Book explores Petty’s area roots
By Dave Schlenker
Gainesville Sun — Sunday, October 30, 2005
What started out as a case study in songwriting – a sit-down chat on the craft with Tom Petty – turned into a nostalgic stroll through the streets and clubs of the singer’s native Gainesville.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer delves deep into his music, family and Gainesville roots in the book “Conversations With Tom Petty,” which will be released Tuesday by Omnibus Press. In Q&A format, the book was written by music journalist Paul Zollo, who interviewed Petty for a little more than a year in the singer/songwriter’s homes in Malibu and Malibu Beach.
“His idea was to do a book on songwriting, and I was interested in that,” Petty told The Gainesville Sun. “But as we went along, it seemed necessary to add in some biographical material to understand where I was coming from. So I guess the book is kind of half and half – half biographical and half in-depth study of the songs and how they were written.”
“So I don’t know,” Petty said, pausing before a slight laugh. “It’s got a lot of nice pictures.”
Four sets of pictures, to be exact – mostly stage shots and behind-the-scenes moments with Petty and The Heartbreakers. But there are gems from the early days: his first-grade picture, a photo of The Epics (Gainesville, 1966), a 1973 Gainesville Sun clipping on the band Mudcrutch.
The meat of the book, of course, is the detailed string of memories about an insurance salesman’s son who hung out at Lipham’s Music, met Elvis in Ocala, missed 42 days of school one year, graduated late from Gainesville High School and went on to lead a hugely successful rock band whose name adorns a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Among the book’s notable nuggets:
- Petty’s grandparents fled to Florida from Georgia, after the grandfather killed a violent man angered about the couple’s mixed marriage (Petty’s grandfather was white, his grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian). This, Petty told Zollo, is the story his father told him as an adult.
- Petty’s father, Earl, was an avid hunter who often dragged young Tommy along: “Quail was OK,” Petty recalled, “but eating a dove?”
- Don Felder, who later became a member of The Eagles, taught Petty how to play piano at Lipham’s Music, where the two worked. Bernie Leadon, who later played with The Eagles and The Flying Burrito Brothers, also worked at Lipham’s, a store Petty called “the center of all activity in Gainesville.”
- Petty was fired as a grave digger for the city of Gainesville.
- He met Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench (the son of late Circuit Judge Benjamin M. Tench) at Lipham’s Music, where Tench was parked at an organ and playing The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album – song by song, note for note.
- “American Girl” is not about a suicidal leap off Beatty Towers at the University of Florida. “Urban legend,” Petty told Zollo. “It’s become a huge urban myth down in Florida.”
- Petty compared former Heartbreakers’ drummer, and current songwriter, Stan Lynch to The Who’s Keith Moon, calling him a “powerhouse on stage.” Their strong personalities clashed, however, and Lynch left the band in 1994.
Petty’s memories are often punctuated with laughter. The often-reserved Petty was relaxed, Zollo said, as the two talked over bottled Coca-Colas and, once, fresh chili served by Petty’s wife, Dana.
“Every time I came over, he had a great big smile on his face,” Zollo said. “It was a great time. He was very happy. He’s got Dana and his family, and he’s also very happy professionally.”
In the book, Petty traces his path from Gainesville, where he left to shop his band Mudcrutch – door to door, tapes in hand – in Los Angeles. It was a rough road, one that required him to send his first wife, Jane, and their first daughter back to Gainesville while he continued to seek a record deal out West.
He found one with fledgling Shelter Records; Mudcrutch, however, broke up soon thereafter, leaving Petty to ponder a solo project or find a new band.
He wanted to stay with Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell and, still armed with a record deal, convinced Tench’s Gainesville band The Heartbreakers to join them. Petty, Campbell, Lynch, Tench and bassist Ron Blair recorded their self-titled album (with “Breakdown” and “American Girl”) in 1976.
That’s right. TP & the HBs turn 30 next year, which, Petty said, was one reason he embarked on the book with Zollo.
“I think the older you get, the more perspective you have,” said Petty, who turned 55 on Oct. 20. “But then again, you have the problem of not really being able to remember it all. We’d sit down and talk. And then, eventually, Paul got enough for the book. It would have been nine volumes long, I guess, if we’d put it all in.”
The Q&A format allowed Petty to tell his story his way. But, Zollo said, Petty held little back, including details about his turbulent relationship with his father, a man – he told Zollo – who “didn’t mind just popping you.”
Petty’s candidness came as a surprise to Sadie Darnell, his first cousin and a well-known, recently retired captain with the Gainesville Police Department (Petty contends she is more famous than he is in Gainesville).
Darnell and her twin sister, Norma Darnell, remain close with “Tommy.” Their mother, Lottie, and Petty’s late mother, Kitty, were sisters. Sadie Darnell recently read an advance copy of “Conversations” and said Zollo did a great job presenting the Tommy she and her sister know so well.
“The writer portrayed the relaxed Tommy, the fun-loving Tommy, the prankster Tommy,” she said. “It captured him in such a realistic way.”
And Sadie Darnell is not surprised about the book’s nostalgic tone.
While the rock star is content in scenic Malibu, he longs for the small-town South that often weaves through his music. A few years ago, the Darnell sisters visited Petty and his family in Malibu.
There, she said, they watched a DVD a family member produced from old home movies shot in the ’50s and ’60s. Set to music that included Petty’s solo ballads, the DVD showed Norma, Sadie, Tommy and, often, his younger brother, Bruce, at the beach, in front yards and racing along Gainesville’s streets in a go-cart.
One scene shows an Easter egg hunt. Happy kids scamper across the yard, as young Petty – with rolled-up sleeves and Elvis hair – stands next to his beloved mother. The music: Petty’s 1985 bittersweet “Southern Accents.”
“For just a minute she was standing there with me,” Petty’s voice sings as his younger self stands next to his mother. “There’s a dream I keep baring/Where my mama comes to me/And kneels down over by the window and says a prayer for me.”
Upon seeing the scene, the room fell still, Sadie Darnell said. The rock star in the Malibu mansion was genuinely overwhelmed.
“It was just a really warm moment,” she recalled. “It just felt right.”
The nostalgia is very real, she said.
Indeed, Petty told The Sun, he has been away from his native land too long; he hasn’t been back since his father’s funeral in 1999.
“It was very frustrating because I wanted to stay and visit,” he recalled. “I remember a lot about Gainesville, such a lovely place to grow up. Just incredible growing up there. The music scene in the ’60s was really exciting. And we didn’t know it. I mean, as far as we knew, everywhere was like that.”
He paused, thinking back for a moment.
“It was really special there,” he added. “It was so great. Sometimes I have this fantasy of buying one of those houses by the Duck Pond and moving there. I loved it there. I really did. I think when we left, we were sick of it. We felt like we’d done everything we had wanted to do there 10 times, you know. We had outgrown it in a lot of ways.
“But we miss it.”