TOM PETTY: Purity and Passion
By Paul Zollo
American Songwriter — November 2005
If the old proverb “God loves the happy man” is true, Tom Petty is definitely divinely beloved. He’s a happy man for a number of reasons, as I learned while interviewing him in a succession of Saturday afternoons through interviews connected and preserved in our book, Conversations with Tom Petty (Omnibus Books). Petty is happily married to the ebullient Dana Petty, happy being the father of three children and happily making new music (as well as playing old favorites on the road with The Heartbreakers, one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time). The new music was made differently than in the past: It’s a solo album called Highway Companion and is the product of only three musicians-Tom (who plays guitar, keyboards and,
remarkably, drums on the album), Jeff Lynne (who was a Travelin’ Wilbury with Petty, and also the producer of the magical Full Moon Fever album) and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell (who plays fluid slide guitar throughout the album).
Petty proudly played the album for me during one of these joyful Saturdays, at very loud volume (because “I’m partially deaf,” he said with a smile) in his home studio in Malibu, Calif. It’s a great album, matching and maybe even surpassing the level of Petty’s previous work. “I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said, later asking me to change the sentence to read in the book, “I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever done.” It starts with the slinky funk of “Turn This Car Around” and proceeds through a string of strong song, including “Down South,” a masterful return to Petty’s past in Florida, and “Square One,” which is tenderly painted by two acoustic guitars and is one of the most sweetly haunting songs Petty has written in years.
The original impetus for the book was to talk in depth and length about Petty’s music. I had interviewed Tom several times in the past, and have found him to be one of the warmest and most likeable of music’s superstars. We both soon realized that the book should contain more, however. As Tom wrote in the foreword to the book, “As the interviews progressed, it became clear that to understand the music, one would have to have knowledge of my life and how it has unfolded.” His is an extraordinary life in music, which created the timeless blueprint for some of the most memorable songs of the past 30 years.
It’s a life that took shape in Gainesville, Fla. Tom was one of two sons to a loving mother and an abusive, somewhat crazy father. “My dad was pretty wild,” Tom said. “He used to always be going to get his car out of a ditch somewhere. I thought it was completely normal to run your car into a ditch. Now I realize…wow. And he was quite a gambler, and my mother hated it. It was quite a turbulent household, really. Very turbulent.” Asked why his father was hitting ditches all the time, he answered, “He was quite a drinker… just as wild as the wind, really.”
His father used to take him hunting and on fishing trips, both activities that Tom despised. “I never liked it,” Tom remembered. “My dad was a hard man-to be around. He wanted me to be a lot more macho than I was. I was this real sort of tender, emotional kid, more inclined to the arts. I didn’t want to be trapped in a boat all day.” About hunting, Tom said, “It was awful. It was sitting in fields, really cold, to shoot a bird. I remember birds stuffed in bags, and cleaning the birds, picking all the feathers off. It was gross. I hated it.”
Petty’s father would often perform feats to prove just how macho he was to his tender son. “One day this small alligator came up by the boat,” Tom said, “and I actually saw my dad take his forefinger and his thumb and punch the eyes in on the alligator…to show me that he could knock the alligator out…and the gator rolled over in the water. He was just nuts. But he wasn’t afraid of anything. I once saw my dad grab a rattlesnake by the tail, swing it round his head and pop his neck. That’s pretty wild, you know? So I was kind of scared of him.”
Ironically, when Tom showed interest in playing music, his father bought him his first instrument of choice, a Kay electric guitar. Tom took two lessons, but they were too formal for him, and he preferred to learn from friends. “I met a kid who actually knew how to play,” Tom said, “and he showed me chords, and we sat and played guitar; you learn really quickly that way. The first key I learned was C, so you had to have F, and F is a tough one. I remember playing ‘Wooly Bully.’ It was the first one I mastered, and I was on my way. From there it just went on.”
He started writing his own songs as soon as he learned how to play. His first was called “Baby, I’m Leaving,” which Tom described as a “12-bar blues kind of thing. It was in C,” he said. Both parents were impressed and slightly incredulous about his ability to write his own music. “[My father] was really proud of it,” Tom said. “When he would have a friend over, he’d say, ‘Bring your guitar out and play a song for this guy.’ [My mother] was amazed that I could do it. She’d say, ‘I can’t understand how you can do it if you didn’t have any lessons, and you don’t know how to write music. How do you do it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I just learned it from other kids.'”
He yearned from the start to make his living playing music, but he didn’t have any idea of a pathway that would lead to such a life. That is, until he saw The Beatles. “The minute I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. This really spoke to me. I had been a big fan of Elvis, but I really saw in The Beatles that…here’s something I could do. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.”
Tom was soon in one of those groups, which he organized with Gainesville friends. He knew a kid named Dennis Lee, who played drums. They both had long hair, which was revolutionary at the time, and they bonded. Tom went over to his house one day with guitar in hand, and the two jammed. But it was a pretty girl who crystallized his desire to form a band. “Her name was Cindy Crawford,” Tom said. “Go figure.” She was in charge of dances in the school and had a DJ set to play records, but she needed a band to play in the intermission. He said, “Sure, my band can do it.” And so he quickly went to see his friend Richie Henson, with whom he often played guitar, and told him they were forming a band. Henson got Robert Crawford, another guitarist, and they enlisted Dennis Lee to play the drums. “We got together one afternoon in my front room and played,” Tom remembers fondly. “It was the biggest rush in my life, the minute it all happened.”
They learned four songs, all instrumentals, including “House of the Rising Sun” and “Walk Don’t Run.” They all wore blue shirts and jeans, Tom said, “so we looked like a band.” They were such a hit that they were invited to play at during the next intermission, and they repeated the same four songs. At the end of the night, as they were packing up their instruments and amps, an “older kid” came up to them and asked, “Do you guys ever play fraternity parties?” Tom answered, “No, we’ve never played anywhere but here.” The guy said he could get them some bookings. This was a Friday night, and the following Saturday, Tom and the group were in Dennis Lee’s garage, trying to learn more songs. “And it never stopped from that moment,” he said. They called the band The Sundowners.
It was the beginning of Tom’s attaining his dream. The guy came through with some gigs, including one at the local Moose Club, where a “Battle of the Bands” was held. The winner got a contract for the whole summer to play every Friday night. The Sundowners won. They were paid 100 bucks a gig. Tom was only 14-couldn’t drive a car yet-so he depended on parents to ferry them to gigs. As his own mother was dubious about his ability to write songs, she too was quizzical about his ability to earn money from playing music. “My mom was like, ‘Where did you get this money?’ and I told her I got it for the show. She said, ‘Really, where did you get this money? If you took this money, you’re gonna have to own up to it.’ I said, ‘I swear to God, Mom, they paid me this for playing.’ She didn’t believe me. So she called the Moose Club, and the guy said, ‘Yeah, they get the door, and that’s what they made.'”
By the end of the summer, Tom remembered, he’d made about $200, all of which he put into the band, buying a better amp. Then his father surprised him again by buying him a Gibson bass. Up to this point, the Sundowners had three guitars and drums. Wth his new instrument, Tom became the bass player, teaching himself how to play with a little help from his friends.
Tom and the other Sundowners rehearsed avidly, and the practice paid off; soon gigs became abundant. “We worked constantly,” Tom said. “Gainesville had so many opportunities to play. There was a fraternity row where they had parties every Friday and Saturday night they had socials that you could play in the afternoon. It would be only an hour gig. So if we were really lucky, we’d have a social in the afternoon and then we’d do the show that night and maybe a dance. We were working guys. We were obsessed with it. Completely.”
While he was in the Sundowners, Tom was asked to fill in as a bassist with an established band comprising of older kids, The Epics. They liked him so much that they urged him to join the band as bassist and singer, and he accepted. “It was kind of mind-blowing [to join The Epics.] They worked all up and down Florida. That’s when we first started to go on overnight gigs. You’d go and stay in a motel room. And these guys were… crazy. They were really into girls, and into bringing them back to the room… That’s where I kind of grew up, in The Epics, watching these guys. They were just completely bonko, wild, partying, drunk…. But they had a really good drummer. The guy just played the most solid beat. I loved playing with him.”
But despite the high level of the rhythm section, The Epics became more interested in partying and less inclined to work on their music, which dismayed Tom. They added another guitarist, Tom Leadon, with whom Tom became close friends, and in time the two Toms left the Epics to form a new band. That band was Mudcrutch. They put an ad up in Lipham’s music store, which was the musical center of activity in Gainesville. A drummer named Randall Marsh responded to the ad, and Tom and Tom went out to his place. Petty told Randall it was a shame that they didn’t have a rhythm guitarist, and Randall said, “My roommate plays guitar.” And in came Mike Campbell, carrying a Japanese guitar.
“He kicked off ‘Johnny B. Goode,'” Tom recalled, “and when the song ended, we said, ‘You’re in the band, man.’ He had to be in the band. And he didn’t necessarily even want to be in the band. Somehow we convinced him to stay in the band. And that became the Mudcrutch that people know… Mudcrutch got to be very popular in Gainesville. That band really worked.”
It was also at Lipham’s music store, a few years earlier, that Tom met keyboardist-extraordinaire Benmont Tench, who was only 13 at the time. Benmont came into the store, sat down at the Farfisa organ, and proceeded to play all of Sgt. Pepper, adjusting the stops to get various sounds. Everybody there was astounded at the kid’s virtuosity. “But I never saw him again,” said Tom, “until, God, about 1970, and my roommate came in the door one night with this guy, and he was all bearded and had really long hair… Slowly I realized it was Benmont. It was like, ‘You’re the kid!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I have a band in New Orleans…’ I said, ‘We have a gig tomorrow night, do you want to play with us?’ He said, ‘All I have is my Farfisa organ.’ I said, ‘Okay, you’re in.'” Ben made it to the show with organ in tow, and winningly played five sets with the band, all with no previous rehearsal. Tom knew Benmont was ideal for the band.
At this time, Petty was committed to getting the band a recording deal. And he knew that he would never get this deal if they were simply playing covers of Rolling Stones and Dylan songs. So he began bringing in his original songs to the band. He’d written a song called “Up in Mississippi” (“You have to be pretty far south to go up to Mississippi,” he said), which they recorded and made into a 45. The record received a lot of airplay on Gainesville radio stations “because we bribed our friends into calling the request line.” It led to more gigs, and Mudcrutch became one of Gainesville’s foremost bands. The band thoroughly reveled in the recording of the song, a love that lasts to this day. “We fell in love with it,” Tom said. “Totally. We just fell in love with the whole idea of being in the studio and hearing it come back on those great big speakers. And it sounded so good. But it was all the dough we had to pay for one session.”
I asked him what it was like to hear his song on the radio. He answered, “Oh man, it was such a gas. Such a gas.” The band began presenting their own festivals in a field behind the shack where Randall and Mike lived. (Tom still lived at home, but used it just as a place to crash.) Tom and the boys reckoned that if they put up some posters and got some other bands on the bill, they could have a successful rock event. And it worked. Several thousand people flocked to the show. Following the first festival, some local promoters proposed the idea of doing another one, for which they enlisted many bands. It was also a massive success. The cops showed up, but knew if they attempted to shut down the show the crowd might become a mob and riot. Afterwards, Mike and Randall were told they were being evicted. Figuring at that point that they had nothing to lose, they held a third festival, which also was an immense success. “…that was the key to our success,” said Tom. “We became really famous around town, and when we played, a lot of people came. Before that, we used to play at Dub’s. We would play there six nights a week. Five sets a night. Got a hundred bucks a piece a week.”
The Dub’s gig did more for them than generate money. It also taught them how to be a band. But at Dub’s, the crowd wanted covers, and Tom yearned to play his own songs. So to get around this problem, he would say, “Here’s one by Santana,” and play an original.
Tom and the band increasingly felt they were on a merry-go-round, playing all the same places over and again. “So that’s when California came into the picture,” he said. “… we were constantly just trying to keep enough gigs to pay the rent, and keep working. But we could see it wasn’t going anywhere. How big can you get in Gainesville? We had certainly hit the top of the ladder there. We were probably even then the most famous band in Gainesville… I still meet people who tell me they saw Mudcrutch. But we knew we had to break out of there.”
So, along with their girlfriends, the members of Mudcrutch piled into a van, and headed west to California. It was a momentous trip for Tom, who had never been west of the Mississippi. He
delighted in simple pleasures along the way, such as the sighting of real cacti. The first day that they arrived in Hollywood, the group – led by Tom – began dropping in on record companies with their tape. Tom said he felt that it didn’t matter if he got rejected; he only needed one company to say yes.
“The only addresses we had,” he said, “we’d written down from record ads in Rolling Stone. And I was trying to find some more, so I went into Ben Frank’s diner on Sunset, and I went to a phone booth to look up record companies. And on the floor of the phone booth there was a piece of paper… and it’s a list of twenty record companies, with their phone numbers and addresses… I kind of went, ‘There’s a lot of people doing this.’ But I swear to God it was there.” On that very first day, the band “hit paydirt” at MGM, where they were invited to record a single. The next day London Records also expressed interest in the band, wanting to sign them right away. Following that, Capitol Records also got on the Mudcrutch bandwagon: “[They] wanted to book demo time in their studio. We were so silly and indignant that we didn’t want to do a demo, and we didn’t know there was a difference between record companies. We were really green. We just felt that if they put out records, that was fine with us. We didn’t know there’d be any difference between Shelter Records or Capitol Records. They all put out records nationally, or internationally. That’s all we were interested in.
“We stayed for a few more days, and on the last day we were here, we went by Shelter Records, and gave the tape to this girl named Andrea Starr… She opened the door, and she thought we were cute, she told me later. She took the tape to Simon Miller Mundy, who was their A&R guy. We went home [to Florida] and sold everything we owned, and got ready to come to California. And literally, in a rehearsal, the phone rang and I answered it, and it was Denny Cordell. I thought he was calling about a car we had for sale. And he said, ‘I really want to sign your group. I think you guys are really great. I think you guys are like the next Rolling Stones.’ I was like, “What is this?” But we knew who Denny Cordell was. We knew he had done ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and the Joe Cocker stuff. We knew that he was a real guy we were talking to on the phone. But I had to say, ‘Well, I’m really sorry, but we already promised London Records we would sign with them.’ And he said, “I’ll tell you what. If you’re going to drive out here, I’ve got a studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And that’s going to be not far out of your way. Why don’t you stop in Tulsa, and meet with me, and then you can see if you like us.'”
Tom and the band took Cordell up on his offer, and drove to Tulsa, where Leon Russell had a studio. Once there, they met Cordell in the middle of a windstorm on the street. He brought them to Shelter’s studio, which was built in a church. “It was called the Church studio,” Tom recalled. “It was a really nice studio. [Cordell] said, ‘Spend the night, and tomorrow we’ll go in and do a session. And we’ll see how you like it'” And we were like, ‘Wow, we get to do a session in a studio! Hell yeah, we’ll spend the night.’ …We spent the next day recording, and he went, ‘That’s it. I’m sold. I want to sign your band.’ And we liked him a lot, much better than the guy at London, who was an executive type. So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll go with you.'”
Mudcrutch recorded an album, with the song “Depot Street” released as a single. But it failed to fly, and the band split up. Tom was offered a solo deal from Shelter Records. He cut some tracks with a phenomenal line-up of musicians, including Al Kooper, “Duck” Dunn, and Jim Gordon, but didn’t relish the idea of being a solo artist, preferring the camaraderie of a band. At the same time, Benmont organized a group to record his own songs, and invited Tom to play harmonica. The band consisted of Mike Campbell on guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums, Randall Marsh also on drums, Jeff Jourard on guitar and Benmont on keys. “And it instantly hit me,” Tom said, “that man, you know, this is home. This is where I should be. And I quickly did my pitch about talking them into going in with me.” Tom wanted Lynch, Blair, Campbell and Tench to be in his own group, and convinced them to join by saying he already had a record deal. They accepted, and The Heartbreakers were born.
Skip ahead several years to the present. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are one of America’s most beloved and enduring rock and roll bands. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, they have released countless classic albums (such as Damn The Torpedoes and Southern Accents in addition to Tom’s great solo albums, such as Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers) and have amassed a wealth of hit songs, including “Refugee,” “American Girl,” “The Waiting,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and more. They are also one of the greatest touring bands to ever hit the concert stage. They have so many hits, it would be easy for them to become a nostalgia act, but Tom is careful to remain presently and vitally connected to his work, and “not to become a jukebox,” imbuing his work with a timelessness of energy, purity and passion.
“We’ve got a lot of material,” he explained. “We’re not stuck with the same fifteen songs. It’s a big temptation sometimes just to play the really huge songs, because the crowd loves it, and if you let them have their way, they’ll demand that. It’s important to give them something in a show that they didn’t expect. And to take them somewhere that they didn’t really plan on going…
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to play ‘American Girl’ anymore. We’ve been playing it for thirty years. But then maybe you’ll get two hours into the show, and the place is frenzied, and the vibe is so great, and the first couple chords of that song come on, and there’s such a rush of adrenaline throughout the building, that the next thing you know, you’re really digging playing ‘American Girl.’ And I’ll feel, I can’t believe I’m digging this again, but I am.
“It’s important to us that we don’t turn into an Oldies act. We don’t want to turn into that great nostalgia machine. We’ve seen many of the people who we came up with turn into that. I think you always have to have something new. That’s what keeps us going.”
He is optimistic about the potential of rock and roll to endure, despite the encroachment of other genres. “I think rock and roll is going to go the way of blues and jazz. It’s not the predominant music anymore. But I think we can keep going on as long as we’re honest. The music makes you feel young. It’s a good way to stay in touch with that feeling. I think we can do it for a long time as long as we remain honest in what we’re doing, and we don’t try to be something we’re not. Our audience is a rock and roll audience. It hasn’t turned into one of these passive, sit-in-the-seat kind of audience. And I’m so grateful for that. But maybe the reason for that is that we never tried to pander to a young crowd. We never tried to pretend we were something we weren’t, and so they always took us at face-value. We’re not trying to be teen idols. We had our days of doing that, and we’re trying to grow up with the music. We tried to grow up, and as time went by, the music had to grow with us.”
Asked if there are new places to explore in his music, he answered, “I think there will always be new places to go, musically. And I think that’s true because I’ve got a unit that can go anywhere I want to point them. The frustrating part for me is having songs for them to play. If you ever hear this band warm up, it’s scary! They play so effortlessly and so unbridled, and so great. But I get frustrated because I want to harness that, and get it into a song, and it’s hard to keep supplying them with material that will showcase that… It’s hard to write a great blues or a great rock and roll song. Because there’s a purity there you can’t fake. Try writing ‘Long Tall Sally.’ It isn’t easy. It’s a difficult thing to write because it has to be done with a certain spontaneity. It’s not something you can overwork. So those kind of things just aren’t handed to you every day. It has to just burst out of your heart. Those aren’t things you can plan. You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna sit down today and write ‘Long Tall Sally.’ It’s got to boil inside of you and then burst out. They’re hard songs to write.
“It’s a constant education,” he continued. “As you get older, you get more perspective on your body of work. I can see things that I’m better at than other things. So I’m trying to find the things that I’m good at and improve on. Rather than go all over the map and try everything. Though I’m still looking. I’m still searching. I try to be optimistic…The thing now is to keep refining, keep growing, keep finding things in us that we didn’t know about ourselves. I think as long as we enjoy doing it, we’ll keep doing it.”