For Petty, troubles don’t stop the music
By Marty Racine
Houston Chronicle — Friday, May 29, 1987
You don’t have to live like a refugee, but Tom Petty can hardly avoid it.
Trouble has been the Florida native’s middle name since the dawn of his 11-year career with the Heartbreakers, one of rock’s longest-running bands.
In 1978, two years after release of the band’s self-titled debut album on the Shelter label, Shelter and parent company RCA Records were sold to MCA, which assumed it owned the rights to subsequent Petty products. Petty wanted more control of his own destiny. A lengthy court battle ensued before a compromise was reached. (He’s still with MCA.)
In 1981, when MCA tried to raise the retail price of “superstar” albums by a dollar to $9.98, coinciding with Petty’s “Hard Promises”, Petty balked – and won. The album carried the lower price.
Frustrated over the recording progress of his “Southern Accents” album in 1984, Petty broke his hand against a wall in the studio. After months of concern over whether he’d ever play guitar again, the hand finally healed in ’85.
On the subsequent tour that played The Summit, Petty suffered from an abscessed tooth. He also had voice problems and could not give interviews.
Two weeks ago, just before the start of the new “Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan” tour for the latest album, “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)”, Petty’s Los Angeles mansion and studio were gutted by fire. Some of his master tapes were lost. Arson is suspected.
But Petty keeps on keepin’ on. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan, featuring stellar opening acts the Del Fuegos and the Georgia Satellites, opened on schedule in Tucson Tuesday. Fourth stop is The Summit Saturday.
“The band is pretty weirded out by the whole thing,” Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell said from Los Angeles last week. “Tom is safe, his family’s safe. It was arson, apparently. They have some leads but no one is in custody yet. We’re still pretty confident that they’ll catch him.
“There’s just no explanation for that type of thing. Fortunately, Tom has insurance. He relocated to a house for the time being. He’ll rebuild it and try again.”
Was there serious consideration of postponing the tour?
“No, Tom really wanted to make sure this didn’t affect the tour. He showed up the next day at rehearsal, and I said, ‘Well, do you want to call it off?’ He said, ‘No, no, I’d rather work, I want to make sure this comes off.’ In a twisted sort of way, it probably is better that he’s going on the road.”
Otherwise, everything is great for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, one of rock’s most distinctive and integral bands, and one blessed by a family-type attitude that has kept Petty, Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Howie Epstein together for years. “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” is arguably the best of their eight albums. It certainly is their most cohesive.
The timing also indicates an unexpectedly new peak of activity for the group. Following 1985’s “Southern Accents”, which ended a three-year recording drought, they wasted little time in releasing a double live LP from the attendant tour, “Pack Up the Plantation”. They then hooked up on an international tour with Bob Dylan in a dual role as co-headliner and Dylan’s backing band. That tour played Southern Star Amphitheater last summer.
Now, less than a year later, comes this marvelous new album, which sounds as if it were recorded on the fly in the rock ‘n’ roll tradition of spontaneity. In the best sense, it doesn’t even seem as if it were planned to come out when it did.
Campbell agreed. “We didn’t even intend to start a record, actually,” he explained. “Bob (Dylan) had some studio time, and we were going to go in together. Then he got involved with this movie thing (Hearts of Fire). So we just took the studio time to fool around with some ideas. Before we knew what we were doing, we realized we were into an album. It just went so fast.”
Part of the LP’s charm is that Campbell and Petty acted as co-producers. “It’s the first time we’ve done the whole thing without an outside producer,” Campbell said. “So it’s a little rougher around the edges. But that’s what we wanted to achieve.
“The interesting thing is that this album was so easy. Usually, by the time an album is out we’re sick of it. But this one, we haven’t had a chance to get tired of it.
“A little more than half the record was winging it. On a lot of the songs, Tom would come up with a rough sketch, a riff or an idea – he wouldn’t have all the words yet. We’d just crank up and go for it. He’d call up the chorus: ‘OK, when we get to the bridge we go to D. Stay there for four beats and when we get here, everybody go to A.’ That was sort of a trick we learned from Bob (Dylan), that you can fall into some neat things that way.
“Sometimes we made the words up and would keep it, or go in later and fill in places we hadn’t fleshed out yet. “But the good thing about that is in getting the band in an off-the-cuff mode, as if nobody knows what’s going to happen next. It just felt good.”
As an example of the Heartbreakers’ newfound whimsy, Campbell explained the brief acoustic-guitar bottleneck segue between “It’ll All Work Out” and the funky “My Life/Your World:” “That’s just a little segue thing that we stuck on at the last second. I recorded it at my home studio. We felt we needed a transition, and we stuck it in there so it would flow a little better.”
What the heck.
No band is more deserving of a little musical harmony. As you’d expect from a veteran outfit, there have been crisis points, the latest during the recording of “Southern Accents”. Petty not only broke his hand, but the individuals had scattered “far and wide in search of the musical stimulation they weren’t getting from their leader,” acknowledged MCA.
“Actually, this happens more often than not,” Campbell said. “People outside the group seem to notice that particular time period, but actually through the whole history of the group there’s been, like: ‘I’m never gonna play with you again!’
“But we’ve been through so much together. I hate to use the analogy, but it’s like family. We are real close, and we do fight. But I never felt that the initial vision was in jeopardy. That particular trouble came about when we were in the midst of (recording) a long, hard album (Southern Accents), and we were also doing outside projects.
“It might have looked as if we were not that close – maybe we weren’t at that time. But we were never on the edge of really seriously breaking up.”
At that point the Dylan association was a godsend. “When the Dylan thing happened,” Campbell said, “it was at a time when it was really healthy for us, to have new energy come in. It gave us all confidence and helped tune us all into each other again. Bob is really inspiring. To play with him is a great honor. It was exciting. We learned a lot from him.
“He has a different way of doing things. He’s a lot looser in his approach. I think that’s a valuable lesson we learned, that you don’t have to work things out that much to create the magic. He’s much more spontaneous, playing to the moment. He’s real good at that.
“At the first of the tour (in Australia), we’d get to the stadium having learned a particular song and he would turn around and say, ‘OK, tonight we’re going to do it in this rhythm and we’re going to do it in B-flat instead of E, get ready, go!’
“Sometimes it ran off the rails,” Campbell said, “but there were more magic moments than not.”