Tom Petty, rock star, music lover and humble guy.
Tom Petty, a new album from Chris Hillman
It’s fitting that, in his final interview, Tom Petty admitted it was his relentless activity in the music industry that drove his creativity. “If I don’t have a project going, I don’t feel like I’m connected to anything. I don’t even think it’s that healthy for me,” he told the LA Times. “I like to get out of bed and have a purpose.”
Sure, most obituaries after his death last week will focus on such classic decadesspanning songs as Refugee, Free Fallin’ and Mary Jane’s Last Dance, but it’s the way Petty became the link between great musicians that will stick in my memory.
I first saw him on stage in the UK in 1987 when he brought his Heartbreakers out twice in the night to back both Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn on Dylan’s Temples in Flames tour.
It was a standard joke in our family of Dylan-tragics that the audience had started to turn up to see and hear Petty and his band bang out such tracks as Simple Twist of Fate, Maggie’s Farm and Shall be Released rather than the ragged and rambling mid-80s rocker that Dylan had become.
A year later and the first Traveling Wilburys album had him plugged in alongside Dylan again, but with the additional star power of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
IThe supergroup’s Vol 1 album was first laid down and produced at the Los Angeles home of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, who a couple of years before had shared co-writing credits on Don’t Come Around Here No More and a drug-fuelled night of passion with Petty’s creative and combustible stage- and bed-buddy Stevie Nicks.
It says a lot about Petty’s role in that 80s coke-washed LA scene when, in his autobiography, Stewart still chooses to remember him as a “true artist”. “It just comes out of his mouth sounding as if he’s not really trying. He kind of throws it away, but then it’s right under your skin and you can’t get it out of your head.”
I“If I don’t have a project going, I don’t feel like I’m connected to anything. I don’t even think it’s that healthy for me.”
n recent years, Petty had resurrected his first early 70s band, Mudcrutch, to create two new albums and he just finished a 40th-anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers.
And just a week before Petty’s death, ex-Byrds Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman released his Petty-produced album Bidin’ My Time. It seems a perfect epitaph: taking control of a legendary lineup that includes the Byrds’ David Crosby and McGuinn, Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Steve Ferrone and Benmont Tench, and John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen from the Desert Rose Band for a set list of such timeless songs as Pete Seeger’s The Bells of Rhymney and the Everly Brothers’ Walk Right Back as well as Petty’s own Wildflowers and old Byrds’ rarities Here She Comes Again and She Don’t Care About Time.
Petty’s easy-going nasal drawl isn’t obvious on this record, but the same languid touch on which he based a four-and-ahalf-decade career runs through its dozen songs and creates the image of a group of old friends jamming together in his garage. In a Billboard interview, Hillman summed up Petty’s understated stardom: “It’s hard for me to look at Tom as a true rock star that he is, and he is such a humble guy and he loves music and understands and loves all kinds of music.”
Petty rarely played the superstar – but his work rate and creativity certainly allowed many of those stars to shine.
Tom Petty: the link between great musicians.