Tom Petty, regular rocker
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — July 20, 2001
A few weeks ago, Tom Petty got married to his girlfriend, Dana York, at his home in Malibu, Calif. A mariachi band performed for an intimate, celebrity-free gathering that included family and the members of Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.
It was a typically low-key affair for an artist who has parlayed his regular-guy modesty and indelible feel for the rock ‘n’ roll verities into a 25-year career with fewer slumps than future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
Not that the wedding was completely no-frills. The minister was Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard.
“He did yell, ‘Shut up!’ at one point,” Petty says with a chuckle. “He was really nervous, but so was I. He gave a long talk about love and its characteristics, and what it shouldn’t do. He was pretty inspirational.”
The day of the wedding, another one of Petty’s inspirations, blues legend John Lee Hooker, died in his sleep. Petty couldn’t attend the funeral a few days later, because he was out on a tour with the Heartbreakers that will bring them to Tweeter Center on Friday, but Hooker was very much on the singer’s mind. Only a week before, he had added Hooker’s classic “Boom Boom” to the set list of his band’s concerts.
“He’s a big hero of ours, since I first heard him in the ’60s,” Petty says. “We used to track down whose records the British groups were playing, whether it was Chuck Berry or John Lee Hooker, and get the originals. Hearing John Lee’s original version of some of those songs would really blow our minds.”
For Petty, the foundation of his music has always been the classic rock, blues and soul of the ’50s and ’60s. A photograph taken of Petty in 1978 that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine shows him slumped on a shag carpet between a pair of speakers, a turntable behind him, an Eddie Cochran album at his side. Petty has never strayed far from the essence of the diehard rock ‘n’ roll fan portrayed in that image. He finds himself on the road this summer with nothing to promote, no new album to hype, and yet vital as ever. At 50, Petty remains the closest thing we’ve got to a classic rocker who hasn’t turned into a nostalgia act, who continues to produce work that compares favorably to his early breakthrough successes.
“I don’t want to be trapped by a cycle that says you have to release an album, then tour, until you stop making records,” Petty says. “I just want to play.”
He has an album’s worth of songs ready to record, and will retreat to a studio next month to begin fashioning the successor to his fine 1999 studio release, “Echo.” But he may be without his longtime bassist, Howie Epstein, who faces a drug rehab stint once the current tour ends.
Epstein was arrested with his girlfriend, country singer Carlene Carter, in Sante Fe, N.M., on June 25 after they were stopped for speeding. A small amount of heroin was found in the car, which Carter had rented but failed to return on its due date, June 24. The car was reported stolen, and Epstein and Carter were charged, jailed, and released on bond. A court hearing is pending.
Epstein rejoined the band the next day and insisted on finishing the tour, even though the arrest brought his drug addiction to light. The bassist is in withdrawal and “uses all his strength every day to do the show,” Petty says. “It’s been an ongoing issue with him, and this has popped the balloon. I talked with him last night , and he definitely wants out of this [addiction]. He stopped using dope, and he’s going through a lot of pain everyday. His rap to me is that the stolen-car incident is blown out of proportion, that he had nothing to do with stealing a car. The most important thing for him right now is to get clean, and he agrees.”
Meanwhile, Petty continues to deliver one of the most consistent rock shows on the planet. The mix on the current tour is typical: a few classics such as “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’,” recent songs from “Echo” and other ’90s releases, a few oldies such as “Too Much Ain’t Enough” that have been dusted off after years of neglect, and a sprinkling of covers that reflect Petty’s post-adolescent influences, everything from the Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions” to connoisseur’s delights such as the Zombies’ “I Want You Back Again.”
The show is modestly priced ($17 to $55 plus service fees) by today’s standards, especially when one considers that Petty is touring with relatively high-profile opening acts — Jackson Browne will open the Tweeter show — and refuses to accept corporate sponsorship.
“There’s plenty of dough left — don’t cry for us,” Petty says with a laugh. “But I don’t want to price this stuff for the elite. I don’t want to play for the elite. I’ve always maintained the people who gouge the market are gonna be sorry, this is gonna backfire on them.”
That Petty even thinks seriously about such issues makes him a rarity among his rock ‘n’ roll brethren, who frequently pass the buck to management when it comes to business decisions. His attitude is epitomized by the title of one of his finest songs: “Don’t Back Down.” In the early ’80s, his old label, MCA, wanted to raise the price of his albums from $8.98 to $9.98. He threatened to title his next album “8.98,” and the label backed down. He says he faces similar pressure from his concert promoter, Clear Channel Entertainment (formerly SFX), to boost his ticket prices.
“They’re not gonna do that to me,” he says. “Because I’m gonna tour anyway, even if I have to play American Legion halls. I’m not afraid of the big guys. We went through that years ago with record prices, and we kept the prices down for a good decade. I’d love to see somebody else do that. One person can effect change. We don’t feel a part of the way the industry works. We have always thought about how can we do what we like to do, still make a living, and keep the shows fun for the fans, keep the records and the shows affordable. If you’re sitting backstage complaining about the price of your ticket, something’s wrong. I don’t get that. It’s like, Look, it’s your show. Take responsibility for it.”