New York Daily News — April 18, 1999

Tom Petty Gets Personal
By Jim Farber
New York Daily News — Sunday, April 18, 1999

Tom Petty ambles into a room like a cowboy who just spent too much time  on his horse. He moves slowly, measuring each gesture, mirroring those  movements in spare and deliberate speech.

Petty’s hair isn’t  combed, his shirttail is untucked and his jeans fit loosely. It’s just  the rumpled image you’d expect from Petty, one of rock’s most low-key  and steady hit makers.
In both his demeanor and music, you’ll  find his intensity lurking below the surface. Glimpses of it arise as  soon as Petty begins discussing the dramatic changes in his life and  work that paved the way for his new album, Echo.

The LP arrives  amid considerable fanfare. In May, Petty will be featured as VH1’s  Artist of the Month; on May 16, he appears on the network’s Storytellers  series, and in June, he begins his first tour with the Heartbreakers in  four years, arriving June 30 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel,  N.J., and July 2 and 3 at Jones Beach Theater.

Yet all this activity surrounds Petty’s most personal, revealing and saddest music to date.

“I  went through a bad time a few years back,” says the 46-year-old star,  sipping a Coke in his New York hotel room. “I got divorced. It was a  really hard thing. I had to put my life back together.”

He’d  been married to Jane Petty for over two decades, a woman he physically  resembles. They have two daughters, age 17 and 24. Yet, Petty didn’t  want to turn this into the divorce album.

“I waited a year  before I started writing,” he says. “I was still working a lot of the  disappointment out. But I didn’t want to concentrate on that. I wanted  to write about getting on with my life.”

Which helps explain the  album’s mix of melancholy and defiance. For all its pain, the LP rocks  harder than any Petty platter since 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open.

“The defiance is the part of me that’s trying to keep from sinking into oblivion,” he says.

Petty  risked sinking further by leaving his work schedule open right after  the marital split. He spent an unusual amount of time at his home in  Malibu.

“I took a year off for the first time since my 20s,” he  explains. “I was worn out. I had done so much in the five years before.  I’d put out so many records and toured 10 months behind  Wildflowers  [Petty’s last formal record in 1994]. Also, I thought it wouldn’t hurt  us to vanish for a while. [But] it was a challenge — how to fill my  days? I reflected on how orderly my life had been. You know every day  where you re going to be at 4 o’clock. Suddenly that’s gone.”

“During  this time,” Petty says, “I started writing the album without even  realizing I’d written much. I d sit and write and put stuff on tape but  I’d always think, ‘That’s not really a song.'”

His band  disagreed. When he took his writing to the Heartbreakers, they cut the  songs so fast, discouraging Petty from any second thoughts.

“If I  thought too much about what I was writing, I would just think, ‘Oooo,  I’m not going near that.’ It’s more revealing this way.”

Especially  since Petty wrote nearly every song in the first person, avoiding his  common technique of acting as ironic narrator for other people’s lives.  To stress the album’s deeply personal nature, Petty titled a song “This  One’s for Me.”

“That s pretty direct, isn’t it?” he asks with a laugh. “It’s a little embarrassing, though. Oh dear.”

 


 

A Beach Boy influence
The  result brought out a new heaviness in Petty’s voice, especially in the  opening track, Room at the Top.  The artist says he was trying to ape  the plaintive singing style of his friend Carl Wilson (of the Beach  Boys), who had just died.

“It was my hopeless attempt to sound  like Carl,” Petty explains. “I’m just pleased that more voices keep  showing up because if you’ve got to sing a whole album it s good to have  different sounds on it.”

Some things remain constant, however.  Throughout his career Petty has dealt with the connection between  freedom and emptiness, in songs like Free Falling and Into the Great  Wide Open.

As well as the new Free Girl Now. He wrote the song  for his current girlfriend, whom he met just after the divorce. It  addresses sexual harassment.

“She had a boss who couldn’t keep  his hands off her. I had heard about this sort of thing but had never  experienced it first-hand.

“At first, I found it amusing. But as  it went on I could see that it wasn’t amusing at all. She didn’t have  the power to fight. I finally said to her, ‘You should quit.’ One day,  she did.”

 


 

Fascinated by women

Petty has long favored womens’ stories in his songs, going back to 1976’s  American Girl.

“Female  characters are fascinating to me because as much as they talk they  don’t necessarily say everything that’s on their minds,” he explains.  “You don’t see all the cards, whereas men often throw all theirs down.  [Also] my dad wasn’t around a lot when I was growing up. I was raised by  my grandmother and I had a lot of women around me. So I’ve always been  sympathetic to them. I never saw it in a macho sense. Now I’m proud,  when I look back over the last 20 years, that I never did take that  stance.”

That’s not the only thing he has to be proud about in  his career. Petty and the Heartbreakers stormed out of Gainesville,  Fla., in 1976 with a sound that instantly stood out, derived from the  cream of  60s classic rock. With their jangly guitars, nasal vocals and  folk-rock melodies, they melded Dylan, the Byrds and the Buffalo  Springfield into a classic American sound. It wasn’t an original or  pioneering approach, but it synthesized what went before with heart and  craft.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at first, Petty’s label tried to lump him in with the emerging new wave and punk scene.

“We  were happy being on that side of the fence rather than the other,” he  laughs. “We were actually friendly with a lot of those punk groups but  we didn’t look like them at all. I remember thinking it s better we  don’t. It would be false. Let s just be who we are.”

They became  major stars by their third album, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes. Over the  years, the band continued having hits to the point where Petty now rates  as one of the few mature stars who can claim more celebrated songs from  the second decade of his career than from the first.

“Some [concerts] we don’t have to go back further than 1988 or ’89,”  he boasts.

 


 

Value of video

Using  pop-oriented producers like Jeff Lynne helped. So did Petty’s clever  use of video. While many stars of his generation were wary of the  emerging medium, Petty embraced it, finding a way to carve out a visual  persona for himself despite his lack of cover-boy looks. In 1994, MTV  gave him its Video Vanguard Award.

“Some of my peers were very  intimidated by . I thought, let’s just dive in. We had the first  narrative video, [for You Got Lucky] in the early ’80s. We were just  tired of doing those damn lip-synchs.”

Not every Petty move  connected over the years. His last album, the soundtrack to She’s the  One, sold only 490,000 copies, the sole commercial disappointment in his  career.

“It was marketed as a soundtrack and put in [those kinds  of] bins,” he says. “And I didn’t promote it. I think it s a good  record, but I don t look at it as one of our normal albums.”

It  wasn’t even supposed to be a full album. When director Ed Burns asked  him to do a song for his new flick. Petty came back with three. Then he  balked at the idea of mixing in his numbers with a loosely connected run  of other performers’ material. “I can’t stand those [multi-artist]  soundtrack albums,” he says.

So he pulled stuff out of the can  left over from Wildflowers and cobbled it together. Not that its  commercial disappointment seriously soiled Petty’s reputation. These  days, he finds himself in sterling company, most often lumped in with  top-tier stars a decade older than him — like the Stones, Dylan or  George Harrison. (The latter two joined him in the Traveling Wilburys.)

“Since  they’re my friends I don’t even think about their music much,” Petty  explains. “But if I sit back and look at all they’ve done and how damn  good at it they are, then I’m a fan. And I want to remain a fan.”

Petty  is just as resolute about maintaining his band’s essential sound. Over  all his releases, he has emerged as rock’s Mr. Reliable, never indulging  in anything remotely trendy.

“I do enjoy all kind of music,” he  says. “I’m a big fan of Trent Reznor. But we’re a rock’n’roll band.  We’re stuck in that. We try to make it as contemporary as possible. But I  don’t want to try to be somebody else.”

He does, however, worry about the future of rock itself.

“It  ‘s not as good as it used to be,” he proclaims, before getting up to  leave. “I don’t know if it’s going to endure in the position it has been  in. And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe we’ll become purists in our old age.  But I have a damn good rock’n’roll band now. And I want people to hear  it.”

On Echo, you will hear it near its peak.

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