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Into the great wide open: Veteran rocker Tom Petty to play Homecoming show
By Tabitha Soren
The Tuscaloosa News — Thursday, October 5, 1995
Singer Tom Petty is hanging out backstage with his 20-year-old daughter, Adria, about two hours before his concert at Madison Square Garden, one of his many stops on the “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers Tour 1995.”
(That tour will make a stop in Tuscaloosa Friday, for a UA Homecoming show at Coleman Coliseum. Petty’s opening guest will be jazz artist Taj Mahal.)
Adria wants a T-shirt, so her dad gives her the money to buy some merchandise. The doors haven’t opened to the public yet, and the two of them walk to the front of the hall, where a vendor refuses to sell them anything because he isn’t officially open yet.
Since the vendor is sitting there doing nothing, he eventually acquiesces and sells the Pettys some goods.
Tom is amused by not getting recognized, but Adria gets a bigger kick out of it and videotapes the whole encounter.
When they come back, Tom hands me a program on which he has written, “I bought this for you with my own money.”
A scene like this sums up the nature of this unassuming rock-god billionaire.
Petty is in the midst of his tour to support his latest solo album, “Wildflowers,” which nine months after its release is still ruling the Top 40 charts, selling over 3 million records.
Petty’s career has that kind of stamina too. This is a 40-something guy who has persevered: gathering fans in the ’70s, pumping out hit after hit in the ’80s, and, thanks to a whole new younger audience, meeting the ’90s with renewed vigor.
Petty has seen other musicians, including friends Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), Roger McGuinn (Byrds) and even Bob Dylan, fall from the charts. Yet for some reason Petty’s popularity continues to climb.
He admits he’s neither the most gifted guitarist nor the best singer. Some might even argue that he’s not the cleverest songwriter. But the sum of his parts is astounding.
And the hard work.
In the early days when concert venues were only half full, The Heartbreakers played as it was a packed house.
Although bands always say this, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers really have always given their all. That is, when they weren’t falling off the stage into the audience drunk or passing out face down in the aisle of the bus. At some points in their career this wasn’t infrequent.
Fortunately for his fans, Petty has been sober since 1987, and the rest of The Heartbreakers have since followed his lead.
Petty may have spent his life on a tour bus, but it hasn’t been a blur. This is a musician with a real family life. And it seems his groundedness has also helped his career.
He and his wife, Jane, raised two daughters, Adria and 12-year-old Kim, who might as well be best friends despite their age difference.
Their dad knows what kind of music they like, where they shop and what final exams they are worried about, which is quite a contrast to the many musicians who can’t remember how old their kids are or who never claim their offspring in the first place.
Petty’s family life comes complete with loud spats with Jane, his high school sweetheart who, interestingly enough, could pass as his sister.
But the couple who fondly refers to each other respectively as “King” and “Queen” both think they’re married to the most interesting person who ever walked the earth.
When asked if life on the road was tough on his marriage, Petty smiles and replies in typical candid fashion, “If you go around having sex with strangers every night. But no, for us, it was not a problem, although we sometimes walk with a limp.”
TABITHA SOREN: There doesn’t seem to be an empty seat at any of the shows I’ve seen. Have all of them been selling out like this?
TOM PETTY: It’s been better than expected, yes. I haven’t gone on tour for 3 ½ years, so maybe that’s why. I thought touring might feel like a chore at first — that I would need a period of adjustment since I’ve been in one place for two years making “Wildflowers,’ but it came back really quickly.
Q: How are the songs from “Wildflowers” going over live?
A: Great, maybe even better than the old ones. The audience really accepts them so we get to play a lot of them, which is more fun for the band.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” has become a singalong. Some of the softer stuff we play with only acoustic guitars and that’s hard in a big room, but the audience has really loved it.
Q: You’ve been with The Heartbreakers since you left Gainesville, Fla., in 1969 and were known as Mudcrutch. Thank goodness you changed your name. How did you end up in your first band, The Sundowners, in junior high? Weren’t you trying to impress a girl or something?
A: Yeah, I was 14. In those days if people had long hair they instantly saw each other at a distance and were almost obligated to talk to each other — it was like being in a club.
I saw this kid at a junior high dance with long hair. He, of course, walked up to me — being the other “long hair” at the dance. We talked and found we were both musicians. He played the drums. We offhandedly talked about starting a band.
He was with a girl I had my eye on. Not being Mr. Popularity, I had to get up a lot of courage to talk to this girl. She was pretty hot.
You know how you try to talk to someone you don’t have anything in common with and you try to keep the conversation going. Some song came on, I think it was “The Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. She says, “I love this song,” so I said my band played that song.
I stretched the truth a little. I didn’t even have a band. I had just met this guy.
She told me she was in charge of the school dance that was coming up the next week. She wanted my band to play during the DJ’s break. I said we would be glad to do it.
I left the dance to find the kid with the drums and the long hair. I told him we had a gig next week, even though we didn’t really have a band. It took almost the whole week to get four people to be in the band.
We practiced in my parent’s living room and learned three songs. We called ourselves The Sundowners and did those three tunes at the dance. They went over pretty well. Then we did them again because they were all we knew.
Q: All cover tunes?
A: I’m sure writing a song was far beyond my capabilities at the time. However, the girl wasn’t impressed. After all that, she didn’t go for me. (laughs)
Q: After high school, when you moved to L.A., you, Benmont Tench (keyboards), Mike Campbell (guitars) and Stan Lynch (drums) got a record deal and wrote “American Girl” and “Breakdown” within days of forming The Heartbreakers.
You guys must have really stuck out on the radio, which at the time was being obliterated by disco. Is that why you and The Heartbreakers were initially — and puzzingly — dubbed “New Wave”?
A: Yeah, not only disco but we didn’t fit into the rock theme, which was big and overblown in those days. Not much of the music then was very good.
It’s kind of like what “the alternative bands” went through a couple of years ago. We went through a variety of categories because we didn’t fit in anywhere — even though we felt we were just playing straight ahead American rock ‘n’ roll.
Q: Besides your own, do you go to concerts these days?
A: I rarely attend rock shows. I love to watch them on television instead.
Q: (laughter) You’re the thinnest couch potato I know. What do you like about watching them on television?
A: The same as baseball, I like to watch it on television, but I don’t like to be in the ballpark at all because I can’t focus on the game.
I actually enjoy watching (a concert) on television so much that even when I did see the Rolling Stones recently and they let me sit at the soundboard, I found myself watching the little monitor on the board.
I was in the middle of this enormous concert, with thousands of people, and all these huge videos screens and theatrics going on right in front of me and I found myself watching the television.
Q: Let’s talk about your solo records a little bit. Earlier this year you put out your second solo record, “Wildflowers.” Can you summarize the differences between “Wildflowers” and your first solo record, “Full Moon Fever’?
A: They are completely different records.
“Wildflowers” really is not a solo album — most of the band took part.
The the reason I didn’t put The Heartbreakers on it was because Stan (Lynch, The Heartbreakers’ former drummer for over 20 years) wasn’t there and I couldn’t call it The Heartbreakers without him at that point.
Q: Obviously, not having Stan around must be hard for you because he has been in the band for such a long time. I know it was even difficult when Ron Blair left in the ’80s. (Blair was The Heartbreakers’ first bassist and the only other member who has been changed in the group’s career besides Lynch). He had only been there six years.
Do you feel like part of your family is missing? Is it still the Heartbreakers?
A: Yes and yes. Stan had moved to Florida two years ago and we saw less and less of him.
It wasn’t a thing where we shouted an screamed at ech other. We all knew this day would come.
He wanted to do a lot of other things. He wanted more control, more input. He will be happier on his own, and we will be too, eventually.
Q: Your voice is so distinctive that the difference between your first record and “Wildflowers” is minimal to most people.
Tom Petty music is really something you can count on — you know what to except sonically. Your songwriting and the talented musicians in your band are almost taken for granted by the public because the music doesn’t really change that much … it’s not like Neil Young or something.
A: Well, the music is really based around a group playing, a couple of guitars and a drum and a piano, so I’ve really gone off on that track and stayed there.
I think the writing has gotten better in a lot of ways than it was way back then. To me it changes, but it is true. I mean, if you have my voice what the hell are you going do?
I used to go through these awful depressions about my voice and just think, “Damn, why can’t I sound like I want to?”
Then I realized that it was actually a gift in a way to have a unique, recognizable voice.
(There was a time when) I’d hear the playback in the studio and just wanna go hide or just really be brought down emotionally by it.
But now I just try to figure out ways to work with what I’ve been given.
I think, “With the instrument I’ve got, how can I get the most out of it?” I’m still working on that.
Q: What do you think you do the best: sing, write, or play guitar?
A: Definitely writing.
Q: What gives you the most enjoyment?
A: Writing. For me, that’s the main thing I’ve got that I can do. I’m so grateful I get to do it. It’s a damn good job if you can get it.