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Rolling Stone 1000: Petty on the Edge
By Austin Scaggs
Rolling Stone #1000 — May 18, 2006
In the summer of 1968, when Tom Petty was seventeen, he saw his first issue of ROLLING STONE. “It was on a newspaper rack in the back of an over-incensed head shop,” Petty recollects, sitting in his Malibu home studio. “I thought, ‘This is great!’ Until then, 16 magazine was probably the only place you could see photos of rock & roll acts.” Years later, when he headed to Los Angeles in search of a record deal, he used RS as a guide: “We made our first rounds in L.A. from the addresses of record companies we’d written down from ads in Rolling Stone.”
When the time came for his first cover, as Damn the Torpedoes swept the nation, Petty was at ease with photographer Annie Leibovitz. “It was so easy to trust me,” he says. But he wasn’t as trusting with his life story. He had just spent two years in a record-label lawsuit that nearly broke apart the Heartbreakers and led him to file for bankruptcy. “He was feeling exhausted and dispirited,” recalls writer Mikal Gilmore. To make matters worse, Petty blew out his voice in Philadelphia that night and canceled the interview.
Two weeks later, when Petty finally opened up to Gilmore late at night after a gig in St. Paul, Minnesota, he wasn’t sure his music was worth taking seriously. “I find it hard to believe anybody cares that much about what I have to say,” Petty said, adding the following quote, one that has dogged him for years. “I mean, it’s only rock & roll — just disposable crap that won’t mean much in ten years.” Recalling those words today, Petty shrugs. “That,” he says, “was just the most full-of-shit thing I’ve ever said.”
Petty did four more covers for Rolling Stone over the years. But he still remembers the moment he saw the first one. “I was convalescing at a Santa Monica hospital after having my tonsils removed,” he says. “A visitor came in and threw it on the bed. I felt I had arrived.”