Running Down a Dream Deferred
By Alan Light
The New York Times — April 20, 2008
Van Nuys, Calif. — A band of five middle-aged men was warming up for rehearsal in a cluttered one-room studio, bashing out an unadorned version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Two men, both named Tom, stepped to the microphones to harmonize on the song’s chorus. The clean-shaven one, playing rhythm guitar, spends most of his days working as a music teacher in suburban Nashville. The bearded, bass-playing Tom is one of the biggest rock stars in the world, who has sold more than 50 million records, has been nominated for 18 Grammy Awards and was most recently seen headlining the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
Thirty-two years after the band broke up, Tom Petty has reassembled Mudcrutch, the group he started in his native Gainesville, Fla., and moved to Los Angeles, seeking stardom. Mudcrutch didn’t hit it big back in the 1970s, but out of the band’s ashes Mr. Petty created the Heartbreakers, who have generated a staggering stream of hits for three decades.
The rhythm guitarist practicing today, Tom Leadon, quit Mudcrutch in 1972 while the band was still playing bars in Gainesville, taking a losing bet on making it in California. Now, however, he’s gearing up for his slot on a sold-out tour.
“I was driving home from getting groceries at Kroger’s, and my cellphone rang,” said Mr. Leadon, 55, who has taught at the same school for 17 years. “He said, ‘Hey, it’s your old pal Tom Petty.’ My first thought was that it was one of my friends pulling my leg. I wasn’t going to fall for that.” Once he was convinced that it really was his world-famous former band mate, Mr. Leadon pulled to the side of the road to chat, and Mr. Petty told him he wanted to get the group back together.
The reunion is an unexpected move for an artist of Mr. Petty’s stature. Though almost all multiplatinum sellers pass through a number of bands on their way to the top, no one else has returned to his roots in such a dedicated manner. It’s the third day of practice in this well-hidden studio — tucked in an alley, off an anonymous industrial street in the San Fernando Valley — for a two-week tour of West Coast clubs, which started on Monday in Santa Cruz and includes a six-night stand at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. On April 29 Mudcrutch’s self-titled debut album will be released on Reprise Records. (An arena tour by the Heartbreakers will follow, starting on May 30 and running until Aug. 29.)
Bruce Springsteen has occasionally brought one of the early members of the E Street Band onstage for a song, but as far as anyone knows he has never gotten back together with Steel Mill or any of his other earlier, long-forgotten bands. More than 45 years after being fired by the Beatles, Pete Best continues to tour the world as the most famous near-miss in rock ‘n’ roll history. For once, though, a couple of musicians will get a chance to see what might have been.
About two years ago, Mr. Petty, 57, said, “I just had this random thought: ‘I really liked that band, I wonder what it would be like to get them together.’ ” He and the rest of Mudcrutch — Mr. Leadon, Mike Campbell, Randall Marsh and Benmont Tench — were gathered around a table in the middle of the studio, which usually serves as a warehouse for the Heartbreakers. “One day last year I got my nerve up and called Tom. He probably thought I’d gotten ahold of a bad bottle or something.”
Mr. Marsh, 58, a drum teacher who recently moved back to Florida from California, got the news while he was shooting an interview with the director Peter Bogdanovich for the 2007 Petty documentary, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” “Bogdanovich said, ‘By the way, Tom said he might want to put Mudcrutch back together,'” he said. “I didn’t make too much of it. Months went by, and then finally Tom called me.”
Last August Mr. Leadon and Mr. Marsh flew to California and stayed at Mr. Petty’s home in Malibu; the next day the three joined up with Mr. Campbell and Mr. Tench, the lead guitarist and keyboard player in the Heartbreakers, who are also Mudcrutch alumni. “When Tom called me and said he wanted to do this,” Mr. Campbell said, “my first reaction was, why?”
Mr. Marsh said: “I thought we’d come in here, do a few songs, it would be nice to see everybody. But I think Tom had some kind of insight that something would happen.”
They all agree that the music clicked immediately. “Tom brought in this song he’d just written,” Mr. Campbell, 58, said. “We started playing it, and when we got to the chorus, Leadon stepped up to the mike and sang the harmony. I don’t know how he even knew the words yet.”
The reborn Mudcrutch recorded four songs that first day, and in less than two weeks an album was completed. Mr. Petty chose to avoid the pressure of a studio and work in this rehearsal space. The members played facing one another in a circle, and a sound — swampier than the Heartbreakers, with bluegrass flourishes and a stomp reminiscent of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse — rapidly surfaced.
Mr. Petty wrote new material every night. “I’d go home with all this adrenaline,” he said. “I’d be pacing around, so I’d pick up my guitar and hammer something together, knowing that whatever I wrote I could cut the next day. It was so much fun, I didn’t want to show up and have nothing to play.”
Most of the album’s 14 songs (including covers of the trucker classic “Six Days on the Road” and the Byrds’ “Lover of the Bayou”) were done in just two or three takes. The recording of the nine-minute Grateful Dead-style jam “Crystal River” documents the one and only time the band played that song. “It all happened so quickly,” Mr. Marsh said, “that there wasn’t much chance to get freaked out.”
This telepathy is presumably a result of the group’s long and intimate history. Mr. Petty and Mr. Leadon were neighbors in Gainesville and started playing in bands together as teenagers. Mr. Campbell and Mr. Marsh lived in an isolated farmhouse while they were attending the University of Florida; their land would later become the site of three wild Mudcrutch Farm Festivals, which grew so popular that the pair got evicted.
The group was together from 1970 to 1975, in various configurations; Mr. Tench did not formally join until 1972, after Mr. Leadon quit to move to California with his brother Bernie, a member of the original lineup of the Eagles. Mudcrutch forged an unusual style, bringing together a love of British-invasion pop, country music and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. And the band found an endless amount of opportunity in a university town.
“Gainesville was a wonderful place to be doing what we were doing,” Mr. Petty said. “There were a lot of venues to play because of the college. Frat parties — which weren’t our favorite — clubs, functions. We were enterprising little kids.”
Most significant, Mudcrutch became the house band at a bar called Dub’s, where it would grind out five 45-minute sets, six nights a week. The members learned Top 40 hits by taping them off of the jukebox, and would sneak in an original song by introducing it as, for example, a new Santana single. Mr. Campbell said the Dub’s patrons “were all so drunk they couldn’t tell.”
Mudcrutch became the biggest band in the region, and Mr. Petty decided it was time to pursue a wider audience. In 1974 he led an excursion to Los Angeles, where a few record companies took notice. The band signed with Shelter Records, best known as the home of the countrified hippie Leon Russell, and released a single, “Depot Street.” It flopped, and soon the frustrated band fell apart.
By this time labels were showing more interest in Mr. Petty as a solo artist, so he put together a backing band of fellow Florida refugees, including two former members of Mudcrutch, and signed a new deal as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Beginning with “Breakdown” in 1977, they established themselves as one of America’s most popular and consistent bands.
Mr. Leadon got a degree in electrical engineering but kept returning to music, finally settling into life as a teacher. Mr. Marsh kicked around with a number of bands in Los Angeles but eventually moved to Ojai, Calif., and started taking on private drum students.
Over the years both men stayed in sporadic contact with Mr. Petty. They would see the Heartbreakers whenever a tour would pass through town, visit backstage, maybe jam a little at the band’s hotel. “I’d go see them play,” Mr. Marsh said, “and there was always that element of ‘I could do that.’ “
As the five musicians rehearsed, in this room stuffed with the flotsam of years spent on the road, their enthusiasm for the project was clear. Slugging coffee and smoking cigarettes between songs, Mr. Petty (who has not played the bass as his main instrument since assembling the Heartbreakers) claimed that his singing was the best it had been in years. At an age when most stars are content to cruise, he seemed thrilled to have a new challenge.
“Really it makes no sense,” said Warren Zanes, a musician and educator who edited the oral history companion to “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” “It’s completely at odds with the self-mythologizing tendency you see in a lot of rock stars. But Tom Petty is a guy who likes to have fun playing music, and he continues to explore different ways to do that.”
Mr. Petty’s label wasn’t exactly expecting the Mudcrutch album but had no hesitation about backing this left-field country-rock project. “We feel like we should support Tom whatever he does,” said Diarmuid Quinn, chief operating officer of Warner Brothers Records. Mr. Quinn compared Mr. Petty to unconventional musicians (and label mates) like Neil Young and Jack White.
“With this kind of artist, you go with their instincts,” Mr. Quinn said, “because they’re usually right.”
Before turning their attention to rehearsal, the members of Mudcrutch sat around laughing about their younger days. Mr. Petty’s familiar laconic delivery didn’t change much, but he drove the conversation and smiled easily with his old friends.
For a drummer Mr. Marsh stayed remarkably calm while talking about this unlikely turn of events. Mr. Leadon, though he did his best to keep cool, allowed more of his excitement to show through. He beamed while revealing that his family, his co-workers, even some of his students would be flying out for the Mudcrutch shows.
“This is something I didn’t expect to happen in my life,” Mr. Leadon said. “I get to see what might have happened if I’d stayed in the band. But maybe if I had, the Heartbreakers never would have gotten famous, so I don’t have any bitterness or regrets.
“This is an unbelievable dream that I’m living. But then when we start playing, it just feels like I’m home again.”