Rock God Or Mere Mortal?
By John Jurgensen
The Wall Street Journal — November 20, 2009
As Tom Petty prepares to release a career-spanning anthology next week, an attempt to determine where he falls in the music pantheon.
Los Angeles — Tom Petty goes to work in a Van Nuys warehouse next to an auto shop and an upholsterer. His band the Heartbreakers rehearses there, still looking for ways to improve after more than 30 years together. On paper, Mr. Petty rivals other acts who have lasted for decades, such as Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. He’s sold some 60 million albums, is ubiquitous on classic rock stations and has collaborated with music legends from Bob Dylan to George Harrison. Last year, he played the Super Bowl and much of the nation knew every chorus.
“I don’t know that anyone’s out there waving the banner for us being the best rock and roll band there is,” the singer says. “But we might be.”
Where does Tom Petty fit in the rock pantheon? Musicians from Ike Turner to Aerosmith have been the subject of such debate, which rock fans conduct as if they’re carving Mount Rushmores, in barroom arguments, Internet flame wars and even a Hall of Fame in Cleveland. But Mr. Petty is especially emblematic of the blurred—and highly subjective—line between skilled entertainer and timeless rock icon.
Mr. Petty’s own take? While other bands are paid more lip service, he says, “we can really kick their ass, you know?”
Lately he’s been examining the evidence. He spent more than a year combing the Heartbreakers’ archive of concert recordings to compile his “dream gig.” Exactly 169 takes of “American Girl” later, the band’s “Live Anthology” box set will be released next week. Mr. Petty has looked back in other ways as he approaches his 60th birthday next year. In 2007 he reassembled Mudcrutch, the band that went belly up before the Heartbreakers formed in 1976. With Warner Bros., the singer also commissioned a retrospective film, resulting in a four-hour documentary that last year won a Grammy.
In Mr. Petty’s legacy, there’s much fodder for discussion.
On one hand, the laconic Florida native is a highly disciplined songsmith whose run of anthems spanned three decades, from “Breakdown” and “American Girl” in the late 1970s, to “Learning to Fly” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in the early 1990s. On the other hand, his commercial success was sniffed at by some critics, especially those enthralled with another earthy rocker who emerged a bit earlier: Springsteen. Mr. Petty’s loyalty to the straight-ahead sound of his idols of the 1950s—Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and other early rockers—may have deterred him from exploring experimental (and potentially fruitful) artistic territory.
“History smiles on [Iggy Pop and] the Stooges, the Ramones, Elvis Costello”—edgy acts of Mr. Petty’s generation who reset the boundaries of rock, says Robert Hilburn, a veteran critic and author of the recent book “Corn Flakes With John Lennon.” By contrast, the Heartbreakers first two albums “were not trailblazing in any way.” Mr. Hilburn says Mr. Petty reached his peak on later albums, and ranks “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979) and “Southern Accents” (1985) among the era’s strongest, but at the time most critics were too busy “genuflecting over Springsteen.”
Over the course of his career, Mr. Petty has racked up at least 26 Top-10 singles, many of which still serve as the default mode of classic rock stations. Still, his knack for radio-friendly hooks may have cost him points in the long run.
“It’s an inverse snobbery,” says filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who directed “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the recent Heartbreakers documentary. He adds, “Tom has had so many pop hits. For some reason in America that’s considered not quite chic. Too many people like him.”
Mr. Petty’s not complaining. Like most performers, he avoids the “over-intellectualizing” of rock, the bandying of stats and rankings. But he’s adamant about the respect he feels is owed to certain artists, including those in his own band, such as longtime lead guitarist Mike Campbell.
In the band’s warehouse rehearsal space in Van Nuys, over the hills from Mr. Petty’s home in Malibu, racks of guitars are sorted by make and model. The Heartbreakers call it their clubhouse. Sitting at a table, Mr. Petty drinks coffee and smokes Shepheard’s Hotel cigarettes from Germany. He wears a vest over a striped Western shirt.
The singer is at ease discussing his career trajectory. It was around the Heartbreakers’ 20th year in music that he noticed that fans and critics were more eager to talk about his old songs than his newest ones, and the past became more marketable than the future. While that did represent “a red wagon you have to drag around,” he says, he also took it as the hallmark of a substantial career, one he describes with pride and bemused awe. Still, he believes that if he’s underrated, it’s partly because of his distaste for self-promotion.
“We were never really Boy Scouts, you know. My vision of a rock and roll band wasn’t one that cuddled up to politicians, or went down the red carpet. That kind of thing you see so much of today. I felt like once that stuff starts happening your audience doesn’t know whether to trust you or not.”
This avoidance of the (offstage) spotlight might seem surprising for a singer whose face was one of the most familiar on MTV. His sly music videos, including the Alice In Wonderland-inspired clip for 1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” helped the network break into the mainstream, and remained a staple of its programming into the 1990s when “we were so old it was silly.” In retrospect, he says, making videos “was just about adapting and surviving.”
It’s one of Mr. Petty’s many apparent contradictions. He was a darling of rock radio, but he has famously tangled with the industry. In 1979 he fought a legal battle with MCA to get out of his record contract, and a couple of years later he successfully opposed a price hike for his new album to $9.98, a then-unprecedented high. In that way, he’s an industry outsider who has written some of the most inclusive songs in rock.
“He has more of an everyman quality than a lot of icons do. And that makes a music nerd like me think I could have a beer with him without feeling like I’m talking to some kind of deity,” says television producer Bill Lawrence. His homage: In the ABC sitcom he co-created, “Cougar Town,” about a fortysomething woman’s misadventures in dating young men, every episode is named after a Petty song.
Mr. Petty set himself apart in other ways. While Dylan and the Stones have licensed their music to advertisers, Mr. Petty says, what for? “We don’t really need the dough that bad.” The singer has sought keep his concert tickets affordable. And unlike, say, Mr. Costello, who has collaborated with string quartets, Mr. Petty says he’s satisfied with being a workaday auteur: “To write a good song is enough. That was the loftiest ambition I had: to write a song that would endure.”
One secret to Mr. Petty’s long populist streak: women. Mr. Petty has written from a female perspective on a surprising number of songs, ranging from “American Girl” to the more recent “Orphan of the Storm.” Howard Kramer, curatorial director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says, “Every time I go to one of his shows, I marvel that his audience is one of the most diverse in rock and roll, in terms of gender and age. And that can’t be said of most of his competitors.”
What at first sounded like drudgery, Mr. Petty says, digging through 30 years of concert recordings for the coming “Live Anthology,” turned into an “adventure.” Engineer Ryan Ulyate made the first pass through the recordings in the Heartbreakers’ vault, including some old analog tapes that first needed to be baked in an oven before playing to prevent disintegration. He assembled an iTunes library of some 3,500 songs, then pulled out hundreds of potential highlight tracks for Messrs. Campbell and Petty to assess. “It’s amazing how the best take really shines compared to everything else,” the singer says.
While the recordings prompt memory flashes from each era, Mr. Petty says, it’s tough for him to recall specific concerts. One, however, stands out as perhaps “the worst gig” his band ever played, which somehow yielded the standout version of “I Won’t Back Down.” In 2007, at a benefit concert for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Heartbreakers performed beneath the museum’s giant blue whale. The posh audience ignored the band as they performed an acoustic set, capped with the defiant song which (to Mr. Petty’s chagrin) has become a perennial fight song for campaigning politicians. Mr. Petty resented the indifference of the crowd of “billionaire kinds of people, many of whom you’d know,” he recalls, acknowledging that this might have fired up the band. “At least I got a good track out of it,” he says.
By request, Mr. Petty pulled out noteworthy instruments as he ambled about the clubhouse. One, a dark brown acoustic bass guitar, he played during the sessions for Johnny Cash’s 1996 album “Unchained.” By the drum set was the candy-colored Rickenbacker he held on the “Damn the Torpedoes” cover. Strumming a Dove model Gibson, he showed how its slender neck allowed him to play for hours without tiring his hand. He’s owned the guitar since he was 18 years old, and wrote almost all his biggest hits on it.
In his rehearsal space, Mr. Petty is surrounded by music legends. The walls are decorated with dozens of neatly clipped photos, featuring everyone from Jimi Hendrix to 1940s gospel-rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Mr. Petty is a believer in the you-either-have-it-or-you-don’t quality of music’s enduring stars. On his radio show, “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure,” now in its fifth year on Sirius XM Radio, he mixes Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo and Jerry Lee Lewis with Steve Miller, Joe Cocker and Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers. On air, Mr. Petty goofs off with skits about a fictional petting zoo and sings the praises of lesser-known names, such as 82-year-old piano swinger Mose Allison. “I’ve never met him but I so admire his music. There’s a purity,” Mr. Petty says. “God, I’d love to attain that. It’s hard to get it with pop music, so I’ve kind of turned my back on that.”
As if to defy the critics, the Heartbreakers are at work on an album which is a departure for them, pursuing a style Mr. Petty says he probably didn’t have the “maturity” to pull off in previous years. He describes it as a blues-based sound, with lots of open spaces and grooves inspired by those of J.J. Cale and Booker T. & the MGs. Fueling his excitement about the new material, the acknowledgment that he’s no longer writing for radio. “Whether you wanted to admit it or not, that was always a factor,” he says. “Letting that go, it’s very freeing.”