Tom Petty: A Survivor
By Steve Morse
Boston Globe — March 24, 1983
Rock star says Southern roots taught him how to make music
Tom Petty has never lost sight of his boyhood values. Although he has lived amid the trendy, transient fashions of Los Angeles for the past nine years, he clings to the survival instincts he learned growing up in the small town of Gainesville, Fla.
“I’m still fascinated by the South and I’m really grateful we came from there,” Petty says, referring to his band the Heartbreakers. “Down there we learned to really play music for music’s sake. One thing about Southern musicians is that they’re not into a lot of flamboyance. They’re there to play music and if you can’t play, they really have no use for you.”
Blunt honesty has been Petty’s trademark since his band formed in the mid-’70s. And as a result of his uncompromising beliefs, he has had to become a star the hard way – on sheer guts and perseverance – not because he’s riding the crest of the latest supercool trend.
“Our strongest asset is that we’ve always been into this only for the music and nothing else,” Petty says in a recent phone interview from Chicago. “I don’t even read Billboard.”
Petty, who performs tonight in the Worcester Centrum and tomorrow in the Providence Civic Center, has needed every ounce of his Florida willpower to become a star. Among other things, he has had to overcome serious throat problems – he had a tonsillectomy during a tour three years ago – and prolonged legal hassles with his record company.
“We’ve probably been the most successful underdogs in this business,” he says. “And I still feel we’re underdogs. It’s not all laid on a plate for us, but I enjoy that.”
The underdog psychology is tough to shake after all these years, but even Petty has to admit this has been one of his most enjoyable seasons. After taking a year off, the hard-driving rocker, known for such FM hits as “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Breakdown,” “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky,” has returned with a fresh outlook. He has even begun using terms as optimism and hope, never before staples in his vocabulary.
“I can’t ever remember liking a tour this much,” Petty says of his latest cross-country jaunt. “We’ve been free of trouble and we all appreciate just being out on the road again. When you don’t go out for a year or so, you really appreciate just being able to do it. I didn’t think I’d miss it, but I have.”
Petty says his voice is stronger than ever. “Knock on wood, but I haven’t had any trouble with it. Taking a year off helped quite a bit. I had been out there screaming for years without much of a break. Taking time off helped in many ways because I haven’t had any health problems at all.”
Neither does he have the legal hassles he did when he fought MCA Records in the late ’70s, alleging they didn’t own his contract and that he should be a free agent. The dispute ended in a compromise with Petty forming Backstreet Records, which is distributed by MCA.
“People still ask me, How does it feel not to be in the middle of a huge fight? Does it bother you?’ ” Petty notes. “And I say, no, of course it doesn’t. It’s one thing to read about all that but when you’re living through it it’s just awful. So I’m glad to finally have a year when I can play music and not worry about outside distractions.”
Petty’s new album, “Long After Dark,” following on the heels of the multi- platinum “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Hard Promises” albums, is the best record of his career. Bristling with sinewy uptempo rock, it features romantic pop anthems propelled by Mike Campbell’s knife-edged guitar and the abandoned wailing of Petty, whose distinctly Southern, nasal voice combines the influences of white rockers like Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn but also black soul singers like Solomon Burke and the Isley Brothers.
“I did 19 tracks for this record, but I chose the ones that would make it a real rock ‘n’ roll record,” Petty says. “I really wanted to put out guitar songs. And in the end I went for all the guitar stuff because I wanted an album that’s closer to what we’re like live.”
The music still reflects the restlessness that has driven Petty since his early performing days in Gainesville, where he was considered a radical because he preferred a tightknit, straightahead ’60s pop style to the extended, solo-heavy Allman Brothers boogie then popular.
“Restlessness? Yeah, to tell you the truth I don’t feel a lot different at the end of the day than I ever did. Life has changed, but I don’t feel different personally,” Petty says. “I still feel angry about a lot of things. I don’t think I could ever get blissed out and complacent about anything. I’m just not that way.”
His nagging inner conflicts are illustrated by the many love songs on the album – some extremely positive, some totally disillusioned. “I do have this cynical streak,” he confesses. “As positive as I feel sometimes, I think the people who know me would tell you I can get very cynical, too.”
Overall, however, “Long After Dark” tips the scale on the optimistic side. It ends with a sensitive tune in which Petty, who in real life is happily married, prayerfully tells his lover, “Don’t have a wasted life.” The song contains more compassion and depth than anything Petty has done, proving he has moved well beyond the formula love songs of his early years.
“You know, some people thought I was conservative because I didn’t take a stand on economic issues on the album, but then again I thought it was radical not to do that, because that was the expected thing to do,” says Petty. “I thought it was more radical to do a song like Wasted Life,’ because we had never done a record like that before.
“At this stage I can’t please everyone.”
Apart from his role with the Heartbreakers, Petty has just recorded another duet with Stevie Nicks. Entitled “I’ll Run to You,” it will be the followup to last summer’s duet smash of “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” He says he’d also like to make another album with Del Shannon, the ’60s oldies star for whom he produced the superb pop-country LP “Drop Down & Get Me” last year.
But the big surprise is that he may leave LA and move to London. “LA is not nearly as bad a place as it’s portrayed, but I don’t think it’s really the ideal place for us to continue right now. I don’t think it would be a bad idea for us to get out of there for a while.”
In London he would be closer to the cutting edge of today’s rock. He feels that the rivalry between American and English music will even out in the long run, “but the English stuff seems a little more interesting to me right now.
“We used to spend a lot of time in London in the old days when we first started,” Petty adds. “It was really the first place we had success at all. I wouldn’t mind going back to stay in London, if I could convince the band to go. I wouldn’t mind taking on a different atmosphere because once you’ve had a group for seven years you’ve got to be a little aware about shaking them upfrom time to time.
“When we started out, we were influenced by a lot of people and slowly we created a sound that was us. And I think with the last record, I’ve refined that sound as far as I care to for the moment. So I think I’d like to strike out in some different direction just for my own amusement.”