The sad news that Tom Petty has passed away, aged only 66, has given me much pause for thought. I’d known Petty off and on across the years, reviewed his debut album with his beloved Heartbreakers for the NME, saw his first London shows and graduated to full-scale interviews with him and the band in London, Manchester, Los Angeles and even Bologna, where where he not only supported Bob Dylan but actually provided him with his band. The opening act was Roger McGuinn, and, guess what? Petty and The Heartbreakers backed him too.
The thing is, Tom Petty was hard worker despite his laidback Florida drawl. A courteous – and some might say old-fashioned – man, he was also a very nice one. It’s customary and usually right to speak well of the dead but, Tom really was a nice guy.
Like most people, and certainly like most major rock stars (and he was most definitely one of those), Tom had his demons too. Around the time of the Hard Promises album (1981), he opened up to me about his past. I noted his mood, writing: “These are strange times for Tom Petty. Success and fame are uneasy bedfellows and The Heartbreakers had fallen into the usual drugs and booze mess that goes with living in too many hotel rooms with too much money and nothing to spend it on.” Bassist Ron Blair hated touring and was replaced on certain sessions by the veteran Donald “Duck” Dunn (Blair would leave thereafter), while Tom had personal and professional problems to deal with.
His mother, Kitty, had passed away the day after his 30th birthday, the previous October. Devastated as he was, Tom chose not to attend her funeral in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, reasoning that his presence would turn a sombre affair into a media circus. But he also had issues with his father, Earl, who he would later admit had physically and mentally abused him as a child. When I spoke to Tom the day after the band had played three standing-room only concerts at the 18,000-seater LA Forum, he mentioned this distressing episode but glossed it over. “Mum and dad had a car wreck [after which Kitty became epileptic]. She was dying of cancer anyway. My dad’s disabled so he does nothing except play High Life all day. That’s a gambling game, big in Florida.
“I’d like my dad to see us play,” Petty added. “He never has and we’ve never been back to Gainesville. But he has the fans come round and he chats to ’em and feeds ’em and stuff. He loves that.”
Petty was always hacked off at the comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, which dogged his entire career. He didn’t really have Bruce’s over-the-top charisma, but he was proud to be leading a band he considered the equal of anyone’s – and better than most.
He also famously took on his record company over the costing to record buyers of what turned out to be the phenomenally successful Damn The Torpedoes. “If those people had kept on suing me I was going to be on a soup line. I’ve never got onto that channel about, What is life? This time I had a few sleepless nights. I wanted to write anthems for underdogs, songs like ‘Even The Losers’ and ‘Refugee’… The theme of the album wasn’t self-conscious, but when I put it together afterwards I could see it was about standing up for your rights, the ones that everyone has, which can’t be fucked with or taken away. Rather than get really graphic – ‘They took me down to the court today and grilled me for eight hours’ – I wanted to keep the common denominator of them as love songs with other connotations.
“They aren’t necessarily boy-girl songs,” Petty concluded, “but also I don’t think the kids want to hear a record about the evils of the music business; that would be as boring as hell.”
One of his favourite people was Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, who, like many of us, will be completely devastated by his passing. Back in the day, Tom Petty filled in the gaps: “She started hanging out at the Torpedoes sessions and asked me to write her a song. Me and Mike [Campbell] wrote ‘Insider’ for her but I decided to keep that, so we gave her ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ instead, and she sang on my album and I’m producing her.”
In fact, Nicks’ Bella Donna outstripped Hard Promises in terms of sales, largely thanks to the heavy rotation of ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ on the then-new MTV playlist. Petty didn’t know that then. “I’m glad, because finally the girl appears on the album and she’s happy because it’s a snaky thing and it ain’t a ballad. She [Nicks] told me, ‘Don’t give me another ballad. I write those all the time!’ So we’re doin’ a kind of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris thing. Grievous Angel is in my all-time top five albums. Always wanted to meet Gram, but when I got to LA he’d been dead for four months. People don’t make that Gram connection with me because they always say, Oh you’re like Roger McGuinn. but I prefer Parsons’ Byrds. It’s hard to introduce country-rock into what we do. People think it’s corny parents’ music but we’re Southern country, like Gram [who was from Georgia], and I still feel dislocated in LA.”
Looking at my notes from this period, I discovered that, in San Francisco, a week earlier, Petty, Nicks and her choir of girlfriends – including new bosom buddy Sharon Celani – Tench and Campbell persuaded the hotel piano bar to let them play a few songs. They knocked out ‘Needles And Pins’, ‘(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame’, ‘Kathy’s Clown’, the old Penguins doo-wop number ‘Earth Angel’. One of the businessmen at the bar gives them ten bucks, which Petty pockets until Stevie grabs it off him after one of the men in the joint says, “That’s for the lady.”
“I said, ‘Hey, where’s my share?’” Tom recalled. “So Stevie rips the bill in half, sticks her half down her cleavage and gives me mine.”
Nicks would soon become a regular on Petty tours and is often heard admitting that she’d rather join The Heartbreakers than carry on with Fleetwood Mac. A glimpse into her superstar life proves salutary; there was the feeling that Tom Petty was one step away from that rarefied world. His rival Springsteen is just of reach and Tom is forever playing catch up. Bruce is a year older and seemingly always one album ahead. Hard Promises goes Platinum in August 1981, but Springsteen’s The River goes five-times Platinum. As I’d somewhat tactlessly pointed out in London, Bruce can do no wrong with British critics.
Maybe there was a fit of pique when Tom pulled the band’s live performance off the No Nukes concert movie, and it must have galled him to support The Boss and Peter Tosh at the Madison Square Garden. Six years later, he’d sit down and write a song lampooning Springsteen. ‘Tweeter And The Monkey Man’ was written with fellow-Traveling Wilbury Bob Dylan, who was equally irked at hearing Bruce referred to as his replacement – “the new Bob Dylan”. They’d laughed as they wrote, “It was out on Thunder Road – Tweeter at the wheel/They crashed into paradise – they could hear them tires squeal” while George Harrison and Jeff Lynne looked on.
Generally, Tom Petty had a sunny disposition, especially on stage; though he could also unleash his temper. In Los Angeles, I saw him play at the Forum where there was a stage invasion that infuriated him. He stomped off afterwards and refused to attend the obligatory aftershow party. “I was in a bad mood anyway ’cause I know how much the people at the front paid the scalpers, and I wouldn’t want to be pushed out my seat. We played in New York recently and a lot of kids got seriously mashed and taken to hospital.”
His biggest problem, he said, was down time. “I can’t unwind. I haven’t been to bed for three days. I don’t take sleeping pills anymore, they put me in such a lousy mood, and other drugs don’t work. I’m so charged up by playing a big room, by the energy – sorry to be Californian – but it’s like you get zapped. I’m on an insane schedule.”
On the plus side, Petty’s then-six-year old daughter, Adria, got to see him perform for the first time at the Forum, holding Stevie Nicks’ hand tight in the wings. “On the way home she says to me, ‘Why didn’t you call me out?’ I’m like, ‘To do what, exactly?’ She wasn’t fazed one bit,” Petty sighs. “I haven’t spent enough time with her.”
That remark seems so poignant now when one remembers that, in the last interview he gave, he admitted he wouldn’t tour again in the old manner. “I want to spend more time with my granddaughter” he said. How times flies.
Recently, I was in the huge crowd that saw Tom Petty and his boys slay Hyde Park in the summer of 2017, playing a neat mixture of hits, some misses, and plenty of his own fine solo work – the latter something he only reluctantly came round to. “A solo album? Nah, why the hell would I do that?” he’d told me years before. “I’d end up using The Heartbreakers anyway. It’s just time for us to go back to our roots. We’ve exhausted this place.”
With my tape recorder turned off, Petty poured a cup of tea and got up to go. “Me and Mike [Campbell] have a song we’re working out called ‘Gator On The Lawn’. It’s only a B-side but I want to play it live when we hit the road.” You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the south out of the man.
And now one of rock’s true gentlemen has left the stage. The musical world is a worse place without Tom Petty in it.
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