Damn the Torpedoes
By Jim DeRogatis
Chicago Sun-Times — April 13, 2003
Tom Petty has long been one of the most outspoken voices in rock, as well as a dedicated crusader to the cause of keeping concert and album prices at a reasonable level.
This week, he comes to Chicago to perform five sold-out shows in the intimate confines of the Vic Theatre, and to tape an appearance on WTTW-Channel 11’s new ly revived “Soundstage” series.
During a long and spirited chat, Petty and I talked about the Vic concerts; his connections to Chicago; his controversial album, “The Last DJ”; the state of the music industry; the role of the artist, and his long and rewarding legacy of recordings.
(He also will be interviewed live on “Sound Opinions,” the rock ‘n’ roll talk show that I co-host with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, at 10 p.m. Tuesday on WXRT-FM [93.1], and fans will have the opportunity to question him directly by phoning in.)
Q. So you’re going to be spending a week in Chicago. You’ve done this sort of extended stay in the recent past, and it’s always been something special.
A. Well, we did the Fillmore in San Francisco, and we really enjoyed it. This kind of started with we had to be in Chicago anyway to do “Soundstage,” and then we figured as long as we’re gonna be there, let’s play someplace small and do something special. Somebody came back with the Vic Theatre, and it didn’t take long to convince us.
Q. What’s the difference between playing the United Center and playing a room where you can see every face in the house?
A. It’s actually a little more frightening in a small place, because you can see everybody. It’s quite different physically, because you can do a lot of things you can’t do in a big place. You can vary what you play a little bit more, you can jam some, and you’re not completely strapped down to playing numbers that everybody knows, which you almost have to do in those huge gigs. We’re looking at it as a shot at musical freedom–of being able to do whatever we’d like to do.
Q. So what’s in store? Will you be stretching out, doing some covers, going back into the old catalog?
A. All of that, and we’d like to do some jamming, you know? We figure we’re one of the best jam bands around. It’ll be a lot of fun, I think.
Q. Something that has always struck me about your recorded legacy is its connection to psychedelic rock–it’s something you don’t get credit for very often, using the studio to transport listeners to a fanciful place that only exists between the headphones.
A. Yeah, well, we’ve been doing that a lot. We’d always touched on it, but where we really let it go was around “Southern Accents,” where we really started to just play the studio. And by the time we were doing “Full Moon Fever,” we were really playing the studio, and it was just a natural progression. “Wildflowers,” though I wouldn’t think that was a psychedelic record, it really brought us up a few notches in understanding how to get exactly what we wanted on the tape. We won a Grammy for the best engineered album, and we liked that.
And then “The Last DJ,” I think even more then we’ve ever done, we wanted a lot of sound textures and a lot of different textures as the record went on, so that it would be kind of a journey from the first song to the last. I think we’re probably one of the last people trying to make an album as a whole–as an art form in itself, where you have to listen to the entire thing. It’s not about button-pushing, it’s more like a movie.
Q. There’s also a sort of inherently dreamy or trance-inducing quality to the guitar jangle that is your stock in trade. This is something I’ve talked to Roger McGuinn about, and of course the Byrds have been a huge influence on you. McGuinn talks about the 12-string and the way that its resonates, and to me even a song like “Free Fallin'” has that psychedelic feel because of those guitars.
A. Yeah, and Roger’s right: The guitar does drone, certain strings, whether you’re playing them or not. In “Free Fallin’,” what we did there was we had a multitude of acoustic guitars, and I think we used a 12-string and a regular six-string, this really high-strung acoustic with what they call Nashville tuning, and three or four of us would play that all through at once and then we’d play it through two more times and back it up, then bounce all the tracks down to stereo. So it made this incredibly dreamy sound. Then I think we came back with a Rickenbacker 12-string, too, and put that over it at some point. So that was really a guitar record.
Q. There was a notion among some rock critics in the early ’90s, before Nirvana, that everything that can be done with guitars, bass and drums has been done, and the future is all in synthesizers and sequencers. You’ve never subscribed to that theory.
A. I think that those people who went for the sequencers and the synthesizers at the time really dated themselves by doing that. We always saw them as not timeless instruments. We stay organic; if we want to make a synthesizer sound, we’ll find some organic way to do it. Those computer instruments seem to date themselves, and if you look back at a lot of that music from the ’80s, you almost kind of laugh at it. It’s very much of an era, and I think the best songs are kind of timeless. They last a long time.
Q. You have songs that could have been recorded in 1967 or in 2007.
A. Yeah, and the nicest thing is that they still play our whole catalog. That’s what I’m most proud of, I think.
Q. When you did something like “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” it sounds as if you were really having a field day in the studio, with gates and reverb on the drums and those strange echoes that come in and out. Was that kind of like “kid in a candy store” time?
A. Yeah, it was. I wanted to make a single that sounded like nothing anybody had ever done, and to this day, I don’t know that anybody’s ever made a single like that. We worked very hard on that song–maybe a month–and we were doing things like right in the middle, there’s a big piano note, a grand piano, and we literally grabbed the tape and pulled it across the heads [of the recorder] so it makes this kind of “whoooooo” [laughs].
Q. You could do that on the computer with ProTools today, but it wouldn’t be half as much fun.
A. No, and it’s not going to have the same feeling. ProTools is a good editing thing, but the truth is the more you use it on the track, I can hear the sound going after about six tracks. The overall sound, the more the computer brain takes in, the less that comes back. I particularly don’t like to use it; I like to use analog tape machines, and maybe sometimes we’ll throw the track into ProTools, because we used to have to cut the tape and paste it all together, and ProTools is really good for that. But as a recording machine, I still can close my eyes and hear the difference between that and analog tape, because analog tape, the sound is printed on the tape, and when it hits the tape, it creates a kind of compression.
This is getting awfully technical, isn’t it? But in the last few weeks, we’ve been rehearsing some and jamming, and we’ve been recording live to just two tracks. That’s our favorite thing right now, because that sound is incredibly clean and incredibly rich.
Q. So with two tracks, you’re not even doing overdubs. Do you feel like you have the band at a place where you can just cut everything live?
A. We even have the band at a place where we can go in there, improvise an entire song from the count-off, and record it to two tracks! We’re really back to the way they made Chicago blues. That’s an area of our influence that I don’t think we’ve exploited enough. We love that music, and it has a lot to do with us coming to Chicago for a long stay. On the last tour we did, we were in Chicago a lot. We were kind of based out of Chicago; we’d fly out and do a show and then fly back. We wanted this time to go to Chess Studio and take a look at that and see if the room sounds the same and maybe do some recording there.
We’re kind of interested in doing a Chicago-style, Chess-style album. Right now, we’re still just trying to find stuff we like; whether we’re working on an album or not, I don’t know, but we’re really having a lot of fun. It’s the kind of music where if we go back to the hotel, that’s what we’re gonna play; it’s gonna be all that Chess stuff. And we’re quite good at doing it, so we thought, “Well, here’s something we haven’t done.”
Q. I want to ask you one more question about the psychedelic link before we get off the subject. One of your great little forgotten nuggets is the B-side, “Girl on L.S.D.”
A. [Laughs] I think I was just trying to entertain [producer] George Drakoulias! He frequently came to the “Wildflower” sessions, and I remember that night I was really singing that to George, just trying to make him laugh, and [producer] Rick Rubin said, “We’ve really got to put that down!” And I was like, “Are you serious?” He said, “Yeah, come on, come on!” I think it’s one of the first psychedelic folk songs [laughs].
But our idea with the guitars–we have three guitars since we got Scott Thurston–I’ve always admired Buffalo Springfield, and that was kind of a psychedelic group, too. I loved the way that each guitar had its own thing to do but they never got in the way of each other, and the whole came out with this beautiful, jangly sound that was like the guitars were singing rounds. On the last tour you might have noticed that a lot more of that was creeping in, where there are three guitars and they’re all working but they really try to stay out of each other’s way and the whole creates this beautiful sound.
Q. When you’re talking about jamming, the Heartbreakers jam in a very different way from the Grateful Dead or the Dave Matthews Band. You never lose the plot or stray from that essential rock propulsion.
A. You have to be careful that you don’t become indulgent. If you’re not entertaining your audience, it’s no good. Once you’re off exploring in a jam, the excitement of it is that you’re not gonna fall off your feet. You have to have some kind of center that you can return to and draw from. I don’t think they should go on for 45 minutes, because you’re gonna lose where you are. But it’s a really hard thing to explain. It’s more of a jazz concept than a rock concept, because that’s where the whole improvisation thing comes from.
Q. How do you know when you’re going someplace interesting?
A. If we get into a place that we’re thinking isn’t going anywhere, we’ll just kind of stop. But there’s nothing as exciting as something that’s right off the top of your head and flying along and happening. We’ve been playing a lot that way. I’m pretty good at improvising tunes and lyrics as they go–like the song “Wildflowers” was really a jam that was just what I sang and played off the top of my head. We just kind of do that: I’ll play a very simple chord pattern and then the band will fall in with whatever rhythm we’ve created and I’ll start to sing and then it will slowly take a form.
We get a big kick out of doing that lately, but what we’ve seen is that the ones that come out really good, they could never be recorded again because we could never get that sort of mood again no matter how hard we tried. So we always have the tape running, even if we’re just talking, from the time we come in the door until the time we leave.
Q. “The Last DJ” is an album decrying the way that radio and the concert industry
A. The world! Some people misunderstood that record because they too quickly latched onto the music-business thing, and the music business was only a metaphor. If you listen to the whole album, it’s more about sort of a moral crisis in the world. It’s interesting to me that by the time I finished the album, huge record store chains were crumbling, and it really was falling to the ground.
Q. Yes, but it’s still hard to get around the weasels and the opportunists. In Chicago, the scalpers infiltrated your fan Web site and got their hands on a significant number of tickets for the Vic shows that wound up for sale on eBay at six or seven times the face price.
A. We did try. When tickets went on sale, we stopped the process and changed it over to having to show your IDs. I think that may have helped. We go through this on 25,000-seat gigs, too. Somehow, the scalpers hire people to stand in line for them, and it always winds up where somebody will tell me, “Hey, I paid a thousand bucks to be down front, and it was worth it.” And I’m thinking, “This shouldn’t happen.”
It is a struggle with these damn scalpers. They look at it as the way they make a living. It’s the way I make a living, too, but I don’t really want to screw the people coming in. The whole idea of doing this is to have a cheap ticket and a good seat. I don’t think the scalpers much care about those kinds of things–they’re just trying to make some money.
Q. Unfortunately, consumers play right into that attitude, and so do some artists. I did an interview with David Crosby the last time Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played the United Center, and the top ticket price was $226 plus Ticketmaster fees. He just didn’t see the problem with charging that kind of money.
A. I absolutely heard about that interview! David’s a dear, dear friend of mine, but he’s full of s— there. I love him, but I told him, “You’re full of s— and you know it!” I shouldn’t say that because he is a friend, but let’s just say that I differ on that. I think that it’s not necessary.
We went on a tour last summer and virtually sold every seat on the tour. And then I see the listings of the top tours and we’ll come in around 20. The reason we come in like that is that it’s based on how much money the tour earns, and a lot of these acts are charging 100 bucks or more. I think our top ticket was $60 or $70–really low compared to everyone else–and we also had a scaled-down version where if your seats were further back, you could pay less. And you know what? We do fine. We take home plenty of money.
If they’d have listened to me in 1981, the music business wouldn’t be in the shape it is. That’s the whole reason it crumbled. You wouldn’t have so many downloads if the records were 10 bucks. I haven’t [fought to keep prices down] to be noble; I just thought that was about right.
I didn’t want to spend my time dealing with the music industry, because it’s boring. But over the years I’ve had to charge more, too, because inflation sets in, and it costs you more to go out, and people want higher salaries. It gets hard; you’re carrying 60 people with you, and they don’t care about the price of tickets, they just want that dollar. It does cost more and more, and that’s why some bands take on sponsors and things, because they can’t really turn a profit if they don’t.
It’s easy to be noble for us because we’re in such a good position–we draw a lot of people, we have a lot of history, we’re all wealthy. Those are a lot of factors in being noble! [laughs] So I’ve never looked at it as I was trying to fight the good fight as much as I was just trying to do what was fair.
Q. Before you played the United Center in December, I got a call from the spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, the radio-industry lobbyists, and he was all bent out of shape about your criticisms of the state of radio. He told me: “If the claim is that somehow radio is all bland and boring, our response is that’s not an accurate reflection of the business today. Tom Petty is being played all over American radio today, he has a hit song, end of story; his argument has no validity.” But when I asked him about the radio conglomerate Clear Channel banning “The Last DJ,” he had no comment.
A. The only song on that album that goes into radio is “The Last DJ,” and it’s a work of fiction: It’s a story about a D.J. who becomes so frustrated with his inability to play what he wants that he moves to Mexico and gets his freedom back. The song is sung by a narrator who’s a fan of this D.J.
When I wrote that song, I swear I didn’t know much about Clear Channel, and I certainly wasn’t aiming it at any particular corporation. The words “Clear Channel” never come up in my song, and I learned more about them when I started being banned by ’em! That’s when people came to me and explained.
I thought that the disintegration of radio, where it pretty much became a joke, happened decades before this. In my mind, it started going downhill in the late ’70s, when I was also enjoying hit records, but that didn’t make me believe that radio was getting better. My complaint with radio these days is more the segregation. Music is being split up into different channels…
Q. We don’t have a station that will play the Strokes into Tom Petty into Common…
A. Into Frank Sinatra! That gives you a kind of musical education to go out and find all different sorts of things. I’m not yearning for the ’60s, but there was a time when a disc jockey was a person of taste who was hired for his ability not only to entertain but to have taste to pick the records that he thought were good.
That’s really idealistic thinking, but like I said, I wrote a work of fiction, and it was really just to talk about vanishing freedoms, the ability to buy an airline ticket and speak to a person, or to buy a Tom Petty ticket and actually speak to a human being. It was more about that kind of thing, about a moral decline [laughs]. I don’t know; I’m still wondering if I didn’t take a lot of heat for something I didn’t understand.
Q. No, I’d say you got it right. I’ve done a radio show for more than a decade now on four different stations in two different cities, and I’ve had a dozen DJs come up to me and say, “I envy the freedom you have to play what you want to play. I wish I could.”
A. The industry’s answer is, “Radio’s fine because we get the ratings.” But the truth is, the audience can only pick from what it’s offered, and if you’re only offering them crap, then they’ll find the best of the crap. It’s a real Catch- 22. I was fascinated the very minute the album came out and it was being banned. I have to admit, I was really pleased by that in a way because I thought, “I must have done something good, because there’s no dirty words, no violence or anything.” If these people saw themselves in this work of fiction, it was like, “You’re all naming yourself; I certainly didn’t do it!” [laughs]
Maybe I’m living in a bubble, but I was so disinterested in radio by that point that all I knew was that the ship had gone down as far as delivering anything good. Then people wanted to talk to me only about Clear Channel, while I had written an album that was about a question of morals in general and the human condition in this country and the world.
Q. This is the problem of corporate globalization?
A. Yeah, but also why do we get meaner and meaner as a culture? At one point, it was actually almost applauded how damn mean you could be. Even today, I see the Dixie Chicks being boycotted just because of what they said. Whether you believe it or you don’t, that’s McCarthyism.
Q. Well that raises an interesting point: You mentioned Buffalo Springfield; is it possible in 2003 to write a song about the war in Iraq that will have the same impact on a generation that “For What It’s Worth” or “Ohio” had on the Vietnam era? Can rock ‘n’ roll still be anything more than a commodity or mere background music?
A. I think it’s possible, but the audience has been very dumbed-down by this whole kind of corporate thing. They’ve been dumbed-down by not being shown what there is to pick from. I’m not one of those old fogies who say, “Hey, this is the type of music you should listen to!” But, yes, there is informative music–even in hip-hop, they’re saying quite a bit at times–but I don’t know if it’s taken to heart as much. I don’t think that the youth culture is as united as it was some time back.
The ’60s had a very united youth culture, and now, I think the youth culture is as much young Republican as freedom fighters. I don’t know if those days are gone; I hope they’re not. Part of the credibility problem of rock ‘n’ roll is that it has continued to shoot itself in the foot over and over by selling itself out in such a huge way by doing these television commercials where young people think that “Good Vibrations” was an orange juice commercial. It’s hard if it’s an orange juice commercial to really look at what they’re saying. I think that maybe the rock ‘n’ roll thing got a little greedy, and with greed, a touch of honesty goes away. I felt that rock was really getting less and less honest, and with that, it gets less interesting.
If [change] is gonna come from rock ‘n’ roll, you’re gonna have to come up with something good. Messages and lyrics and all that are only as good as the song. If the song is a good song and an entertaining song, it doesn’t matter what you say. On “The Last DJ,” I was very concerned that every song be a good song, whatever context you’re taking it in. Whether you don’t give a damn about the words or you’re passionate about the words, you’ve still gotta have a good tune and be a good song.
The question is, do we have those kind of songwriters? And if we do, are they getting a platform to be heard? Only then can you judge the audience. These days, it’s really possible to gild a turd. There are a lot of glistening, shining things that don’t seem to have any substance, that are very disposable.
But I don’t want to take a negative look at this; I want to take an optimistic look: Let’s find the talented people out there and give them a platform to be heard.
Q. What about you personally? You’ll be playing this series of celebratory shows while half-way around the world, people are dying. How does that affect you as an artist?
A. It certainly makes me sad. It’s just very sad, no matter what side you’re on in this war, whether you’re for it or against it. But then again the artist’s role has always been if only for an hour to take the audience away from that pain. I think that movies did that a lot during World War II. In the ’30s, during the Great Depression, audiences wanted to see people in these beautiful gowns when they were lucky to have a pair of pants.
I think entertainers are somewhat obliged to do that, but I still think you can do that and make some sort of statement. My style has always been that I don’t try to get too specific about a problem–I’d rather put it in a context where you can make your own thing of it.
Q. So you’re not feeling compelled to pick up the guitar and write something about the war?
A. I’ve done that. I’ve done it again and again, and I would rather see young people doing it. It’s not where I’m at at the moment; I’m not gonna write “Give Peace a Chance,” because I’ve made those moves. When the L.A. riots started I wrote a song very quickly–“Peace in L.A.”–and I had it out in almost 48 hours. To this day the song earns money for different charities in L.A. That’s how I work, and if I can do something like that, I feel really good about it.
In that song I never knocked the police, I just tried to put out a point of view that peace is the way, that’s the way to work out your differences. Any fool can see that violence begets violence. Love is the answer. That’s such a cliche, but the reason it’s a cliche is because it’s really true. You can’t win through hate.
I think Buddha said something like, “Only love conquers hate.” It’s so true. People will say, “Oh, you’re a cockeyed optimist.” But if we had more cockeyed optimists, we’d be in a better place.