Tom Petty

Oc­to­ber 20, 1950 – Oc­to­ber 2, 2017

Classic Rock - - Contents -

Jaan Uhel­szki looks back at the life, times and mu­sic of one of the great Amer­i­can song­writ­ers of the past 40 years, who died last month at the age of 66.

“If no one ever wrote an­other song, we’d be fine. But I still do it, be­cause I love it and it’s a gift.”

Tom Petty

Clas­sic Rock’s Jaan Uhel­szki takes a per­sonal look back at the life and times of one of the great Amer­i­can song­writ­ers of the past 40 years.

The only per­son who wasn’t sur­prised when Tom Petty died from car­diac ar­rest on Oc­to­ber 2, 2017, was Tom Petty. Pre­scient al­ways – blame it on be­ing part Chero­kee – but from as far back as 2006, death had en­tered the equa­tion for the rangy guy from Florida. On that Easter Mon­day in 2006, while re­luc­tantly do­ing press for the just-about-to-be re­leased High­way Com­pan­ion, his third solo al­bum, he talked about the fu­ture, or what he thought he had left of it. In his airy stu­dio, lo­cated in a wing of his ba­ro­nial homestead about a quar­ter of a mile above Cal­i­for­nia’s Pa­cific Coast High­way, there was some­thing chill­ing about talk­ing about mat­ters so dark and se­ri­ous in a light-filled room tucked away un­der flow­er­ing wis­te­ria and pep­per trees.

“One of my great strengths as an artist when I was young was re­al­is­ing that I had the time to do ev­ery­thing – any­thing was pos­si­ble, there was an in­fi­nite amount of time,” he said, perched a lit­tle pre­car­i­ously on a tall bar stool. “I didn’t sweat things as much. When peo­ple talk about those record-com­pany bat­tles and how coura­geous it was, it was be­cause I knew I had the time to get out of [the deal].

“I wouldn’t want to get into the mid­dle of some­thing like that now. I’m more aware of a limited amount of time. I know baby boomers seem to think they should live longer than any­one: ‘Oh my God, we are the great­est peo­ple that ever lived!’ The truth is that I don’t know if I am gonna live that long, and I want to get as much done as I can, so now time is re­ally pre­cious to me.”

Only 55 at the time, he had a sense of ur­gency in him, a man aware of more road be­hind him than in front. I pointed out at the time that Ron­nie Van Zant had told me some­thing sim­i­lar 30 years be­fore, and we both knew how that turned out – es­pe­cially since Lynyrd Skyn­ryd’s plane crashed on Petty’s 27th birthday.

He gave me a funny look and then bent over my tape recorder and told me res­o­lutely: “I want to go out quickly. I don’t want to lie around in a hospi­tal and die slowly.” Lean­ing even closer to the recorder, he said, “Just for the record, I don’t want to die in a plane crash. Re­ally don’t want to do that.”

We laughed a lit­tle about that, but the tone con­tin­ued to be som­bre on the early spring af­ter­noon. “You know, you get con­cerned with what you leave be­hind. Ar­tis­ti­cally, the big­gest pri­or­ity with mak­ing records now is that I know this will be here longer than me. Mak­ing some­thing that lasts is more im­por­tant than it be­ing a hit record – al­though you want them all to be hit records,” he laughed a lit­tle rue­fully.

While he would never again make a solo al­bum, Petty would go on to make just two more Heart­break­ers records, Mojo in 2010 and Hyp­notic Eye in 2014. He also found time to re-form Mud­crutch, the

1970 pre­de­ces­sor to the Heart­break­ers that fea­tured a 20-year-old Petty on bass, Tom Leadon and Mike Camp­bell on gui­tars, Ran­dall Marsh on drums and Ben­mont Tench on key­boards. “I did it be­cause I could,” he said drolly, when asked about it in 2016.

At the time, it didn’t seem like he was check­ing things off a bucket list, but look­ing back on it now, per­haps he was. He pro­duced the re­cently re­leased Bid­ing Time for one of his early heroes, Byrds bas­sist Chris Hill­man, and gave The Shel­ters, a band of 20-some­things who were friends with his adopted son Dy­lan, the run of his stu­dio, and even­tu­ally pro­duced their self-ti­tled de­but for Warner Bros last year. Then there was the mat­ter of the 40th-an­niver­sary tour, which started on April 20, 2017, and wound up five months later, al­though only a cou­ple of years be­fore he’d said he no longer wanted to do long tours.

“I know I don’t want to spend six months of the year go­ing around play­ing shows, be­cause there’s just not time to do that any more,” he’d said. “I don’t want to quit play­ing. But Ben­mont says if we don’t play to peo­ple it’s a crime. Maybe he’s right, but I don’t think we al­ways need to play on tours. I think there are ways to go and play some­where or film it.”

But he went ahead and did it any­way, mount­ing a full-scale sta­dium tour, bring­ing along open­ers from the Heart­break­ers’ ear­li­est days – Joe Walsh, Ste­vie Nicks, Peter Wolf – and young bucks Chris Sta­ple­ton and The Lu­m­i­neers. Play­ing shows as if it were 1977 again, he ended the be­he­moth tour with a three-day stand at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl in Los An­ge­les, a week be­fore he died.

Petty’s con­cern with mak­ing the most of his time ex­tended to his song­writ­ing as well. “Years ago I used to be so con­cerned that at least one of the songs was a sin­gle. I don’t think that pops up in my mind any more. But I know I don’t want to waste a line. I want ev­ery­thing to mean some­thing, and I want it to be the right line.”

But de­spite all the talk about not car­ing about hits, High­way Com­pan­ion would go on to top the Bill­board chart, as would Hyp­notic Eye in 2014, while Mojo hit No.1 on the Top Rock Al­bums chart. If any­thing, through­out his ca­reer Petty was some­one who un­der­played his hand, de­spite the three Gram­mys, the 80 mil­lion records sold, or Buried Trea­sure, his top-rated ra­dio show on Sir­ius XM. No brag­gado­cio, ever, just the sense of cer­ti­tude that any­one could do

what he could do if they just ap­plied some hard work. Like he had.

When he was in­ducted into the Song­writ­ers

Hall Of Fame in 2016, along with Nile Rodgers, Lionel Richie, Elvis Costello and Wild Thing com­poser Chip Tay­lor, he looked be­mused, telling the au­di­ence, “I’m sort of the rock’n’roll white trash sec­tion of this show.”

While all the other re­cip­i­ents went on about how they wrote songs, why they wrote songs, pep­per­ing their sto­ries with slightly in­ap­pro­pri­ate ad­mis­sions and self-ag­gran­dis­ing jokes, Petty kept his speech at a lean two min­utes, telling the au­di­ence that the world re­ally doesn’t need any more songs.

“If no one ever wrote an­other song, we’d be fine, you know? There are plenty of songs. But I still do it, be­cause I love it and it’s a gift. It’s not some­thing ev­ery­body can do. Well, ev­ery­body can do it, but they can’t do it good.”

Which is as close as he’d come to ad­mit­ting there was some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary about what he did.

There was some­thing en­dear­ing in Petty’s hu­mil­ity. He al­ways took great pains to show his hu­man­ity, con­fid­ing that he couldn’t fall asleep with­out the

TV on, that the only thing that could ever re­ally calm him down was a walk along the Pa­cific Ocean, or that he re­ally would love to fish again – all things that would soothe his for­ever-rest­less spirit.

While seem­ingly af­fa­ble, he was a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than that. For one, he didn’t suf­fer fools gladly. I once had the temer­ity to ask if his cur­rent al­bum were a colour, what it would be. He nar­rowed his icy blue eyes and said more than a lit­tle im­pa­tiently. “I don’t think it’d be one. It’d be a whole bunch of colours. Each song is a dif­fer­ent colour and dif­fer­ent shades. There would be a lot of sil­ver in it though.”

I should have left it there. I didn’t. “Be­cause it’s sleek and it’s a ve­hi­cle?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Now my bull­shit me­ter is go­ing re­ally high,” he said flatly, a clear in­di­ca­tor that it was time to back off.

But to his great credit, he never claimed to be per­fect. “What bugs me? Wait­ing on peo­ple drives me in­sane. I didn’t [just] write that song. I am very punc­tual,” he laughed.

He had very lit­tle sense of hu­mour when, for ex­am­ple, peo­ple thought the key line of Into The Great Wide Open was ‘a rebel with­out sham­poo’. “It’s nice if peo­ple get the songs,” he said. “But I hate be­ing mis­un­der­stood. I hate it when peo­ple get things wrong. I’ve seen peo­ple get lyrics wrong and that drives me nuts. I’ve seen them read their own mean­ings into things that are such non­sense. I shouldn’t care about that, but I do.”

Ex­ces­sive drinkers were also on his hit list. “I can’t stand drunks. I re­ally have a dis­taste for peo­ple who are drunk. I don’t like drink­ing, which has prob­a­bly not been the best thing in the world for me.”

Back in 2006, he said: “I can’t say I don’t take drugs. That’s re­ally a good place to get to, and I’m try­ing to get there. I’ve been such a nut I won­der some­times how long I’m gonna live. My kids call me the pi­rate. I’ve lived hard and got­ten a lot out of life. I sure took an adult por­tion.”

Some might say it was self-med­i­ca­tion. And he had ev­ery right to it, given his tu­mul­tuous child­hood. “I haven’t had a life like other peo­ple have. I never felt safe as a child. I grew up in a red­neck house­hold and I al­ways hated it,” he

“I’ve lived hard and got­ten a lot out of life. I sure took an adult por­tion.”

Tom Petty

“I’m told I’m run­ning too fast.

But I al­ways will, prob­a­bly.”

Tom Petty

re­vealed in 2012. “If you’re in an abu­sive sit­u­a­tion – my dad was very ver­bally abu­sive – you need a safe place. I took refuge in mu­sic. Rock’n’roll was my safe place.”

What he never could say to Earl Petty he fun­nelled into his songs, cre­at­ing a world where if he didn’t feel safe, he cer­tainly felt in con­trol. I Won’t Back Down, Don’t Do Me Like That, Into The Great Wide Open and I Need To Know speak vol­umes about the ne­ces­sity of liv­ing life on his own terms, even if he was in­vent­ing it along the way.

“You think I don’t know I’m a con­trol freak?” he asked in 2012, rais­ing a spec­u­la­tive eye­brow. “I ad­mit it. I’m a ridicu­lous con­trol freak.”

What do you need to con­trol more than any­thing? “My­self,” he said. “The hard­est thing to con­trol is my­self, and I’m work­ing on that.”

De­spite ap­pear­ing to be one of the more bal­anced celebri­ties, there was some­thing about Petty that was un­know­able.

“Okay, I’m not re­ally all that bal­anced,” he ex­plained. “Peo­ple see me as nor­mal. I’m not, re­ally. I think I’m very com­pli­cated. I mean, what does it say about me that I feel more com­fort­able on­stage than I do off? Life is much more com­pli­cated than a rock’n’roll set.”

Even from the ear­li­est pho­to­graphs, you al­ways had the sense that Petty thought he was get­ting away with some­thing, dar­ing you to call him out. You can see it in the photo on the cover of Tom Petty And The Heart­break­ers, his 1976 de­but al­bum. The know­ing half-smirk, half-sullen stare from his pale eyes, Dressed in a new black leather jacket, a string of bul­lets slung across one shoul­der like Pan­cho Villa, a penum­bra of smoke en­cas­ing his blond head, the Florida na­tive was on a mis­sion, and it was clear he had just got started.

Al­though that mis­sion re­ally started back in 1961, when at the age of 11, he met Elvis on the set of Fol­low That Dream in Crys­tal River, Florida. That en­counter set his pre­teen as­pi­ra­tions on fire (re­vis­ited in his own Run­ning Down A Dream).

“To be truth­ful, I didn’t re­ally meet Elvis, but I did stand re­ally close to him,” he con­fessed later. “I had an un­cle who was in the film busi­ness lo­cally – he would shoot and de­velop film. My aunt asked me, ‘How would you like to go see Elvis Pres­ley?’ I said, ‘Wow, Elvis Pres­ley!’ but then I would have gone to see any­one fa­mous who was a big deal.

“It was ev­ery­thing you thought it would be: this huge or­deal on the street, with hun­dreds of peo­ple and scream­ing girls and po­lice hold­ing them back. We were taken in the back where there were all th­ese trail­ers, which now is very nor­mal to me, but at the time it looked very strange. We just stood there, and this line of white Cadil­lacs pulled in. Th­ese guys were get­ting out. Most of them had those shiny mo­hair suits and pom­padours. As each one got out I would ask my aunt, ‘Is that him?’ And she would say, ‘No that’s not him.’ Even­tu­ally he pulled up in his Cadil­lac and got out. I didn’t have to ask. There was no doubt about it. He was about the best-look­ing thing I’d ever seen. He walked up and my un­cle said, ‘Hey, Elvis, this is my nephew and my niece.’ He looked at us and kind of smiled and nod­ded and went in his trailer. It was so, so cool.

“Af­ter that day I never thought about much else but rock’n’roll. It cer­tainly changed my life.”

The next year, he con­vinced his mother to buy him his first gui­tar, and then on Fe­bru­ary 9, 1964, like count­less other teenagers, he saw

The Bea­tles on The Ed Sul­li­van Show and be­gan mak­ing his own plans. “That was my way out. There was a way to do it,” he said to Paul Zollo in Con­ver­sa­tions With Tom Petty.

He did it in not-so-grad­ual stages, be­gin­ning his ca­reer in the Epics with high school friend Tom Leadon. With the in­clu­sion of Mike Camp­bell, his room­mate Ran­dall Marsh and the three-yearsy­ounger Ben­mont Tench, they be­came Mud­crutch, a band Petty said were “The Bea­tles of Gainesville.”

But even that wasn’t enough. In 1974, Tom Leadon’s el­der brother Bernie (Ea­gles, Fly­ing Bur­rito Broth­ers) con­vinced them that the streets of LA were paved with record­ing con­tracts, so they sent out a scout­ing party to check out whether he was right.

Within days of ar­riv­ing, Petty was pump­ing fist­fuls of change into a pay phone at the corner of La Brea and Sun­set in LA, cold­call­ing record com­pa­nies from a list of phone num­bers found pro­pi­tiously on the floor of the phone booth. By the time they were ready to re­turn to Gainesville, they had not one but two of­fers from la­bels, even­tu­ally re­sult­ing in their self-ti­tled de­but on Shel­ter Records and a grad­ual rise to the top ech­e­lon of Amer­i­can rock bands.

There was some­thing uniquely real about Tom Petty And The Heart­break­ers. They held up a frac­tured mir­ror for the rest of us, a mir­ror that ac­tu­ally re­flected back some less-favourable an­gles. You be­lieved that he ac­tu­ally suf­fered some of the same in­dig­ni­ties and frus­tra­tions as every­one else, and had to think

his way out of more than a few jams. He was one of the few rock stars who put his money where his mouth was.

When Shel­ter was sold to ma­jor la­bel MCA Records in 1978, Petty con­tended that the sale vi­o­lated his con­tract. That led to a whole year of le­gal wran­gling, which ended up with him bear­ing all the costs of record­ing his next al­bum him­self, driv­ing him to de­clare bank­ruptcy in May 1979. That case was re­solved only when Shel­ter fi­nally ac­cepted a set­tle­ment and bowed out of the pic­ture, and MCA al­lowed Petty to sign with sub­sidiary Back­street Records, re­sult­ing in his break­through al­bum, Damn The Tor­pe­does.

But MCA went back on a prom­ise to re­lease fol­low-up al­bum Hard Prom­ises for $8.98. Petty didn’t want to be the scape­goat for es­ca­lat­ing record prices. He told the New York Times, “My beef with MCA was that they orig­i­nally told us Hard Prom­ises would be $8.98, and then changed their minds. But it would be wrong to sin­gle them out; ev­ery other record com­pany would like to push record prices right up there. I’m not usu­ally as con­cerned with record com­pany busi­ness as you might think… but some­times there’s a com­mu­ni­ca­tions break­down and when that hap­pens you just have to stand up for your­self.”

That’s some­thing he con­tin­ued to do, whether tak­ing the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers to task over com­man­deer­ing Mary Jane’s Last Dance riffs for Dani Cal­i­for­nia or po­lar­is­ing some of his fan base af­ter he pre­vented Ge­orge W. Bush from us­ing I Won’t Back Down as a 2000 cam­paign song. But per­haps even more note­wor­thy is that Petty per­formed the song at Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore’s house in Washington, D.C., on De­cem­ber 13, 2000, an hour af­ter Gore con­ceded the elec­tion to Bush. (I Won’t Back Down was per­formed as an an­them of sol­i­dar­ity on Satur­day Night Live on Oc­to­ber 7, 2017, by Jason Aldean, one of the per­form­ers at the Las Ve­gas coun­try festival where 59 at­ten­dees were killed the day be­fore Petty died.)

Over four decades, Petty re­leased 13 al­bums with the Heart­break­ers, along with three solo al­bums and two with the most su­per of su­per­groups, the Trav­el­ing Wil­burys, whose line-up com­prised Petty, Bob Dy­lan, Ge­orge Har­ri­son, Roy Or­bi­son and Jeff Lynne.

While many peo­ple would be daunted in the pres­ence of a for­mer Bea­tle, Petty had a rare knack to feel com­fort­able in any sit­u­a­tion, and he ended up, to his own sur­prise, be­ing the ful­crum of many im­por­tant cir­cles. “I never want to meet any­body, but I al­ways do,” Petty said in 2006 when asked about his friend­ship with Dy­lan and Har­ri­son. “I have ac­tu­ally be­come quite close to them, but it wasn’t be­cause I sought them out. They sought me out for some rea­son. My lit­tle cou­pling with Jeff Lynne and Ge­orge was so cos­mic.”

About a month af­ter hav­ing dinner with Jeff Lynne in Lon­don, when the Heart­break­ers were on tour back­ing up Bob Dy­lan, Petty pulled up to a red light and there was Lynne in the car next to him. Each was a lit­tle un­nerved – nei­ther knew the other was in Los An­ge­les – but they waved at each other, then drove away.

Petty didn’t think much about it un­til a week or two later when he and his el­dest daugh­ter, Adria, were out Christ­mas shop­ping and drove past a French restau­rant they used to go to. Out of the blue, they de­cided to pull in, even though they weren’t sure the restau­rant was still serv­ing that late in the day. When they sat down, the waiter came up and told Petty there was a friend of his in the pri­vate din­ing room who’d like to see him.

Be­mused, Petty fol­lowed the waiter, and there were Ge­orge Har­ri­son and Jeff Lynne.

“When I walked into the room, Ge­orge said to me, ‘This is so strange. Jeff was just giv­ing me your phone num­ber, and they told me you were in the next room.’ Then Ge­orge asked me where I was go­ing. I told him I was go­ing home. He asked me if he could go with me. So he came home with me and spent the hol­i­day with me and we be­came good friends.”

More than good friends, re­ally. Har­ri­son de­cided that the two had shared past lives to­gether, and he told Petty that. “We got to be re­ally close al­most im­me­di­ately. Ge­orge told me, ‘I’m not go­ing to let you out of my life now.’ And he never re­ally did.”

“If you’re in an abu­sive sit­u­a­tion, you need a safe place. I took refuge in mu­sic. rock’n’roll was my safe place.”

Tom Petty

The two would find any ex­cuse to hang out, spend­ing fam­ily hol­i­days to­gether and even­tu­ally work­ing on what was in­tended to be a solo al­bum for the for­mer Bea­tle but even­tu­ally be­came the Trav­el­ing Wil­burys’ first al­bum.

Call it a pay­off for a land­locked boy from North­ern Florida, who con­vinced him­self back in 1968 that if he pur­sued his dream of be­ing a mu­si­cian that he might just be able to do what he loved. “I took the road think­ing I may not have as nice things as other peo­ple are go­ing to have, but I have this and I love to do this,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say I was pur­su­ing a ca­reer, re­ally,” he ex­plained in 2016. “I’m just en­joy­ing play­ing mu­sic. It’s re­ally con­ve­nient to have an au­di­ence, and I have a lot of mu­sic in me yet. I have a lot in my head and I want to get it out.

“I do know we’re run­ning a lit­tle slower, in some ways,” he said. “Though I’m told I’m run­ning too fast,” he added. “But I al­ways will, prob­a­bly.”

“I turned anger into am­bi­tion,” he told one in­ter­viewer. But years later, he in­sisted that he was able to tame his demons. “I’m not as bad as I used to be,” he said to me in 2012. “I didn’t even re­alise how wound up I was. I could get so an­gry. I don’t think I’m like that as much.

“I still have my mo­ments where I can get like that. I can get re­ally frus­trated with all the shit in­volved with busi­ness. Ev­ery day there are more fires to be put out and more things that have to be dealt with, and I don’t re­ally want to spend my time do­ing that, so some­times that can get me re­ally an­noyed. But with ev­ery­thing else I think

I’m more at peace. At least I hope I am.”

Play­ing in Van­cou­ver, Au­gust 2017, just weeks be­fore his death. The Trav­el­ing Wil­burys: (l-r) Bob Dy­lan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Or­bi­son, Ge­orge Har­ri­son.

Wth Ste­vie Nicks at Cow Palace in Daly City, Cal­i­for­nia, June 26, 1981.

Petty be­ing in­ducted into the Song­writ­ers Hall Of Fame, June 9, 2016, New York City. Mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion: Petty and Bob Dy­lan in 1986.

Tom Petty And The Heart­break­ers in 1979: (l-r) Ron Blair, Tom Petty, Mike Camp­bell, Ben­mont Tench, Stan Lynch.

Mud­crutch in 1974: (l-r) Mike Camp­bell, Tom Petty, Ran­dall Marsh, Tom Leadon.

Peak Petty: per­form­ing with the Heart­break­ers at the Civic Au­di­to­rium in Santa Cruz, 1980.

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