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Tom Petty: Long After Maturity — Life With The Heartbreakers!
By Sylvie Simmons
Creem — April 1983
STAR TRECK: Scene One: Writer meets Star.
Okay, lights, cameras. Take One. Winter in Hollywood, sun beaming like a Moonie, friendly guard at the Universal Studios gate points out the path to Soundstage Four. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are there rehearsing for a tour. Writer gets walking, turns the final corner, and there he is! Heading in her direction, waving as if he knew her, loved by millions, larger than life (actually barely larger than five foot two) the star. AL PACINO!
Okay, okay, cut. Wrong star. Take two. Writer gets dragged away from the Italian actor, sees the massive number 4 over a door, walks in, looks around. Empty. No, there’s a female guard on the verge of nervous collapse. Some rock star’s coming in to rehearse — Tom someone, never heard of him, now Al Pacino she’s heard of — and she’s got to check the writer’s name off her list. Naturally it’s not there. Saved by Bugs the Roadie who escorts the writer in and gets back to work. The band hasn’t arrived yet. The soundstage is as big and cold as an aircraft hangar in winter.
Cameras move to door. A skinny, good-looking blond bloke is ambling slowly through it. The guard looks up from her People and eyes him up and down. Scruffy jeans, back leather jacket, shirt hanging out underneath, furtive, vulpine face. Hmm. Can’t come in here, she says, unless his name’s on the list. Naturally it isn’t either. Lord knows whose is. Bugs to the rescue again, and Tom Petty is allowed into his own rehearsal. That’s him? The guard whispers to the writer? Is he English? Really, American? Maybe, her face says, they’ll promote her to guarding Italians one day. The writer, meanwhile, searches for a devious way to write about them.
Yes, Al Pacino and Tom Petty have got something in common. Both have managed to get along fine in the colossal, mindless American mainstream without becoming an embarrassment. Both jump at challenges (While Al took on the gay leather boys, Tom took on his record company to lower album prices for instance). Neither gets that much stuck in a rut. When Damn the Torpedoes made Petty a household name (everywhere except Soundstage Four, Hollywood), the follow-up, Hard Promises, wasn’t a Son of Damn but a softer, mellower, excuse me, “mature” album that nicely confused the critics. And when they were poised this time with 30 was of saying “sensitive,” out they come with a new LP, Long After Dark, their most straight-forward, forget-the-trumpets-and-synthesizers, all-American rock ‘n’ roll record yet.
“I wanted to make a more guitar-oriented peppy album than the last one,” says Tom. Film that bit slowly. He talks in a leisurely Southern drawl, probably something to do with his coming from Gainesville, Florida. His leather jacket creaks much louder than his voice. “Maybe I did get the mellowness out of my system, I don’t know. That Hard Promises album was a pretty moody album, though in a lot of ways I really think it was the best stuff we’ve done. But for some people it was hard for them to understand us doing that. It always plays with people’s heads if you do something they don’t expect.” Tom Petty chuckles. He does that a lot.
Anyway, those who’ve already got the thing know there’s still the basic Tom Petty sound, the chiming Byrdsy guitar, nasal Roger McGuinnish vocals and more idealism than you’ll get in anyone this side of Springsteen, but some of the lost-love-and-loneliness bedsitter lyrics have given way to ballsier stuff. What we’ve got in this skinny blond singer and his faithful sidekicks (drummer Stan Lynch, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and new bass player Howie Epstein) is one of the painfully rare reasons to like American mainstream rock.
“I love being called mainstream,” Tom chortles. “There’s not any point in being underground nowadays. Because it’s much more of a challenge to be mainstream. It’s easy to be underground, be a hip cult band. I mean, I could do it again tomorrow! I could do it 10 times a week!” Whoa. “Really, it’s so simple anyone could do it. All you gotta do is just be outrageous and whatever the trend is at the moment you go 100 degrees to the left of it. And you’re underground.
“I’ve never been interested in trends very much. I do try to hear as many of the records as I can, but I don’t think there’s any challenge being trendy. It’s not like the ’60s, when being underground was chic. Now all the underground bands are dying to be mainstream bands, and most of them would just sell out — as you’ve seen — sell it out down the river to be mainstream.”
Come on, isn’t there anything you miss about being a cult band?
“Not in the least. It’s a really limited trip, man. You get bored with it in a year. I don’t know any group that wants to be a cult group. They say, ‘don’t you want to go back and play the bars, man? Don’t you miss it?’ I don’t miss it! I’ve spent my whole life playing bars, since I was 15 years old, you know. I like playing in bars and we still do it sometimes. But to be honest, I think most of these people are being a little false when they say they really wish they were back playing those joints.”
Doing the “US” Festival, the technological be-in for overprivileged Californians last year, was going from one extreme to the other, of course. But as Petty chuckles, “For that much money I’ll play anywhere! I’d be a fool not to do it. But I wouldn’t want to do it every day. I like having some hint of intimacy.”
We haven’t got any here in the Soundstage, stuck in a corner of the massive echoing edifice, trying not to talk above a whisper. At least those cameras are off somewhere, filming some background footage: Petty’s Hollywood house, with the guard outside the front gate stopping the little girls from camping in his front garden; a Hollywood magazine stand where all the rock rags seem to have Tom’s face on the cover.
“I don’t know if I’ve gotten used to it yet,” laughs Tom. “I think you just get to where you take it for granted that the rent’s paid and things like that. When I didn’t have any money I used to think, if I could just have a place to stay and didn’t have to worry about paying for it, it would be great. It’s funny, you know, when you’re broke no one gives you nothing, then as soon as you’re doing OK and you don’t need anybody…” He drifts off in thought. “You have to learn how to deal with that and try not to take it very seriously.”
The only things Tom Petty takes seriously, so I gather by the end of our interview, are (other than his wife and two kids who like Devo and Olivia Newton-John but hey, they’ll grow out of it) his songs, his singing and his guitar playing. Tells me he walks around the house with a guitar strapped on all the time. “People that come over sometimes think I’m strange or it’s hard to talk to me. I’ve done interviews where I was playing the guitar and they’ll say, ‘will you stop that, it’s going all over my tape and I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ It’s what I like to do. You’d think I’d be better than I am,” he chuckles, “from playing all that much!”
Flashback: Florida in the ’50s. The son of an insurance man is listening to country music on his parents’ radio. Likes it, but hey, that’s no way to rebel. Goes with an aunt to watch them filming Follow That Dream, 30 miles out from Gainesville. His uncle’s working on the set. Elvis Presley is starring in it. Splice in some old footage. The girls were going bananas over El, this being his pre-donut days. Says Tom: “I just thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.” He bought Elvis records, slicked his hair back, moved slowly (as Southerners do) on to the Beatles and the Stones, and got songbooks with chords in. He learned “Little Red Rooster” and “Twist and Shout,” which he played at his first gig — a school dance — at 13. He was sent to a psychiatrist. “I was having general conduct problems with school and a general lack of attendance.” Basically he liked rock better than academia. He was on the road by the age of 15.
“Once the ghost got into me, or whatever it was,” says Petty, “It’s never left yet. It’s very strange, you know. I’m consumed with it. It’s all I do. People ask me what I do now in my spare time, and I say ‘what spare time?’ I don’t have any time to develop any hobbies, never did. I can be here ’til two or three in the morning and then go home and play the guitar for another two hours. It’s just a habit, like reading or something. It’s all I do.
“From the moment I got a guitar, it was like a fascination. I felt, this is the way out. Once we’d seen the Beatles and the Stones, those guys on Ed Sullivan in sweatshirts, you know, once we’d seen that and it looked like so much fun — it’s the same thing that happened to millions.”
There wasn’t much happening in Gainesville at the time that didn’t sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd or one of Cher’s old men. And though Tom liked them, he wasn’t like them. He headed for Los Angeles with his band Mudcrutch, piling their equipment and leather jackets into a VW van and driving 3,000 miles across country, The band broke up, Tom was about to do the solo singer-songwriter California thing, until he happened upon fellow Southerners The Heartbreakers.
“I played bass almost all the time before the Heartbreakers. I think I was just the worst guitar player, so they put me on bass. I was pretty good at the bass though, until this group, when I changed over to playing the guitar. When I met the Heartbreakers I hadn’t been in a band for a while, and when I ran into them they were almost formed, they had a bass player, the whole thing. So if I was going to be singing lead, it was just convinient for me to play rhythm guitar too. So I really had to get that together. I’ve always had my own style — which is kind of bad. If you play as out of tune as me … Really, when I started playing with Mike Campbell, who’s really the guitarist, when the two of us play together it makes that sound that people really come to call the Heartbreakers. Probably because he’s just a little more melodic and proficient on the instrument, and I’m more distorted, and it makes that jangly sound when the two of us play.
“I have this real fascination with guitars where I just like them. I think a lot of them are real works of art in themselves, just to look at them, the designs, I just like to hear the sounds. I get real ethereal with them…”
So let’s float back to the present. Hard Promises was reviewed by everyone as “mature.” Is Long After Dark a second childhood? And what happened to the Heavy Metal album you threatened to put out?
“We’ve been around a good six, seven years now and we are past adolescence. But we’re not really trying to mature. ‘Mature’ is a scary word, isn’t it? I just wanted to show there’s mode sides to the group than ‘Refugee.’ I just wanted to do something different. I guess it was just a lighter album in texture than most of our stuff. Anyway, we’re back to the loud amps, which I think will shock people too, because I think a lot of people thought we were going to drift out further into the acoustic stuff. Maybe next year…
“Heavy metal — I love the power of the music but I don’t think most bands do very much with it. It’s usually such a boring macho trip, you know. Songs like ‘I’m going to get you and you’re going to love it.’ I love the power. The first Led Zeppelin album was one that I loved; all the Hendrix albums. I think Eddie Van Halen is an amazing musician. But most of the new heavy metal groups I don’t really pay much attention to. It all sounds alike to me.”
What were the last records you bought?
“Roxy Music, Avalon, and I always go back and buy more old records. I wear them out. Roy Orbison and that kind of stuff, George Tones. I love this double album I’ve got of George and Tammy.”
So what’s why you and Stevie Nicks did that duet? You want to be the George and Tammy of the ’80s, right?
“Probably, yeah! I love those country duets, Gram and Emmylou and people like that.”
But Stevie? Cosmic tablecloth Stevie?
“I was pretty hard on her when I first met her, because she comes from a different place than me. She sees things differently than me. Don’t get me wrong, because we’re very good friends, but some people can’t see what we have in common to be friends. But I really think the world of her now. When I was first hanging around with her I would get angry sometimes, you know. But deep down she really was the most dedicated singer-songwriter. That’s all she does, that’s all she lives for. So maybe that’s why she makes so much money!”
Is there an album of double-crooning in the offing then?
“I don’t know, because I’ve promised the band that this is what I’m going to do for a year. I’m not opposed to it. I’m really glad I did it in a way. For a while I was a little nervous, that maybe they’re not going to understand. I think if she had her way we’d do it a lot.”
The band’s always off playing, singing or producing other people. Does that interfere with working together?
“No. Usually once their tracks are done, which is the first stage of the album, after that there’s not much for them to do while I sit and fiddle with the knobs for the next six months. They have to keep themselves amused somehow, I guess! But we kind of all made a decision. We’re going to devote all our time to the Heartbreakers for at least a year. We’ve all turned down other projects and we’re all dedicated to this. We haven’t done this for a long time really. It’s been a good year or more since we’ve been out on the road.”
It didn’t take them long to break in a new bass player, Tom reckons. He found Epstein in Del Shannon’s group (Petty, you recall, produced the man’s comeback) and “He knew all our old tunes better than we did.” Ron took off because, like most reasonable humans, he was sick of the music business. “He just had it. He didn’t want to play anymore — not in the music business anyway.”
But back to Petty. Does he still hate his singing voice?
“My voice has always bugged me because it sounded strange. But lately I’ve come to realize that if it wasn’t such a weird voice, I probably wouldn’t have been noticed as much. So now I can sort of live with it. Each album I think I get a little stronger and a little more confident about singing. This is the first band I’ve been in where I was the lead singer all the time, so it took me a couple of albums just to get comfortable singing all the songs.”
Speaking of songs, most of his are autobiographical. And they’re pretty much the only way rabid fans get to know anything about his private life. He’s rarely in the gossip mags. Now if he’d only day Britt Ekland…
“I have so little privacy anyway. I’m not moaning, but it’s such a ridiculous state now that the less of my life I have to live out in public, the better. I guess it’s a kind of country-western attitude. I just don’t care to discuss what goes on after the stage too much.” Like little girls crawling into his house?
“I could write a book! But I won’t, because there’s nothing more boring than hearing someone go on about how famous they are. It’s just something that’s nice on the one hand and a drag on the other, so you try to dwell on the positive side.”
So everything isn’t a doddle once you’re a STAR?
“It’s a lot harder! It’s not as bad as being broke, obviously. At least you’re bummed out in a comfortable room or whatever. There was a time — 1976, in England I think — when people really felt guilty about having any money and being successful. But now I’ve gotten to where I feel guilty, and that’s wrong too. Someone said the other way, ‘well should we take a limo over here?’ and they said, ‘no, a limo’s too posh.’ And I said, ‘ah, take the fucking limo!’ It’s also stupid to pretend you can’t afford the limo and ride in a pick-up truck. To a certain extent I think the fans enjoy that. I do. I enjoy seeing a little of the money thrown around.”
You don’t appear to spend yours on coke and starlets. At least I don’t recall seeing you hanging out at Le Dome with Rod and Alana and falling over drunk.
“I never really thought much of that. Actually I do eat at Le Dome occasionally! And I probably do all of those rock ‘n’ roll things, but I don’t think much of it. To tell you the truth, I’ve been down that road a little, and the result for me was always that the music suffered. And when the music suffers, it’s not really worth it, because it will all go away if the music goes away. So you have to keep a balance of vices and responsibilities — though I hate to think of myself as being responsible.”
He wasn’t too much at the time of their second album. All manner of reports of doped, arrogant rockstars surfaced.
“I think that everybody that gets successful goes through a period of extreme disorientation. It’s a scary thing when all of a sudden it’s really happening and every door is open. Usually that’s when the group survives or doesn’t, depending on how well they handle that. But after a year or however long, all of this isn’t such a big deal. The only thing that matters is records and shows and musics. If you want to fall over drunk and you can play great, then fine.”
Is there anything in your past you’d like to forget?
“No, rough as it’s been, I think it’s done me some good. Without going through some of the things we’ve been through, I think it wouldn’t have worked out so well. I wouldn’t change a bit of it. I’ve really enjoyed all of it… I’m very happy with the way the music’s gone and all that. I’m not walking around on cloud nine all the time, but I’m pretty happy. I mean, what can I complain about?”
Happiness. California has got to him. Wasn’t he thinking of going back to Florida at one time?
“I probably should have. I wasn’t going to leave, but I wanted to go back and make a record in the South, just to get away from Hollywood. But it turned out to be such an incredible expense to take a year in a hotel that we could never really work it out. I still swear I’m going to do it, because I’m just tired of working here the whole year. But I like L.A. a lot. I really think it takes a bad rap.”
Do you jog 10 miles a day — to get in shape for the tour and all that, like Mick Jagger does?
“Well, maybe when I’m as old as Mick Jagger…! I can’t jog because I injured my knee on a trampoline two years ago. I do a lot of swimming, a couple of hours a day to get into shape, and once the tour’s started I don’t do anything because the show itself is pretty physical. I probably should do more, but I’m just not prone to physical fitness.”
Uh-uh. The film crew’s back. They want the final show: The Romantic Scene. OK, Tom, you’ve been described as the last great rock ‘n’ roll romantic. Sound like you?
“It’s hard when it’s you and you read stories about you to even think of it as you, because I just see myself as a person, not the Last Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Romantic. But I can see where it comes from. I’m romantic in some ways. Some ways I’m not. I think I’m cynical, that’s what my friends tell me, and getting more cynical. But I still like to think that good conquers evil and all that. Yeah probably. I don’t know whether I’m the Last Great Romantic. But I’m one of them.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Long After Dark | (Backstreet)
Review by Jeff Nesin
Creem — April 1983
Why not just let it blurt? Tom Petty’s static, impregnable doltishness has made his recent LPs — starting with the alleged “breakthrough,” Damn the Torpedoes, so heartbreakingly DULL that I wring my hands, gnash my teeth and fall asleep. The glassy-eyed, undifferentiated vervelessness continues unabated on the latest, Long After Dark, and perhaps the public is catching on. Hard Promises is now filling cut-out bins. Long After Dark did nothing to revive slumping holiday record sales and as one who found You’re Gonna Get It! absolutely wonderful, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.
I think the present dreariness began when Tom Petty became TP, when he started his tireless drive to polish and perfect himself as a marketable commodity. Long After Dark once again raises the telling question: How far can you roll a carefully crafted signature style uphill before you get stultified, exhausted, or crushed? Tom Petty, it would seem, has been victimized by his own albatross formula. On the inner sleeve Petty gives special thanks to co-producer Jimmy Iovine and engineer Shelly Yakus, for their “immeasurable dedication and contribution to this project.” Would Mark Lindsay have said that? Would Duane Eddy have called a rock ‘n’ roll record a “project”? All of which reminds one that the last three albums have had exactly the same sound — a cool, glistening, distanced FM blend that could be the Eagles at their most arch and that, for FM purposes, a great LP needs a couple of memorable tunes and lots of immediately recognizable filler. Sound familiar?
The songwriting suffers, too, from the rigidity of the overriding concept, the stiffness of the expected TP pose. “One Story Town,” the lead-off cut — a crucial TP choice (“Refugee,” “The Waiting”) — is particularly depressing. A churlish, predictable few verses of lifeless anamie, it showcases Petty’s ongoing confusion of credibility with charmlessness. “Between Two Worlds,” a churning urn of burning funk that is well crafted but too long, reaches new heights of lyrical fogginess. Obviously depicting the torments of the flesh it could be about one woman, two women, or Tom’s secret struggle with transsexuality. I don’t remember having to read anything to understand “Listen To Her Heart.”
“Deliver Me” is the one song to love on Long After Dark, set in the pleading middle of Petty’s attenuated snarl-to-a-whine emotional range, and graced by a lovely floating bridge and energy that, if not exactly light-hearted, is at least momentarily not DEADLY EARNEST. But finally, Petty’s limitations conspire with his singlemindedness to betray him. It’s hard to tell, for example, that “Finding Out” is a happy song without looking at the lyrics. It certainly SOUNDS the same as the sad songs or the ornery ones. In fact though the songs may attempt to say different things, TP’s voice and the cool, filtered radio-ready mix seem always to be saying pretty much the same thing. If that’s your idea of a good time, good luck. It ain’t mine and it didn’t used to be Tom’s, either.