promises. I’ve always felt sympathetic towards her.”

Tom Petty (‘TP’ to friends and associates) shares her background. He’s the son of a former insurance salesman and a mother who put down a $38.50 deposit on her son’s first guitar, which came from a mail-order catalogue. “I saw the Beatles and the Stones,” says Petty, “and it looked like fun. I thought well, hey, hey, ain’t like Bobby Vee! They’re just kids like us.”

Stranded among the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, Petty eventually headed for LA – where he rapidly launched then abandoned an embryonic solo career. He’d “run into these guys I was really excited about,” and they cut a debut album in 15 days.

The rest is rock history – double platinum success quickly soured by one of music’s most bizarre legal wrangles. Recording under a contract renegotiated so that he could save his label in the event of its sale, Petty soon found his newly-marketable Heartbreakers caught in the middle of a corporate merger with record giant MCA. The latter claimed all rights to Petty’s previous contract; he disputed their claim and a ten-month saga of bizarre courtroom battles ensued. At one point Petty declared himself bankrupt; at another his roadies had to hide his own tapes, so he could truthfully testify he was in ignorance of their whereabouts.

This fight cost Petty a half-million dollars he didn’t have, but it eventually saw him settled at Backstreet Records (an MCA subsidiary) and on him the right to release a third LP, entitled Damn the Torpedoes. The album went platinum, repaid the legal debts, and made public those precepts which had seen its author through his ordeal, “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” sang Tom on one track; on another, “Even the losers/Get lucky some-times/Even the losers/Keep a little bit of pride.”

Record buyers began to look on Petty – like Bruce Springsteen–as a hero they could recognise. And he took the responsibility seriously: when it turned out Petty had brought in 25% of MCA’s 1981 profits, the corporation decided to tack an extra dollar on his fourth album. Tom threatened to withhold it until the company promised it would sell at the usual retail price.

“The record industry,” he says today “is going down because the records are so bad. May be there’ll be a track or two but for the most part nobody wants to take the time or spend the money to produce a whole album that will really stand up.

“Businessmen want to evade the economy because it’s getting bad in America like it is everywhere; the lines are really bein’ drawn now. But pays a kid pays for his records – he’s not a critic; he’s not with the company. And he’s rooting for that record to be great because it’s his money riding that turntable.

“I just want to make records that inspire people,” says Petty quietly, “which doesn’t mean that you have to write optimistically or anything …it’s just that I want them to have some effect on someone. If people see someone who’s just like them succeed at something – maybe it helps inspire them, maybe they’ll realise they can do what they want to, too. That’s what it always did for me.”

Torpedoes gloried in the Heartbreakers’ post-lawsuit freedom: it was defiant and assertive. But its follow-up album, Hard Promises, investigated the flip side of decision-making: Finding some dignity in ordinary acceptance. “That was a difficult album to make,” recalls Petty. “It was like picking up the pieces after the storm. A lot of people were confused by it because it was so different to anything else we’d done.

“They understood it in that they bought it, but the street vibe to me was that they’d rather have seen me do Torpedoes II.

Petty says he “worked real hard so that people could relate to that album without having to be sued! I mean, my writing is to the greater extent autobiographical, yeah. But if you get too graphic it’s really dull. I try to make it have something of a common denominator – that’s one reason we usually write some sort of love song, because that situation is the best one for hooking somebody in.

“Hopefully people start with an affinity to that and then under the surface relationship they’ll discover other levels, which make it mean a little more. Country songs are like that a lot. And a lot of Dylan’s and Lennon’s songs are love songs, if you take ’em at face value.”

But Petty’s songs – particularly on his new album Long After Dark – seem increasingly underscored by themes like mutual respect and personal endurance. “Well – it’s self- respect, really. You have to believe in yourself to have something to stand for, something to offer – or nothin’s gonna happen for you. It’s the American ideal that you can achieve almost anything if you put your mind to it, that you can get what you want if you just want it enough and you’re prepared to tough it out.

“Which is probably true – I think it’s true, anyway.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tom Petty says he’s “really encouraged by kids today. I think they’re pretty bright. You know these days to, say, die of a drug overdose – that’s really a dumb thing to do, you’re really stupid if you do that. Whereas maybe in 1970 or 1969 it was regarded kind of romantically. Now kids have seen all that go down, they know a lot better than that. I don’t think they’re prudish or anything, they’re just not as stupid as some of us were.

“Things that were ‘romantic’ five, even six years ago – they’re not romantic now. I remember how in the ’60s the whole point was that anything even remotely accepted in society had to be challenged; everything had to be completely challenged and you had to say, ‘No I can’t do this, I can go 180 degrees the opposite way.’ Well (laughs) sometimes that worked and sometimes you had to back up 90 degrees!

“I just want to see people respect themselves,” he continues. “It all really carries over into Reagan and Nixon and all that shit. Until people really respect themselves and thereby see that for what it is, those people can’t be brought around.

“And I’d like to see them really made to feel guilty for rippin’ off a whole country and destroying an economy, y’know?”

Petty smiles. “It’s funny. . . it’s never somethin’ you think about. We never think about what ‘message’ we’re putting out or whatever, it just comes. It’s a difficult position to be in when people ask you questions because we’re just guitar players, really. We don’t really know what to say to the youth, of America, or anywhere else.”

Guitar players, maybe, but super-star guitar players – sought out by rock’s old guard like Mick Jagger, and friends with colleagues of similar background, such as Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Tom Petty has staked out his livelihood on rock, and he refuses to succumb to celebrity ennui.

“I like the studio too much; I grew up there, from the time I came to California nine years ago, I’ve always been in the studio.” When he isn’t twiddling knobs for the Heartbreakers, Tom produces: an album for Del Shannon, numbers for Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks (with whom he did his spectacularly successful duet work), and even “a new group – someone nobody’s really heard.”

Petty lives outside LA in Encino, with his wife Jane and their two daughters. “I don’t deal with LA much. I work in the studio or I go home or I see my friends. After you’ve spent a few years at the Whisky you don’t go there any more unless there’s somebody you want to see.”

Straw-haired and pale-skinned, Petty looks unlike the stock Californian jet setter and he’s much too fit and self-possessed to entirely fulfil that role of loser/observer in which he consistently casts himself for work. Contrary to the images evoked in the press, he’s also extremely intelligent and articulate – and more aware of trends in the UK music scene than many a Londoner.

“The healthy thing about England to me is that they’re always scrambling for an idea; it’s so disposable. I mean (laughs) the lifespan of group here is what – three or four weeks? It’s really fast and you gotta constantly be hittin’ a new lick or it’s old news.”

Right now, with his fifth LP added to 155 radio stations the day of its release and his long-awaited world tour at last underway. Petty himself is real news. But having seen the underbelly of stardom, he’s not anxious to take it all too seriously: “Around ’77, people here were really suspicious of our motives, and I remember getting’ a lot of flak for sayin’ I’d like to be rich. I mean, why the fuck not, when you’ve been poor? Everybody’d be real shocked when we said that then but it didn’t mean we intended to compromise anything we did or thought.

“We were having this discussion the other day because we were riding to the airport in a limousine. There are some people who don’t want any part of that, you know, they don’t want to look nouveau riche or whatever it is. But I actually enjoyed that. I got a huge kick out of it, but it’s not like I’m tryin’ to impress nobody. If I rode around in a pickup truck when I don’t  have to – and I like pickup trucks too – I’d be so hung up on all that shit like not lookin’ right then I’d be as phoney as the worst of ’em.

“I’ve never really felt that I had to prove anything like I was ‘of the street’, you know – cause I am, / know it; I don’t have to prove it. I don’t worry about images too much, or what people think.”

Tom Petty’s grey gaze takes on a fleetingly solemn air. “In the final analysis, I’m afraid, it’s all down to what’s on those records and what you put out at the shows. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s painful but you’ve got to try and evolve your art because you yourself get bored with it if you don’t. And once you get bored with it you might as well just be a plumber, cause it’s a miserable fuckin’ gig if you’re bored.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *