Tom Petty: Good Ol’ Boy Making Music
By Jonathan Taylor
Chicago Tribune — June 22, 1985
LOS ANGELES — Tom Petty offers a mild protest as a photographer asks him to hold up his left hand, the one he broke last year in a freak accident that threatened his future as a guitarist.
Petty, 29, is sitting in his manager’s office in West Hollywood, wearing ’60s-style granny glasses and a faintly psychedelic shirt. The large scar on the back of his left hand is the only evidence of his injury.
Petty hurt the hand during a mixing session on his sixth album, “Southern Accents.” Frustrated at how the session was going, Petty smashed his hand against a jagged point on the wall as he stormed out of the studio.
But that was last year’s news. Right now, with “Southern Accents” on its way to passing the million sales mark and his first national tour in more than two years–he’ll be at Poplar Creek Saturday–Petty would prefer to forget his mishaps.
“It’s all very romantic to read about, but not to live it,” he says, referring not only to his recent accident but also to a series of serious disagreements with his record company, MCA, that held up the release of two earlier Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums.
“It’s just that I have that sort of personality. I’ve always been like that. (Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike) Campbell tells me I have a problem with authority. Well, maybe that’s true, but I’m not aware of it. Really, I’m trying to stay out of trouble. I’d rather just make records and release them.”
Of course, anyone who has followed Petty’s career knows he’s not nearly as cavalier about his music as he sounds. Despite his seeming bewilderment at both his bad-luck streak and his happy endings, neither is accidental. In each case, Petty’s conflicts and successes have stemmed from his determination to keep his music meaningful and challenging.
Petty, like many other artists at the top of the music business, found that success is often accompanied by vague dissatisfaction.
“I had to break my routine; I was bored with what I was doing,” Petty says of his feelings at the end of the “Long After Dark” tour in 1983. “I love to play, so I was never bored on stage. But the rest of it was boring.
“I knew I could hold my own, but I was more ambitious about writing and recording.”
That ambition is evident throughout “Southern Accents,” a dramatic departure from the forceful guitar and keyboard-oriented sound of Petty’s previous work.
Following the “Long After Dark” album and tour, he took an extended break for the first time in his career. Petty spent some of that time building the Gone Gator One recording studio in his Encino home, but the Gainesville, Fla., native also traveled through the South, soaking up local culture and attitudes.
Both that new-found studio freedom and the Southern excursion played powerful roles in what would become “Southern Accents.”
“Hearing the album now I think, ‘Yeah, we spent 20 years down there,'” Petty says. The other members of the Heartbreakers, except bassist Howie Epstein, also come from Gainesville. “We are rednecks, but we got opportunities most good ol’ boys don’t get.
“I had the advantage of being gone for 10 years. Coming back after spending time away, I was able to see both sides. I don’t think I would’ve seen the South that way otherwise. It’s such a rich place for material.”
The album’s Southern accents, however, are outshone by its musical adventurousness. For the first time in his career, Petty used outside musicians and producers–David Stewart of Eurythmics and Robbie Robertson –while exploring new melodic ideas.
Several songs–most notably the first single, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”–recall the psychedelic music of the late ’60s. In fact, Stewart on the single plays that most archetypal psychedelic instrument, the sitar.
“When I started to record again, I felt I wanted sounds I hadn’t been hearing on records,” Petty explains. “I wasn’t really conscious of doing this. It was just like ‘Boy, horns would be good here,’ or ‘Boy, cellos would be good there.’
“I told them (the band), ‘The only rule is that there are no rules. I’m not going to make it in any way except what I like.’ “
During most of the actual recording process, this proved to be great fun. Petty found in Stewart a kindred spirit, creative musician and compatible working partner. The same night they were introduced by Petty’s longtime associate producer, Jimmy Iovine, Petty and Stewart began working on “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
“Really, we just had a good summer,” Petty recalls. “There was a lot going on around my house, night and day. A lot of musicians came around who weren’t even on the record. Brian Setzer (formerly of the Stray Cats) was there for a while. He’s a great guitarist. I had stuff of him and Campbell playing straight, hardcore bluegrass.
“It was kind of like the best bar in town on Friday night.”
With many options to choose from–a number of songs were recorded three or four different ways–and enough songs to fill two albums, Petty became immobilized.
Petty’s perfectionism–his reputation for integrity and high quality –only added to the pressure: He felt he could no longer make music just for the fun of it.
“I don’t have the luxury of being treated that way anymore,” he says, a certain amount of irritation creeping into his voice. “It’s all taken like ‘Did he part the Red Sea or not?’ or ‘This is not as good as Bruce Springsteen’ or something.
“One of the main problems with this industry is that it takes itself so seriously. That’s not what this music’s about. It’s not about proving nothing, I don’t think. That’s not the atmosphere for rock. You should be passing a little time, having a little fun. If you get something important, great. If it comes from that emotion, great.”
Petty takes particular exception to critics who seek literary merit in everything. Although he is gracious toward the press, which has always treated him well, he says much rock criticism is misguided.
“What if they got ‘Tutti Frutti’? How would they treat that? What if they got ‘Blue Suede Shoes’? How would they analyze that one? Sometimes it’s very valid; I take time to write my songs. But you must remember the ‘Tutti Frutti’ theory in the back of your mind.”
But don’t get him wrong; Petty finds little to complain about at the moment.
“This is a good rock band. That’s all it’s ever been. It’s difficult sometimes because we don’t have any pretense, no costumes to get into, nothing to sell. So you’ve just got to be you. It can be good or really painful, especially when it’s you being sued or mutilated. There’s nothing to hide behind; it’s right up front. But when you’re right, it feels real good.”
Tom Petty–good ol’ boy and rock idol, studious professional and hardcore rocker–is feeling great right now.