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Tom Petty’s Los Angeles
By Daphne Carr
LA Weekly — January 17, 2008
There exists in sound a map of Los Angeles, filled with song-lyric street names, neighborhoods, beaches, bars, empty spaces and spaces between spaces. It’s a chart that follows more than 30 years in the life and work of Tom Petty, a longtime resident of the city and an undercelebrated rock & roll icon who finally appears to be getting his due.
In 1974, Petty drove cross-country from Gainesville, Florida, to Los Angeles to get a record contract. Knocking on doors along Sunset, he played demos and eventually got a deal for his first band, Mudcrutch, then moved the group to L.A. “We fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there,” Petty told author Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty (CWTP). “We just thought this is heaven. We said, ‘Look — everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.'” In 1976, the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album hit, and aside from touring with the band, he’s never left town. His songs are indelibly linked with the cityscape, sometimes explicitly but more often in hints — that rare ability of a gifted lyricist to generalize the intimate.
Last October saw the release of Peter Bogdanovich’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary on the band, Runnin’ Down a Dream. The director, who was unfamiliar with Petty’s music prior to the
project, called it “the story of a great American band, a great American story.” In November, Chronicle Books released an oversize coffee-table book based on the film, also titled Runnin’ Down a Dream (RDAD). And Petty’s slated to perform during halftime at this year’s Super Bowl (February 3). He co-produced the film and book, and one thing striking in both is the relative timelessness and placelessness of Petty’s public life — he consciously avoids personal details while focusing on the particulars of songwriting, recording and touring. Which seems odd, since songs like “Free Fallin'” and “Into the Great Wide Open” offer a specific vision of the city, one that unfolded for a generation. Here is a map of that L.A., gathered from evidence the songwriter has left behind.
1. Sunset Boulevard. Imagine Petty driving up in a van full of Florida stoners onto Sunset Boulevard in 1974, cruising for labels. “You just saw them down the road. So we would just go in the front door of every one with a tape and say, ‘Hi, we just got here from Florida, can we play you this tape?'” (CWTP) Later, in “Waiting for Tonight,” the mystique had worn off a bit. In the song, he sings, “I went walking down the boulevard/Past the skateboards and the beggars/I was out looking in the windows/Just out walking, letting my mind roam.”
2. Ben Frank’s. This moderne diner is the site of an apocryphal tale in which the Florida bumpkin Petty walked outside into a phone booth and found a piece of paper with the addresses and phone numbers of all the city’s record companies, including his first label, Shelter Records. The place is now Mel’s Diner, but it retains its trademark midcentury design. 8585 W. Sunset Blvd.
3. The Sunset Strip. The Strip is the center of Petty’s musical L.A., a place where kids with dreams go to try their luck. Petty exposes the naive and cynicism of this myth in “Into the Great Wide Open” through the rise and fall of the song’s main character, Eddie. For instance, Eddie heads to a Strip tattoo parlor to symbolize his rebellion, only to find a girl “with a tattoo too.”
4. Shelter Records Office. The Shelter office was in Hollywood, and by the time of the first Heartbreakers album, producer/co-owner Denny Cordell had moved their studio next door. The label office was the band’s hangout. In RDAD, Cordell said “Musicians that had worked with th em on this or that project would just drop in.” In the evenings, Petty would go to the Shelter offices, and he and Cordell would play records of great songwriters, learning to pick out good songwriting from bad.
5. Hollywood Premiere Motel. Petty and the boys sold all their possessions in Florida and drove back out to L.A. Shelter Records put them up first at this motel, which, Petty remembered, “was really a hooker place.” (CWTP) It’s got a great neon sign at least. 5333 Hollywood Blvd.
6. Canoga Park. The residences rented for Mudcrutch were in Canoga Park. With no furniture in sight, Petty thought himself a king nonetheless. “We brought all the girls and dogs and everything. This was heavy shit, man. A house with a swimming pool.” (CWTP)
7. Travelodge Hotel. Petty lived at the Travelodge with his wife while recording the first album. His daughter was born just after they moved to L.A., and while living at the hotel they put her in a drawer as a crib. 1401 N. Vermont Ave.
8. The Winona. Another “hooker” motel Petty slept in during the early days. It was right across the street from Shelter. Label co-owner Leon Russell would come there to pick Petty up in his Rolls-Royce. 5131 Hollywood Blvd.
9. The Alley. The Alley is a North Hollywood rehearsal studio where Mudcrutch met in the early days. A Mudcrutch-era song, “Don’t Do Me Like That,” was recorded there for Damn the Torpedoes. The phrase “don’t do me like that” came from Petty’s dad; Petty always thought it sounded funny and Southern. This is pretty much the nicest thing he ever said about his abusive father, who disrespected his son’s musical talents until he was famous. Then Petty bought him a Cadillac. 5066 Lankershim Blvd.
10. Village Recorder. Shelter dropped Mudcrutch but kept Petty for a solo deal, leaving his Florida mates in the lurch. Mudcrutch keyboardist Benmont Tench put together a new band and began rehearsing them at the Village Recorder. Petty came in one day to play harmonica and heard Tench playing keys with Mike Campbell (guitar), Ron Blair (bass), Stan Lynch (drums) and Randall Marsh (drums), and thought, “I have to steal this band.” And he did, calling them the Heartbreakers. 1616 Butler Ave.
11. London, U.K., in the late ’70s, during the new wave. While the band’s self-titled first album was “stillborn” upon U.S. release in 1976, it was an enormous success immediately in the U.K. “From the moment we got off the plane, there were journalists to meet us, photographers taking our photos. This was big time for us.” (RDAD) Petty’s short power-pop songs, tight jeans and skinny shirts lent him a new-wave air, and his androgynous look remained remarkably similar throughout his career. The band returned to L.A. and went back to taking out their trash, waiting for the break.
12. Whisky A Go Go. The Whisky was the site of TP and the Heartbreakers’ first string of successful L.A. shows. Petty credits Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times with changing the city’s attitude about the band. “He’d actually written about the album prior to that and given it a so-so review. Then he wrote a second one saying that he was wrong, that our record is actually really great. Then he did an interview with me, a nice piece. That got us a weeklong stand at the Whisky.” (RDAD) 8901 Sunset Blvd.
13. Sound City. In 1978, Petty moved to Sound City studios to make a “big” sounding album, Damn the Torpedoes, with Jimmy Iovine as producer. The drums on “Refugee”— huge, booming, radio friendly — have become a studio a/b mixing standard and one of the many points of contention about the band’s work with Iovine. Iovine has stated that he hates all drummers but really, really didn’t like the Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch. 1391 Westwood Ave.
14. MCA Records. Petty’s hatred of the record industry started with a bad faith gesture by MCA in 1978. The band was signed to Shelter Records but distributed by ABC, and when ABC sold the band’s contract to MCA, Petty wanted out. The legal battle that followed was a “Mexican standoff” for six months, including a California tour where the band wore shirts reading “Why MCA?” Eventually they got their own label, Backstreet Records, and regained their publishing rights. Later, MCA used the band to raise the general LP price by a dollar, prompting Petty to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone ripping one up.
15. Century City. From the song “Century City.” During the recording of Damn the Torpedoes, Petty hid his master tapes from MCA Records by night and fought the label’s lawyers in Century City by day. He had few kind things to say about the place. “It’s kind of an acre of skyscrapers, a really modern-looking place. It’s full of lawyers. And they take you up to big glass conference rooms — I dreaded going there.” (CWTP)
16. “FM radio” and “The freeway.” Radioland is a palpable place in Tom Petty’s L.A. — a place of good times, a place in the past. “American Girl” broke on KROQ as part of L.A.’s new wave. Petty played in the little-known 1978 film FM, about a fictional renegade L.A. station, Q-Sky, and he fondly remembers sitting in his den tuning in multiple stations playing his hits during the ’80s. Elvis Costello admits to stealing a hook from Petty for his own “Radio, Radio,” and this spirit of the radio past features prominently in Petty’s own songs, not to mention his 2002 concept album The Last DJ. Petty now has his own station on XM, called Buried Treasure.
17. Cello Studios. Petty recorded parts of The Last DJ at this studio. A morality play about the music business, the album focused on Petty’s nostalgia for radio and the record industry’s past. Ironically, Petty has felt this way about the industry since the 1970s but is probably one of its biggest remaining sure things. 6000 Sunset Blvd.
18. The Smog. Alongside the intangible/in-between places of the highway and the radio, Tom
Petty’s L.A. is full of sky, and that sky is full of 1980s smog — something to be cynical about for
sure, but Petty has a Floridian’s love of the L.A. sunset, which the smog only makes better. On “All
or Nothin'” (from 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open) he sings, “Sweet chariots of L.A. swing low/At twilight time the smog makes a rainbow.”
19. The 101 Freeway. Petty stared out at the 101 while staying at label-boss Leon Russell’s house in Encino. In “American Girl,” Petty imagined it as the highway of his hometown, the 441 in Gainesville, and placed a woman as the urban poet: “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 crashin’ in the beach.” One of the band’s best songs, it contains the perfect Petty formula of Americana nostalgia, narrative, the open road and a bittersweet realization sung against a great pop hook. “God it’s so painful/Something that’s so close/and still so far out of reach.”
20. Mulholland Drive.“I wanna glide down over Mulholland/I wanna write her name in the sky,” Petty sings in the final verse of “Free Fallin'” (from 1990’s Full Moon Fever, a Petty solo record). Is it any coincidence that Petty’s world-weary voice makes the name of that place sound like “Valhalla”? In the video for the song, skateboarder Mark “Gator” Rogowski gets air just at this line on a ramp constructed between Laurel Canyon and Outpost.
21. Reseda. The video for “Free Fallin'” shows a 1950s-seeming, white, middle-class family living out the American dream in 1980s Reseda, a wry commentary that made the song an anthem for the “good girls” growing up there (and other cookie-cutter ‘burbs) at the time. A mom throws a party for her disenchanted teenage daughter, who seems to have gotten dumped by Petty’s narrator, a former good boy gone bad. After witnessing some old-fashioned sexual harassment among the wild ones at the hot dog stand, the good girl decides to freefall into a half-pipe set up on Mulholland Drive and leave the suburbs behind. (Beats going to the Galleria, where Petty filmed the escalator scenes.)
22. Vampires on Ventura Boulevard. A moment of out-of-towner cynicism, Petty’s invocation of vampires on Ventura has less a monster-movie feel than that of the everyday slow-draining suck of sameness. Petty told Paul Zollo that the label didn’t think “Free Fallin'” would be a single. “They didn’t think anyone outside Southern California would relate to it.” (CWTP) Little did they know, vampires lurk in every town.
23. Rose Bowl. In 1982, Tom Petty played at “Peace Sunday: We Had a Dream” at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. More than 85,000 attended this rally and concert, which was held in support of the Second Special Session of the United Nations on Disarmament. Later, Petty was inspired to write lyrics in response to Bush I’s Gulf War on “Learning to Fly”: “Well the good old days may not return/And the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn.” Even though it seemed his populist politics shifted the other way when he performed “I Won’t Back Down” during a 9/11 tribute, he has become an outspoken critic of the current war.
24. East L.A. Within 24 hours of the breakout of the L.A. riots in 1992, Petty had recorded “Peace in L.A.” and had it played on the radio, with all proceeds going to charities in East L.A. The working-class whiteness of Petty’s lyrics and his trad-white-rocker pedigree make him seem like something of an anachronism in the current moment, but in Conversations With Tom Petty he reveals that he is one-quarter Cherokee and that his grandparents, poor migrant farmers, experienced violence and racism because of his paternal grandmother’s heritage.
25. Viper Room. Johnny Depp played rebel rocker Eddie in the 1991 video for “Into the Great Wide Open,” and Petty returned the favor in 1993 by playing the inaugural charity opening for Depp’s Viper Room. Around this time, Petty and Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch had a falling-out. Lynch was told that if he didn’t show at the Viper, Petty would ask Ringo to fill in. Lynch showed but left the band soon after. 8852 W. Sunset Blvd.
26. LAX. Flying overhead, landing, watching the world below — the generic tropes of lonely contemplation for a road-weary rock star. Somehow Petty’s voice contains the mental and physical exhaustion of many trips to and from. In “Straight Into Darkness” (Long After Dark, 1982), he sings, “I remember flying out to London/I remember the feeling at the time/Out the window of the 747/Man there was nothin’, only black sky.”
27. Dave Stewart’s house in Encino. Stewart, the eccentric Eurythmics front man, worked with Petty for the psychedelic track “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (Southern Accents, 1985). Petty convinced Stewart to buy a place in Encino, and the two had wild parties where Stewart and Petty would wear their custom rhinestone cowboy outfits.
28. Sunset Sound. This is where the backing vocals were recorded for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Stevie Nicks booked backup singers for a session there but didn’t show up, so Petty and Stewart put them on their song instead. Nicks was a longtime friend of the band and even asked to join them at one time — to which Petty responded: “There aren’t any girls in the Heartbreakers. You can be our friend but you can’t be in the band.” (CWTP) 6650 Sunset Blvd.
29. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In 1984, Petty was rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital after shattering his left hand. He had literally punched a wall in frustration over the recording of the song “Rebels.” It would take months for him to recoup his playing ability. Paul Zollo asked of Petty’s wild era: “You said you were doing a lot of cocaine. Did that affect your songwriting?””No. I think it affected my breaking my hand.” 8635 W. Third St.
30. Universal Amphitheater (now the Gibson). Bob Dylan played a week of shows at the Universal Amphitheater in June 1978 and, in a rare mood, introduced celebrities in the audience, including Tom Petty. Afterward, Petty was invited backstage and later recounted, “That was the first time it really hit me that people knew who we were.” (CWTP)
31. Petty’s home in Encino. An arsonist burned down this house in 1987. Estimated damage: $800,000. Camera crews were there before the fire department, and friends were coming down the driveway with presents for an afternoon birthday barbecue Petty was having for his wife at the house that day. Nearly everything except his precious Dove guitar burned in this fire. “It frightened me so bad. I wouldn’t even use the word ‘fire’ in a song or anything.” (CWTP)
32. Charo’s house in Beverly Hills. Petty’s family lived in the house of the former wife of Xavier Cugat, Charo, while rebuilding his house after the fire. On Thanksgiving, Petty drove to the Sav-On in Beverly Hills to pick up some baseball mitts for a game he wanted to have, and Jeff Lynne — the producer, former ELO member and future Traveling Wilbury — pulled up beside him at a red light. Thus began their working relationship.
33. Le Seur. While out Christmas shopping with his daughter Adria, Petty stopped in for lunch and was asked to go to a private dining room, where he met George Harrison, who was dining with Jeff Lynne. This was another step toward the formation of the Traveling Wilburys.
34. Beverly Hills mansion designed by Wallace Neff. Nicknamed “Wilbury Manor,” this 1920s Spanish-style residence was the recording home for the second Traveling Wilburys album in 1990. Most of it was recorded in the library, on equipment borrowed from Herb Alpert of A&M. Petty prefers recording in homes or even garages to being in the studio.
35. Pacific Palisades “Chicken Shack.” Petty described his late-1990s divorce house as a cabin where daylight streamed through cracks, the yard was overgrown and full of chickens and an 8-track studio sat in the back bedroom — the perfect bachelor pad. She’s the One was recorded there.
36. House of Blues. In the late 1990s, Petty and the Heartbreakers backed up Johnny Cash at the House of Blues. His marriage dissolving, Petty was astonished to see a woman at the show he’d admired years earlier. Now the “love of his life,” Dana inspired the song “Angel Dream,” written while he was still healing from his divorce and living at the Chicken Shack. Tom and Dana were married in Vegas but had another ceremony in L.A., officiated by Little Richard. 8430 W. Sunset Blvd.
37. McCabe’s Guitar Shop. This was the site of the memorial service for bassist Howie Epstein after his death in 2003. Petty stole Epstein from Del Shannon’s band after Ron Blair quit and always referred to him as “the cool one” in the Heartbreakers. For the service, Petty had Native Americans come and bless the room. 3101 Pico Blvd.
38. Malibu. Our hero’s current residence. Petty now lives there with his second wife, Dana, and her two sons. He has two daughters from his first marriage. His first daughter, Adria, is the band’s de facto art director, working on video, Web design and the Runnin’ Down a Dream book project. She probably no longer has to sleep in a drawer.