Editor’s Note: First, this was in a print magazine. However I have no scans. Second, I’m not sure if the date is even right. If anyone has either scans or a confirmation of the date to contact me would be appreciated.
Tom Petty: Anatomy of a Rockstar
By Jaan Uhelszki
Harp — July 25, 2006
Almost everyone that knows Tom Petty for any length of time calls him Tommy. Except, that is, for his rather stern looking housekeeper who’s bent over the gleaming stainless steel sink in his Malibu home’s state of the art kitchen, all dark oak, and imposing marble, with perfectly aligned canisters. “I wasn’t “Tom” until they put it on the records. People who have known me longer than that call me Tommy, but I decided to go with Tom because Tommy didn’t look right on the record,” Petty says with a funny little shake of his head, like even he can’t figure out his real identity. But that in itself is very telling. Spend any amount of time with him and you realize that three very different people co-exist underneath his still-blonde head. First there’s the affable good ole’ southern boy who wants to put everyone at ease, the perpetual Traveling Wilbury who finds humor and irony in every situation. Then there’s the charismatic and flinty rock star. When he trains those silvery blue eyes on you, it’s like he’s looking clear through to your backbone. Full of ambition and resolve, this is the persona that impelled him to stand up to his abusive father and leave high school during his junior year because the world beckoned. The third persona is the most complicated, and the one that people seem to most connect with. Altruistic, uncompromising and filled with the need to make the world a better place, the big star stand in for the rest of us. Even Bob Dylan doesn’t know what to make of him, saying once: “I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom—he’s a deep soulful cat. Tom is a heroic character in his own kind of way.”
The housekeeper calls him Mr. Petty, but then he pays her to show deference, and even—when necessary—to remind people that the master doesn’t like it when people call his tasteful Moroccan homestead a mansion. And even worse, a “mini mansion.”
While unpretentious, there’s more than a little bit of the British rock star about the place. More baronial than ostentatious like most of the homes on Malibu hillsides—if it had a few more pieces of nefarious arcane iconography Jimmy Page would feel right at home here. But instead of the overwrought ceremonial furniture of Aleister Crowley’s Boleskine House which Page owned for twenty years, there’s a life size stone Buddah in the north hall off the entry way; a silent witness to the Petty household. It looks a lot like the statue that graced the inside of 1999’s Echo album cover, which at the time seemed more of a testament to good friend Stevie Nick’s spiritual proclivities than Petty’s, yet here it is, serenely at home among the many other museum quality object d’ art that the musician’s wife Dana has caged off of Ebay. “She’s got a really good eye,” he says when complimented about his beautiful and brainy second wife’s taste. “Dana used to be involved in art, when I first met her. But now she mostly takes care of me,” he says, a little chagrined.
He’s clearly smitten, even after ten years together, telling the listener that there’s a meant quality about their being together. “My wife is a calming force in my life. Meeting her was one of the most mystical things that ever happened to me.”
The Buddha stands guard along with Chase, a sandy colored English lab who takes up more than his share of psychic space. Despite his larger-than-a-dinner plate head and a propensity to headbutt strangers, Chase has an almost cartoonish grin on his canine face. As for the Buddha, it’s rather imposing, towering at least four inches above Tom Petty’s 5’10” frame. Today, on this Easter Monday, he’s shod in battered camel colored Ugg Boots, which add to the filtered pale monochromatism of the late Spring day.
It’s in the far wing of this sprawling house, set about a quarter mile from Pacific Coast Highway that Petty has been hard at work on his third solo album. While there’s another Heartbreakers album planned, every now and then the musician has the need to exercise his solitary vision. Onboard again is Jeff Lynne and his long-time compatriot and Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell. Titled Highway Companion, it’s an album to put into a car’s CD player and listen to when you’re ready to head out for, if you’ll excuse the expression, the great wide open.
“Lately I’ve been concerned with what I’ll leave behind artistically. The biggest priority with the new record now is that I know this is here longer than me and that’s more important than [it] being a hit record. Years ago you’d have to make sure you had one that was a [hit] single. I don’t think that pops up in my mind anymore. I’m a little more into the poetry and the lyrical images than I used to be. I don’t want to waste a line, I want to mean something and I want it to be the right line. With this record I knew that I wanted to have a sound that was cohesive. I didn’t want to make a concept album but I wanted it to fit together sonically. The space is everything in a record. It’s not anthemic at all. I’m real bored with [being] anthemic. I did that and I am not trying to do it again.”
Tom Petty vibrates at a different frequency than the rest of us—despite the fact that he looks utterly normal. There’s a different, prescient, even twitchy-witchy energy always at work in the musician. While it may have something to do with the fact that one of his earliest jobs was a gravedigger (darkly reflected when he portrayed a grinning undertaker in the video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”) or his Cherokee heritage (attested to by all the Native American art and rugs in his home studio), Petty credits the creative process with primitive powers, freely admitting “every song has already been written, you just have to tune yourself in to the cosmic radio station.”
“I remember thinking from a very early age that my parents might have been aliens and I landed in an alien family like one of those on The Twilight Zone,” recalls Petty. “Even when I was really young, I knew that I was not like them at all. It was probably because TV had come into the picture when I was three or four. I loved the television so much. It would go off at night and sometimes I would wait for it to come on. I knew in there was a world that was not like anything like the one I was in. I figured that was the correct one.”
But more than just plugging in to that cosmic consciousness and downloading songs, there’s a sense of the musician foretelling the future in his songs. In 2002, he released the scathing indictment against the music industry The Last DJ, and years later he had his own XM radio show (Buried Treasure, on XM 40 every Monday at 10AM EST). Most recently he wrote a song on Highway Companion called “Ankle Deep” about a thoroughbred horse that breaks his leg in a big race, presaging Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro’s career-ending injury by a whole year. But his strange powers aren’t just limited to his songs—the genesis of the Wilburys occurred when he almost ran his car into ELO and Move founder Jeff Lynne’s sedan on a quiet Thanksgiving morning in Los Angeles, just a week after meeting Lynne and George Harrison during a rare hurricane in London. “I knew that hurricane meant my life was going to change,” explains Petty. And it did, nudging him a little further down that karmic path when he and his daughter Adria felt compelled to pull into a French restaurant after a long day of Christmas shopping, as another future Traveling Wilbury George Harrison was asking for Petty’s phone number.
“My little coupling with Jeff and George was so cosmic. It was so damn strange when I ran into Jeff. I didn’t live in that neighborhood when I left on tour, and neither did Jeff. He moved into it when I was gone. We had spent almost every night together along with George [Harrison] when I was in England a few weeks before so I didn’t expect to see him stopped at a light in Los Angeles. We pulled over and talked, and decided to meet the next day. But that’s not nearly as odd as when I was Christmas shopping with my daughter about a week later and we decided to eat at this French restaurant that she loved for lunch—something we never ever did. I went in and sat down and the waiter said that there was a friend of mine in a private room they had and he would like to see me and it was George. He said, ‘this is so strange, I was writing your number down from Jeff and they told me you were in the next room.’ He came home with me and we spent the holiday together and became good friends.”
While many people would be daunted in the presence of a former Beatle, Petty isn’t easily intimidated. Perhaps it has something to do with meeting Elvis on the set of Follow that Dream in 1961, (later magnified in his own “Running Down A Dream”) when he was only 11, but more than likely Petty’s fearlessness comes from living with his abusive father, Earl Petty.
“I never felt safe as a child. There is so much about my dad looking back that I like but I was so afraid of him. My father was such loose a cannon I was never too at ease around him. He was very verbally abusive and I took refuge in the music—rock ‘n’ roll was my safe place,” explains Petty, leaning forward in his seat, matter-of-factly discussing a subject that has caused him no small amount of pain over the decades.
What Petty couldn’t say to his father, he channeled into his songs, creating a world where if he didn’t feel safe, he certainly felt in control. Songs like “I Won’t Back Down,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Into the Great Wide Open” and “I Need To Know,” speak volumes about the necessity of not only doing things his way, but to reinvent himself in the process, with a myriad of images of fleeing, falling and starting over that reoccur over and over in his canon, culminating in what are perhaps his most salient words to the wise: “Comin’ down is the hardest thing.”
“You think I don’t know that everyone calls me a control freak?” he laughs, tapping his thin fingers against the side of the barstool where he’s perched. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, if we’re Kentucky Fried Chicken, I’m the colonel on the bucket. This whole thing has my name on it, and ultimately I’m responsible, so I want things presented the way I see them.”
And he sees a lot. Like the time he thought he spotted three UFOs circling above Pacific Coast Highway on an irrepressibly sunny June afternoon in 2004, and one of the reasons the musician rarely gets behind the wheel of his three cars anymore—despite naming his latest solo album Highway Companion.
“The real reason I can’t drive is because the last two times I drove I had accidents. It just came down as a rule that I am not allowed behind the wheel. I like to drive, but after that last time, I knew I had scared my wife.”
It’s not clear whether it was the actual accident, or the fact that Petty swore that he had spotted aliens—yes THAT again—which unnerved Dana. “My wife and her friend and I were going to go to dinner. They needed something and I said I would go to the store and get it. As I was coming back I saw three enormous silver balls floating in the sky. What was even stranger was there were these two helicopters making a big circle around the three balls. People were pulled over on the road pointing. I ran in the house and yelled to Dana and her friend, ‘Get in the car, let’s go. You have got to come see this!’ They were laughing at me and then we pulled up on the highway and both said, ‘Oh holy shit.’ I had them convinced that they were UFOs. But when we got a lot closer we could see that there was a thin wire attached to them and that they were only balloons. Then I realized that Adam Sandler was getting married at Dick Clark’s house, which is not too far down the road, and they probably launched these balloons so that the helicopters couldn’t photograph the wedding. Right when I realized this, I go to turn the car around and I crashed into an oncoming car and nearly killed two people. If that wasn’t bad enough, as I pulled off the road, I landed in a nest of 150 paparazzi that were covering the Sandler wedding. My car is just swarmed with cameras and I had to get out see how the poor girl that I hit was. I gave her a big hug and told her that I would pay for everything. But I didn’t necessarily want to see that on national TV.”
The fact that Petty doesn’t drive anymore doesn’t seem to bother him much. A rather odd sidenote considering cars—and car radios—have played a big part of his existence, showing up in the lyrics of many of his songs and acting as the uniting force between a young man and his dreams. It was a car—well a van, really—that led to fulfilling his own destiny, leaving Gainesville, Florida with his bandmates in 1974 to Los Angeles after following a tip that the streets of LA were lined with recording contracts. Changing location certainly changed his luck–sheer audacity and a record label receptionist who thought the bandmembers were cute resulted in the soon-to-be Heartbreakers being offered a deal for a single by London Records. Another cross country trip found them in a Tulsa, Oklahoma studio with famed Brit producer Denny Cordell, recording a single (“Depot Street”) as Mudcrutch, before that outfit broke apart—only to be reborn as the Heartbreakers the next year, a name that Cordell suggested, and everyone liked except Petty. To this day he thinks that the King Bees is a much preferable name.
The possibilities of the open road show up in at least one or two songs on each of the Heartbreakers’ nine albums, starting with “American Girl,” a song Petty wrote in a tiny apartment in Encino. “It was right next to the freeway and the cars sometimes sounded like waves from the ocean, which is why there’s the line about the waves crashing on the beach. This song marked the start of me writing about people who are longing for something else in life and are determined to get it.”
It was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashing on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach
In a Pettyian universe, the highway is the best conduit for fulfilling those dreams, and what ties many of his songs together is the beckoning road. The best Heartbreaker songs are a call to action, the core belief being that if you change your surroundings you can change your life. At their best, they function as a self-help guide for the disaffected, the temporarily lost, or for those who have the guts to want more.
It’s this very quality that makes Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers endure. They hold up a fractured mirror for the rest of us, a mirror that reflects back some of our less favorable angles. With Petty, you believe that he may have actually suffered some of the same indignities and frustrations as everyone else. He’s one of the few rock stars who really does put his money where his mouth is—in fact his whole career is colored by his convictions and combative nature. Something he continues to prove whether it’s taking the Red Hot Chili Peppers to task over commandeering “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” riff for their current “Dani California” single (not-so-coincidentally both produced by Rick Rubin) or polarizing some of his fan base after he prevented George W. Bush from using “I Won’t Break Down” as his 2000 campaign song—and later performing the song at Vice President Gore’s house in Washington D.C. an hour after Gore conceded the election to Bush.
One thing that seems to bind all Heartbreaker fans together is that they believe that the band is speaking for them. “I have people approach me on the streets and say, ‘thanks for writing the soundtrack to my life.’ I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel as a songwriter,” says Petty. That is, unless the particular song that a fan loves is a painful memory. “Last year we went out with the Black Crowes and every night Kate Hudson would go ‘please play ‘Room at the Top.’ I never said it to her but it would be a cold day in hell before I play that. Sometimes it is easier to say things [in songs] if you can slide into someone else’s character. I’m sure novelists do it all the time, they can invent characters and say all sorts of things. It wasn’t like that with ‘Room At The Top.’ Things were so bad in my life when I was making Echo that there’s songs I don’t even remember writing,” he admits.
Out of Petty’s canon, perhaps one song defines him the most: “‘I Won’t Back Down’ is purely me. That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song. But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right—more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little three-minute song has.”
Aging has been on the musician’s mind a lot lately. “This album has very few love songs, and seems fairly focused on the passage of time,” he says. “I think a lot about what time I have left and what kind of mark I want to leave. But I know I have to keep doing it or I wouldn’t know what to do. [Though] I might quit the road. I think I’ve had enough of that—but I haven’t had enough of playing. “
“I’ve been such a nut I wonder how long I’m gonna live sometimes,” he continues. “I’ve just lived so hard. My kids call me the pirate. They go,‘you’re just an old pirate, you and your friends, you’re so rough.’ I’ve lived hard and gotten a lot out of life. I sure took an adult portion.”
But his two daughters contend that their father has mellowed somewhat in his fifth decade.
“My kids say that I am really cool as an old man. They tell me, ‘Age is good on you because you’re wiser and more fun.’ I hope they’re right. I know I’m not as bad as I used to be. I could get so angry [before]. I don’t think I’m like that as much—but I still have my moments, especially with business. But I think I’m more at peace—at least I hope I am.”