Date: January 14, 1983
Interviewer: Lisa Robinson
Interviewee: Tom Petty
Notes: Includes audio (MP3 link)
LR: You’re doing something now with video. Is it to accompany this record?
TP: Well, we’re doing a couple of things. We did a little kind of a science fiction-western for “You Got Lucky” that really has nothing to do with the song or performing. It’s just a little movie we wanted to make. That’s a lot of fun.
LR: I like that when people do little stories and they have the songs on rather than constantly seeing people playing their instruments. I think that gets kind of boring.
TP: We made some before where we lip-sync to the record and it’s just so hard to watch.
LR: Which is the one where the camera… Is it “Letting You Go” where the camera’s [???]?
TP: [chuckle] With the dancing cameras.
LR: You don’t look tremendously comfortable in that.
LR: How did you feel doing that?
TP: I felt that like ‘oh, well, you know, here we are’ [laughs]. It wasn’t, it was a little out of character for us, you know, we did get a few laughs out of it, but that’s why the cameras are dancing and everything, because we said, ‘ah, you know, let’s make it funny if we have to do this.’ We’re really just musicians. We’re not even personalities you know [chuckles] or anything other than we see ourselves as anything but just musicians so it’s really hard for us to be like actors or whatever that is when you lip-sync songs.
LR: You don’t see yourself onstage as a different person, then, I would imagine, as yourself offstage. I mean you don’t think of it as you’re doing an act.
TP: No. I hate that when people say ‘that’s him and this is me,’ when they say, ‘ah, well I have two sides to myself, the guy on the stage and there’s a guy off the stage.’ In other words, if the guy on the stage makes an ass of himself, ‘it wasn’t me,’ that’s what that gets down to. You know, no, it’s you, like, you know [laughs] whatever’s going on, it’s still you, you didn’t transcend your body or your person or anything ’cause you’re playing guitar, it’s you. But that’s what it’s all about.
LR: Was it hard for you initially to get on stage and put on a show?
TP: It was hard for me to be the guy who has to sing and take that responsibility ’cause I’ve never done it before this group. So that took me a few years. I mean, the first few years I was doing this I never said a word through the whole show, never hardly moved, just stood and somebody thought we were moody. But [laughs] we were.
LR: When did that change and why?
TP: I think once we just got a little more confident that were were actually doing a good job at it and we saw how it was done, we used to go out. I remember a long spell of opening up shows for the J. Geils band, you know. I used to see Wolf every night, and just see how fun he had, and you know, and how naturally he did it. I mean, I think he had such a big influence on our live show, you know, it’s just like ‘I wanna have as much fun as that. You know, they really have a great time out there.’ And that is when we first started to loosen up a little bit. You know, when I’m playing that can come out and that side is easy to come out, but off the stage I’m not, I’m really, really quiet. I don’t talk a lot and sometimes that’s mistaken for, you know, arrogance or you know, that I’m obnoxious or something, that I just… I still spook pretty easy, and that’s why now I still don’t have parties backstage or go into, you know, record stores. Because I’m comfortable if I’m playing or if I had a guitar but when you just gotta stand there and be T.P. or whatever it’s just a weird gig. Still is.
LR: There’s also, I think, a slight misconception, or at least there was for a while, people not only thought you were cold, but you even said that people thought you were dumb.
TP: It was a combination of being Southern and it was also … They weren’t sure if it was Southern or if we were from L.A. or we were, um … And then, you know, I have blond hair. I think a lot of people, when you have blond hair, think you’re stupid. They think you’re like a surfer or some kind of ‘duuuuh’ [???]. But they … I was probably being overly sensitive but I [laughs] I didn’t want people to take us just as another L.A. group,you know. I thought we had things to say and that we felt like we were sincere about what we were doing so we used to get angry about that.
LR: Why did you come here? TP: I just wanted to come here because I always loved these California groups, you know, the Byrds and the Doors and the whole Springfield that kind of thing where the thing was really close to me as far as American groups.
LR: You’ve carried on that tradition, I think, probably more than anybody. Most groups that have settled in California that live in Los Angeles do not carry on that kind of tradition. It’s a whole different kind of studio sound that’s come out of here. How have you avoided getting caught up in the atmosphere?
TP: I don’t know, we were just more into loud amps and [chuckles] and getting a reaction from people and shaking them up rather than smoothing them out.
LR: That record still holds up though, doesn’t it?
TP: I think it does, yeah, I’m really pleased that I still hear it on the radio, really makes me happy.
LR:When you did “American Girl” and “Breakdown,” were you surprised at the time of the reaction? I mean “Breakdown” specifically, I would imagine.
TP: Yeah, because it was a year, actually, after the album when “Breakdown” came ahead. We were completely surprised, stunned. ‘Listen to that.’ [laughs] Imagine that a year later.
LR: Do you think people were just ready for it a year later or the climate was such that…
TP: Yeah. England had a lot to do with it, I think, like I drifted back from England and by the time we come back from England we were really good, we could really play, you know, and when we were playing the Whisky pretty regularly then, crowds started building and all of a sudden there was a club scene again and the English bands were coming in and it was just… It was really exciting. Somebody was asking me, ‘Don’t you like to play bars now, and go back and play bars, so you can get some of the heat off? Just get back to your roots.’ It’s not that way at all when we play bars. It’s like twice as intense as playing an arena because expectations are intensely higher. It’s like they really want to see the [???] party when you’re playing 300-seat places now.
LR: At what point did it change from clubs, 3000-seaters, arenas?
TP: Yeah, I think it was like, “Damn the Torpedoes” and that summer we went on the road for nine months out of that year. The first time around we were up to small halls, you know, and we thought that was great, and then we got back and you know, we get to the gig and it was this big place and you go ‘Boy, you know, who’s gonna come?’ [laughs] And then you’d see them start to fill out a little more and a little more and it’s just ‘wow.’
LR: Nine months on the road?
LR: Do you do that now?
TP: No. [laughs] That’s the last time we ever did that.
LR: How’d you live through it? I mean, did you get crazy?
LR: When you got home, what were you like?
TP: I was insane, and I think you’re still trying to order room service from your bed.
LR: Do you get addicted to it in a way though? After a while, isn’t it kind of … There’s something about it that’s so great ’cause it’s out of context, you don’t have to worry about all that stuff.
TP: Yeah, your life is so organized, that you don’t have to do anything but show up and play every night, so it’s really nice that, you know, they put you in this car and it takes you here and you don’t know exactly what town you’re in a lot of the time. For a while there, they used to put a big sign on my monitor to say what town it was because [chuckles] I’d make mistakes and say ‘All right Tampa!’ when it was Jacksonville and you don’t know where you are. It’s just sometimes you can’t recall that quickly [laughs].
LR: Well, when people come up to you after a show or something, if they do manage to grab a hold of you and they’ve got that look on their face and they tell you that “Refugee” changed their life, how does that make you feel?
TP: It moves me so much that I can’t respond. Like, there’s so much I’d like to say back that I usually don’t say anything but “Great,” you know, “Good. I’m glad.” Yeah, a lot of times you just want to take a minute to really hug ’em and say “Thanks,” because that’s … it was the last part of the puzzle, or whatever, it’s a higher compliment to me than a platinum record.
LR: Do you still feel it’s disposable?
TP: Well, when I said it it was disposable, I mean what I was saying was that I can’t take these songs so serious. I don’t think that I can sit down and pick out ‘OK, another classic,’ you know, or ‘everything I write is an epic’ or, you know, I hate that attitude. I wanna be free enough to write “Tutti Frutti,” you know what I mean, to write that, ’cause I like that. I like those old cheap rock songs. I really do, as much as I like “Born to Run,” you know, but I just had this theory that if it’s a good song, whatever that is, it will endure. I think any songwriter that stands up and plays the guitar and really thinks that he’s changing the world and singing to millions needs a tomato in the face.
LR: You said that you thought your audiences are violent and sexual.
TP: Well, I don’t know that they’re violent, but they’re definitely sexual. [laughs]
LR: But wasn’t there… Wasn’t this what this is all supposed to be about, actually? I mean, on a certain level.
TP: Fine with me. I got asked the other day, ‘Why do you think there’s so many girls at the show?’ Somebody just told me the other day that ‘You’re the hardest rock band that still attracts a lot of girls,’ and I said, ‘That’s great, you know, I think that they should be there, I love every one of them.’
LR: You did say something once about going down in the audience and they tried to kill you…
TP: That happened to me once. It was a crazy crowd and I was down close to the edge of the stage, it was a low stage, and they grabbed me and pulled me in, and they didn’t want to give me up.
LR: Why hasn’t that happened to Iggy or Bruce or…
TP: I don’t know. I’ve seen Bruce go down and walk right through ’em, you know. I have some theory that I think they see Bruce as their buddy, you know, as their friend or whatever, as one of them, and I think they see me in a slightly more sexually [laughs] violent connotation. I don’t have any desire to walk through the audience, to tell you the truth. I think the show’s on the stage. Like going into the audience… I never had any desire to go into the audience.
LR: You scared to have contacts with fans?
TP: Well, it would depend on the sort of contact, you know. I’m still not of the opinion that you should wile yourself off on the fans or anything. I don’t think I could write the music as well as I did if I didn’t live some sort of life that was fairly normal in some sense. You know, I don’t mind talking, because I would want the same to me, you know. If I ran into Phil Everly the other day and you know, I was like a little kid, and he was so nice and it was great and I knew that I could be bothering him but I just had to talk to him [laughs] and I understand that.