Grapevine: Tom Petty takes it home
By Dave Schlenker
Gainesville Magazine — December 2005
It’s late September and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have just completed their most successful tour ever; the bandleader is shaking off the remains of pneumonia and savoring time at home before the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers hit the road again next year to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
The soften-spoken Petty, who turned 55 in October, seems quite relaxed — even nostalgic — when discussing his career, life and longevity in a finicky business.
“When I started doing this, there weren’t any 50-year-old rock stars, you know? I had no design on doing it this long,” says the Gainesville native from his California home. “Now I find myself really enjoying it at this age. I’m very grateful, and I don’t take it for granted.”
The three decades wedged between Gainesville and Malibu have not always been easy — record-label disputes, the departure of drummer STAN LYNCH, the death of former Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. But much of the original Gainesville-bred band remains intact. They’re wiser, tighter and certainly grayer, but, Petty says, they still get that same rush when they walk on stage. The band hasn’t released a new album since 2002’s “The Last DJ.” Still, there is much to report.
The Heartbreakers’ recent tour played to more than 750,000 fans this summer — averaging more than 16,500 a night, according to Billboard Boxscore. “This last tour was the most successful of our career,” Petty says. “We’re filling huge halls, and the crowds are going crazy and, you know, what else do you ask for? It’s wonderful.”
PAUL ZOLLO’s book, “Conversations with Tom Petty,” a detailed Q&A on Petty’s roots in Gainesville and his thoughts on songwriting, was released in November. And the man who angered some commercial radio stations with “The Last DJ” is now a DJ himself.
But, it must be clear, his show is on satellite radio. The weekly “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure” is in its second season on XM Satellite Radio, with Petty spinning offbeat tracks and classics (including some from legends with whom he has worked — CARL PERKINS, BOB DYLAN and Gainesville resident BO DIDDLEY).
“There’s just so much more freedom there,” he says of satellite radio. “It sounds better. It’s exciting because it’s a new frontier in a lot of ways. It reminds me a little bit of when MTV came along; they’re eager for programming, and they’re so open to ideas.”
Petty is finishing his third solo album, tentatively called “Highway Companion,” due in stores this spring.
Finally, Petty — not a fan of television — continues his string of offbeat acting roles with a return to Fox’s animated hit “King of the Hill.” Joining series regular and University of Florida alum STEPHEN ROOT, Petty reprises his role as Lucky, Luanne’s boyfriend, in a storyline Fox considers essential to the comedy’s 10th — and likely last — season. (Petty appears in early 2006.)
“Lucky is a fairly complex guy. He’s really an idiot, but he’s sort of a philosophical idiot. But he has a really good heart,” Petty says of his character.
Petty contends he only watches old movies, usually Turner Classic Movies, and avoids episodic TV. But he’ll also tell you he loves great writing. As such, he has been in movies and has played himself on GARRY SHANDLING’s cable shows and “The Simpsons.”
As for Texas-soaked “King of the Hill?”
“I think it was BILLY BOB THORNTON who turned me on to that,” Petty recalls. “He had a bunch of tapes of it, and he said, ‘Man, you’re just going to love this.’ I started watching it, and I just thought it was the greatest thing. Then it was just kind of a strange, cosmic connection; they called and wanted to know if I would come down and tape a show.
“So I jumped at that, and it turned out they liked the character so much they kind of wrote him into a lot of shows . . . It’s hysterical. They have such great writers, and when you have a part like that, it’s just such a joy to do.”
During the “King” sessions, he also got to reminisce about Gainesville with Root, the busy film-and-TV character actor who attended UF in the early 1970s. Turns out, Root used to go see Mudcrutch, Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band.
“For so many years, I didn’t really have any life outside the Heartbreakers. To do a little bit of acting and have the radio show is really just recreation more than work,” Petty says. “These are the things I do that kind of keep me sane.”
For fans who have tracked Petty’s acting gigs, here is a fascinating tidbit: Petty lives across the street from Shandling in Malibu.
They’re neighbors. Good friends. The only thing missing is Doc Severson delivering Nancy the neighbor’s baby in Shandling’s living room while Petty watches in utter, face-twisting disgust.
Call it life imitating art — or, if not art, an oddball, late ’80s Showtime series that had Petty playing Shandling’s neighbor in California. “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” was an experimental comedy that broke the fourth wall and, in a few episodes, proved Petty could be funny. REALLY funny.
To this day, Petty’s contorted grimace as Doc Severson delivered Nancy the neighbor’s baby remains a classic television bit that still keeps the Internet abuzz.
“I remember I improvised that,” Petty recalls. “It wasn’t on the page. I just kind of threw it in, and they liked it.”
“IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW” was Petty’s first foray into acting. He later appeared — as himself — on Shandling’s much darker “Larry Sanders Show,” where he got to call CLINT BLACK “cowpoke” and fight with GREG KINNEAR. He played Stanky in the 1987 film “Made in Heaven” and, 10 years later, spent three weeks in a tiny town near the Canadian border filming “The Postman” with KEVIN COSTNER.
But his distinct, sleepy, Southern drawl was ripe for animated comedy, and Petty played himself on “The Simpsons” in 2002, joining ELVIS COSTELLO, KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER and LENNY KRAVITZ in an effort to teach Homer how to rock.
“I had seen ‘The Simpsons’ a bit. Not a lot. But I had seen it enough to know it was really good writing,” Petty says.
His music has also appeared in much television and film work. He composed music for the 1996 JENNIFER ANISTON film “She’s the One,” for example, while many Petty-penned songs have been featured in movies, including CAMERON CROWE’s recent “Elizabethtown.”
It all comes back to the music, really. In fact, when asked why the Heartbreakers’ summer tour was so successful, even without new material, Petty answers without hesitation: “We’re really good.”
“Fortunately,” he adds, “we have enough popular songs and hits that we can change the show year to year and still have a show where everyone knows the music. We’ll pull something out and say, ‘Oh, “Don’t Do Me Like That.” We haven’t played that in 10 years.’ Or this time, we played ‘Breakdown.’ I don’t think we’ve played that in ages. That was the very first song we had out. And we really enjoyed playing it. “I love being in this band . . . If I say so myself, I think it’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands that’s ever been. We all respect that a lot these days.”
Zollo’s book, originally intended to examine the art of songwriting, provided Petty the opportunity to reflect on his music, which, in turn, led to many Gainesville memories.
“As we went along, it seemed necessary to add in some biographical material to understand where I was coming from,” Petty says.
Which, of course, leads to this question:
Been back to Gainesville lately?
“No, but I sure would love to. There’s really not too many days go by that I don’t think about it. I think about it quite a bit. One of my dreams is to really go back there, spend a little time and just go around and get nostalgic, you know? I loved it there.”
There are shades of longing in his voice. “It was just so great,” he says of growing up in Gainesville, pausing as if to reflect before proclaiming that at times he dreams of buying a home in the Duck Pond neighborhood.
It’ll never happen, he adds, but the dream is there all the same.
“Just so great.”
And, notes Petty’s cousin SADIE DARNELL (the well-known, now retired Gainesville Police captain), “The nostalgia is real.”
Well, the Gainesville-bred Heartbreakers — those gold- and platinum-selling Grammy winners with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — soon will celebrate 30 years together. Now, with Gainesville riding shotgun in Petty’s new biography, perhaps Gainesville would be an appropriate stop in next year’s anniversary tour? “That,” he says from Malibu, “might be a good idea.”