New Tom Petty album the Live Anthology
By Rob Fitzpatrick
London Times — November 15, 2009
It’s only a short, vertiginous climb through Laurel Canyon to get from the fleshpots of Sunset Boulevard to the flat plains of Van Nuys, but the San Fernando Valley feels a million miles from LA. Back on the other side of Mulholland Drive, the blacked-out Range Rover still rules; over here, it’s the cherry-red pick-up truck. The boutiques are replaced by Hispanic garages that, in the case of Lorenzo’s Alignment, sound more like self-help books, and the closest thing this neighbourhood has to a theme restaurant is an arrestingly grimy dive bar called, with admirable candour, Liquid Zoo.
If a seriously large warehouse building could ever be described as “tucked away”, then it’s the one belonging to Tom Petty. Despite exacting address details, it takes the cab driver 10 minutes to find it — but, once inside, you can see why the iconic American musician would want to keep it hidden. You walk through a dark corridor into a huge open space that is filled, and lined halfway up the walls, with the stunning ephemera Petty has collected over five decades as a rock’n’roll star.
Petty is a totemic character, the blond-banged holder of American rock’s most sacred flames, a songwriter and performer whose body of work and ability to focus on the redemptive power of music and love and life itself places him in a rare group alongside Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. While loved in Britain for songs such as Don’t Come Around Here No More, I Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin’, in America, his years of touring, the sheer, consistent quality of everything he touches and his refusal to bow to corporate sponsorship has made Petty a powerful and hugely popular figure — he played an amazing half-time show at last year’s Super Bowl, a gig only U2 and Paul McCartney have played with success lately.
Petty is someone with real history, someone who stands for something more than whatever it was their last record was meant to stand for.
“It’s a wild thing when you’ve lived the American dream,” he says. “It still surprises me that I’m in that rare 1% of people who actually have.”
Around us, there are racks (and racks and racks and racks) of guitars, including at least 10, three-quarter-size Rickenbackers (“Like John Lennon used to play”), a black Gibson 330 that is the only one of its kind in the world, five or six superexotic Vox Teardrops, a hundred others just as noteworthy. There are cloth-covered amplifiers of the type seen standing behind the Beatles at their experimental stadium shows of the mid-1960s, and there’s a grand piano covered in a commemorative Elvis rug. The walls are covered in vintage concert posters, and ancient record sleeves — “Introducing The Beatles: England’s No 1 Vocal Group” is my favourite — are recognised as the powerful art they are and dotted liberally across the room.
This space is a band hang-out, a retreat, a brilliantly relaxed recording studio — a new Heartbreakers record is taking shape here — and a museum of serious cool. We sit behind mugs of fresh coffee at a boardroom-sized table in one corner, and Petty lights the first in a long series of Shepherd’s Hotel cigarettes, the bright-orange tip of this one briefly setting light to the chair next to him.
“A young musician said to me recently, ‘How do I decide if this is the right thing for me to do for a living?'” he laughs. “I told him, ‘If you have enough of a choice to even ask, then it’s definitely not the right thing for you!’
“I never had any choice. I never thought I’d make any money. I actually had the opposite viewpoint — I was willing to sacrifice the paycheck and the nice car for the pleasure of doing this. Now people see it as a career choice — they have schools for it, for Christ’s sake! Don’t they realise it doesn’t work that way?”
Petty was born in the quiet college town of Gainesville, Florida, in October 1950. He survived what he calls a “fairly rough” childhood by giving himself completely to music. “It was a safe place to go that was all my own.” Then, in February 1964, aged 13, he saw the Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“I didn’t have many friends,” he says, “and nobody really liked rock’n’roll. The Beatles hit me like a hammer — my life was changed for ever that night. They were young and they were in control. From that day on, I had a mission.”
Within weeks, Petty had formed his own band, the Sundowners. At 16, he was touring with the Epics, and by 17, he had a regular gig with his first serious band, Mudcrutch — the band reformed and recorded an album in this very room in 2007 — making “solid bread” playing five shows a night, six nights a week at a topless bar popular with local students.
“That was a great surprise,” Petty says. “We were very flattered, because back then, in America, ’76 and ’77, almost nobody cared. We got to England and punk was breaking. I met the Sex Pistols and I loved the Clash — they blew my mind. We were all spiritually connected. But if we’d suddenly got buzz haircuts and worn safety pins, it would have been bullshit. We came from somewhere else.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Heartbreakers had a string of huge albums. In 1985, Dylan (a fan of Petty’s from the start) asked them to join him on a short tour of Australia as his backing band. That turned into two years of global touring, and when that finally finished, Petty found himself in the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. A documentary released with the reissue of the Wilburys’ first album last year shows a group of (largely) youngish men — Harrison was then only in his forties — having what Petty calls “an absolute ball”.
“The Wilburys were magical,” he says. “It was a two-year run of total bliss. There was music at the tips of your fingers the whole time, and such incredible friendships. It all worked because of George. It was his concept, and he was bright enough to make us a real band. There was pressure, but it all worked because we took it seriously. It’s such a shame that everyone’s not still here, because I still feel like I’m in that band…”
The Wilburys were part of a period in music that has now gone for ever. The industry they were a part of, one grown used to fat profits, one that, during the 1990s, could — and did — easily sell in excess of 10m copies of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits, just doesn’t exist any more.
“That’s all gone,” Petty says, “and it’s sad. Even a hit record won’t give you much. That doesn’t seem fair to me. I look at this as a working musician — that’s how I bought my groceries and raised my children. It’s not crushing to me now, as I’m not strapped for cash, but if I was a young guy just starting out, I’d be a lot more bitter about it.”
Petty is 60 next year, but when he talks about music, he looks 20 years younger. Like Dylan, he has a satellite radio show, Buried Treasure, where he gets to share hidden gems — expect some Mose Allison, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and the Who — from his own record collection. And, perhaps to make up for the fact that the Heartbreakers will be cutting back on long tours, a brilliantly sequenced four-CD live anthology, covering more than 30 years, is about to appear, a “labour of love” that Petty says is a testament to what the Heartbreakers “were, are, and what we were about.”
Is there some melancholy in looking back, I ask, in hearing all that fresh excitement bubbling up around a much younger you?
“A little,” he says. “Such a magical thing happened to us, it’s hard to get it into words. There’s great emotion in hearing these old recordings, on many levels, but most of all I was just pleased that the anthology shows we were a really good little rock’n’roll band. I always thought we were, now I have evidence! This has been my life, and when you become obsessed enough with music to do this for ever, it requires all your time and most of your mental space. There have been sacrifices — I’m sure I could have spent more time with my children than I did — but my life has not been like most people’s. Getting home from tours like we would do is like coming back from a war. You’d rather say nothing than try to explain all the things you’ve seen.”
Petty laughs out loud and lights another cigarette. “And the only way back is to work really hard,” he says. “You’ve never written enough songs. You can always write more.”