The Petty officer of rock
By Edna Gundersen
Hong Kong Standard — May 21, 1995
Tom Petty might be turning into a wrinkly rocker but he is doing it with dignity, writes Edna Gundersen
“Music runs my life,” says Tom Petty, 44. “I’m embarrassed that I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t collect anything.
“Well, I collect guitars and records.”
But after nearly 20 years as an unrepentant rock ‘n’ roll purist, Petty has yet to collect cobwebs. His second solo album, Wildflowers, entered Billboard’s album chart last week at No 8. Doggedly current yet trend-resistant, Petty, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, holds the rare rank of ageless rebel among pop music veterans.
Last year’s Greatest Hits by Petty and the Heartbreakers sold more than three million copies. This year’s stamp of cool is You Got Lucky, a Petty tribute album by underground acts.
“I was flattered,” Petty says. “It made me feel good that they were young, unsigned bands. That meant more than a collection of superstars.”
Petty is generally leery of superstars and tributes. He avoided both by declining to appear at the recently televised all-star salute to Elvis Presley.
“A hokey affair,” he sniffs. “If anyone’s been tributed to death, it’s Elvis. Maybe the idea was to illustrate that the man was one of the great artists of all time, a fact blurred when he became a huge, mythical part of the culture.
“But tributes are a delicate matter, because you can actually disgrace the artist by trying to pay tribute.”
Drinking coffee and smoking in his cozy den, the slender, wispy blond in jeans and moccasins hardly cuts the figure of a ’90s rock hero, though one suspects he has flannel shirts older than Eddie Vedder.
His Encino hillside home, built on the ashes of a house lost to an arson fire in 1987, is an inviting and spacious stone-and-wood marvel of curved walls and domestic warmth, shared with Jane, his wife of 20 years, and daughters Adria, 19, and Kim, 12. A drum kit and amps clutter a room next to the kitchen, where Petty’s German shepherd, Enzo, is curled on the floor.
Speaking in a pinched drawl, Petty seems chronically mellow, almost downcast. Don’t be fooled. Despite the recent departure of Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch and the current upheaval at Warner Bros, the label he fled MCA for, Petty is anything but discouraged.
“One of the great surprises of my life is to be at this age and feel like I’m better than I was,” he says. “I thought I’d be less interested at this stage, but I have a keener interest than I did 10 years ago.”
Rock ‘n’ roll
And he’s more optimistic about rock ‘n’ roll’s future.
“You have a lot of young bands doing it for the right reasons,” says Petty, excited by the success of Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Offspring.
“They’re not caught up in being MTV stars or fitting a certain marketing scheme. I love the honest attitude and whole vibe of it. For a long time, what was masquerading as rock was not very genuine.”
Petty is pleased that he’s maintained longtime fans while attracting the slacker set, an “open-minded generation” less prone to musical separatism than their parents. “Maybe they trust me,” he surmises. “I am very protective of keeping that trust.”But he doesn’t cater to Generation-X tastes.
“It would denigrate me to embrace that culture and write music for teenagers,” he says. “When you see people trying to tailor something for a specific age group, it rings false. I’ve picked that up from my daughters. They know when they’re being patronised.”
Not put off by market expectations, Petty is driven by internal pressure and restless perfectionism. He and producer Rick Rubin spent 18 months on Wildflowers, whittling 25 recorded songs to 15, because Petty was unwilling to release an expensive double CD. The project was delayed three months by the devastating earthquake.
“The studios were screwed up for months,” Petty recalls, “the aftershocks were nerve-rattling, and we spent hours discussing whether we should leave LA. You take the ground you walk on for granted, and to not even have that as a given really enraged me.”
Although Petty has a second home in his native Florida, he won’t leave the city he’s inhabited for 20 years.
“LA is certainly not without its huge problems and disgusting factors, but I’m attached to it,” he says.
“People who watched too much TV or had too many dreams all come here to resist a more orderly, normal life.
“LA had the Byrds, the Beach Boys and the Buffalo Springfield. I thought, that must be the greatest place on Earth. And it was. I can’t believe I didn’t come sooner.”
Petty is also attached to the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Howie Epstein appear on Wildflowers and Petty’s 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever.
When Lynch quit to pursue writing and production, “we felt freer because it was getting uncomfortable”, says Petty, who’s enlisted Nirvana’s Dave Grohl to sit in on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live performance and Wildflowers drummer Steve Ferrone to play on tour.
“Stan just grew away from us. I’ve seen it coming for years. I really hope nobody else quits,” he says.
“If I didn’t have the rest of them, I don’t think I’d perform anymore and I’d be very afraid of making records. I really treasure the fact that we don’t sound like session players.”
Petty is as reluctant to throw things away as he is to see band members leave. He refuses to let go of old-school rock artifacts.
He refused to work with synthesisers or computers on Wildflowers.
He bought old equipment and microphones for their warmth and harmonics and worked in “rundown studios that haven’t been changed”.
“Sometimes I feel like an old football player,” he says. Retirement is unlikely. “I’m just grateful I have an audience because I’m sure not ready to quit.
“But I promise you, I won’t hang around and suck.”