To set the stage: This freewheeling interview was conducted around midnight July 16, 1986 in Tom Petty’s suite at the Omni Berkshire Place in New York City, after the first show in a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden, which New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles would describe as “oddly paced and willful.” Bob Dylan with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were playing three-hour concerts that summer, with no intermission. This was, Petty gleefully told me, the only interview he’d agreed to do on the entire tour.
I used a few quotes in the article I wrote for the Gainesville Sun in ’86, but otherwise, the old cassette tape hadn’t been fully transcribed until now. I got it out of the shoebox. I’ve left out a few sections, where we talked about records we liked, people we knew in Gainesville and other stuff that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody.
What we have here is a time capsule, a Polaroid of a moment in time, when Petty – fueled by Dylan’s ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll ethos – was all worked up over a new album he had written and recorded quickly (you’ll recognize the title, but of course, the record wound up getting second-guessed and diluted with lesser, pop-oriented material). Full Moon Fever and the Wilburys came next … and nothing was ever the same.
Petty: Since I’ve seen you, I did the Southern Accents tour, I did a film of that tour, then I mixed the double live album. I did Farm Aid with Bob, then a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Japan with Bob. Mixed the HBO thing. Did a double album in four weeks. I did a single for Bob in Australia, called “Band of the Hand.” What else did I do? I did a part in a movie called Made in Heaven. I did that and flew right back to the studio and got the ol’ double LP done. It was cut between the Australian and the American tour. I produced two songs for Bob on his album, and we wrote some songs together that are gonna be great, that we ain’t got around to doing yet. And then I jumped on the bus for this.
So you’re going to make this a double album?
I think I have to. You always hear “there’s a bulk of material,” but there really is a bulk of good material. Real rock ‘n’ roll stuff. I think just one slow song on a double album. It’s real barrel-out stuff.
Why did that happen?
I don’t know! I’m still mystified by it.
(Mike Campbell enters)
Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Campbell. Mike, you got anything to say to the newspapers?
Campbell: You want to write some songs tonight?
Petty: You never know, man. I’m a songwritin’ machine!
So, this new stuff is full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?
Campbell: Is that what you called it, Tom? Full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?
Petty: Well, full steam hasn’t really come out. It sounds kinda like a redneck bar band, or a garage band. It’s real light stuff …
Campbell: With a little bit of a cosmic edge to it.
Stanley says it sounds like the first album.
Petty: It sounds better than the first album. It’s a lot more raucous than the first album. You know how they always say “God, I wish he’d make a rock ‘n’ roll record like he used to”? Well, this is a lot better than the rock ‘n’ roll records we used to make. This just happened, in the studio. I’d say – (he plays the opening chords to ‘Can’t Get Her Out’) – and the band would start playing. Then I’d start singin’ a little thing, you know? And then it’s done.
Why hadn’t that happened for years? What got in the way?
You gotta be kind of good to do that, and you gotta have a band of a certain mentality to do it. We’ve been fuckin’ around together 10, 15 years.
We just felt like playing. We weren’t even meant to be there. We went there because I’d booked the time for Bob, and he wasn’t ready to go in. So we just jumped in there to try out some songs me and Mike had written. We went in with about four tunes and left with 35. We’re gonna put a number of them out.
You’ve cut “Got My Mind Made Up”?
Yeah, there’s a Heartbreakers version and a Bob version. We wrote that together, and there’s a lot more verses. So I think in our version there’ll be a lot of the extra verses that didn’t get on Bob’s.
Campbell: Bob wrote the verse about Libya.
Petty: I wrote the verse about Libya.
Campbell: You did?
Petty: I did. Well, if the truth must be known … Bob says “Let’s write a song about Florida!” And I said no. He goes (singing) “I’m going to Tallahassee ..” and I said no, “I’m going to Libya.” And he sings “There’s a guy I gotta see/He’s been living there three years now/In an oil refinery …” Great! And then we did another one.
Writing with Bob is great, because if you throw one line he comes back with three great lines.
Could you tell him if he came up with a lousy line?
Oh yeah, sure. No, no, no, you don’t want no lousy lines.
Well, Dylan has written some bad songs too …
Petty: What great man hasn’t?
You’ve written some bad songs. Both of you have.
Campbell: I’ve never written a bad song in my life!
Petty: Well, so has everyone. I think Ludwig Van had a few clinkers. Lennon, certainly.
You can’t be great if you don’t show your ass now and then. Or you’re not trying to do anything. I mean, Bryan Adams might not ever write one that you notice is bad, because they’ll polish that turd to a high chrome!
Come on. This is the only band in America who doesn’t know who’s gonna take the solo. Fuck ‘em! The name of my album’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough.
You’re gonna call it that?
Petty: That’s right, because I’ve had enough. It’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, written by me and Brother Campbell.
You’ve got a song called “Let Me Up” and another one called “I’ve Had Enough”?
Campbell: No, they’re one song, in two parts. A “Let Me Up” part, and then an “I’ve Had Enough” part.
Petty: It’s heavy art! (laughter)
How can you guys stand each other after so long?
Petty: Oh, we hate each other. We can’t fuckin’ deal with each other. I don’t know how the fuck I put up with you after all these years!
Campbell: It must be ‘cause I’m so good-looking!
Petty: Looks is a good part of it.
There’s a lot of talk right now about Jagger and Richards not writing together any more. And you guys have been working together for a while ….
Petty: Since 1970, if we must reveal it …
Campbell: See, the thing is, we don’t write together. We write apart, and …
Petty: Not till we’re in the studio do we look eye to eye and try to bang it out. Unless I’m doing something and I can’t think of a bridge, Mike’ll think of a bridge.
I’m curious about this new stuff. It sounds like it’s “The Heartbreakers, Mach II.”
Campbell (to Petty): What does he mean by that? Mark 2?
Petty: “Mach.” Mach II. It’s another era. “No more funny glasses and backward tapes,” is what he means. I see people in New York wearin’ them glasses now.
So we’re back to playing live in the studio, without overdubbing?
Petty: There’s hardly any overdubbing. But we never did that much overdubbing anyway, really. We tried a lot but it never got on the record most times.
Do you think Dylan’s slash-and-burn approach – “go in and do it” – has rubbed off on you?
Petty: It’s too early to tell. I could tell you in a year, maybe. We’ve been running around with Bob for about a year now. I think we rub off on him more than he rubs off on us. You know, you can slash and burn but it’s still gotta come out good.
I think it’s just a real good band, you know? This band keeps getting better. Another thing was, me and Mike are producing this record, and there was never a producer there to sort of like throw a wrench in the works, or suggest another idea. Or make it feel like you were making a record. We didn’t ever talk about making a record!
If you hear the tapes, I’m calling the chords. Some of them we only ever played maybe once or twice. And that was the writing and the playing of the song. So when I hear them, they’re still real fresh to me.
Campbell: In Bob’s defense, that was something we learned from him.
Petty: We probably did learn that from Bob. We learned the joy of throwing some chaos in any time things … Bob will never let things get too settled. When all of a sudden you feel like “I got this thing down,” he’s gonna change it. And that may sink, but if it really happens it REALLY happens. You can’t fake it then, buddy. You really got to do it.
I’d rather hear somebody try, and sink, than turn on their fuckin’ computer and just drift by. I’m not into that. That shit’s gonna die. People are gonna catch on to that.
You have these raw tapes now. If you sit on them, will you start thinking “Ah, I could do this better,” or do you want to get them out fast before you start to think?
Campbell: You don’t want to think. If you start thinking, you’re in bad trouble.
Petty: There’s no thinking involved. If you’re thinking, there’s something wrong. We’ve done some of those intellectual albums. Southern Accents was a real production piece. Two years of production.
And we’re not in the mood to do that. Not that we won’t do it again, no promises, but this is what we’re doing now. We’re “Rednecks in Space,” you know? It’s a garage band, but a good one.
It’s very kamikaze. You cut all these tracks in such a short period of time. It’s unlike you guys.
Petty: Well, I’m sure it’ll come out that Bob Dylan did that. Maybe he did do that.
Campbell: And we might throw all those tracks out and start all over again.
Petty: You never know … we might go back and do something else. But I think we won’t, because I really like this album so much. I really do. I ought to play you some of it … but I don’t know, it might scare Michael.
How is your relationship with MCA?
It’s great. I’ve known Irving Azoff for years and years. I don’t do a lot of record business any more, but I know Irving and he’s somebody I can call up and talk straight with. All he asks of me is to bring him a record. He never rushes me. He didn’t rush me for two years. He’d come down and listen and say “When it’s right …” He knew what I was doing.
So you’re going to try to get this album out this year?
Will Irving let you do another double, after the live album?
I never asked him. I just assume he will. Why wouldn’t he? Irving’s a reasonable man. (laughter)
Irving must’ve been the guy who decided to make “Needles and Pins,” a four-year-old track, the single from the live album?
I don’t know. I don’t pick the singles. I thought they should have put out “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” I just thought it was such a great record. And you know what they said? They thought it was too rock ‘n’ roll for the radio. And at that point I said well, guys, we really don’t have anything to talk about. At the time, it was the Number One Airplay song in the country. And they wouldn’t release it as a single because it was “too rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s … you know, let me up, I’ve had enough. (laughter)
What was the inspiration for “American Girl”? There’s always been a story that connects it to Gainesville …
Petty: Naw, that’s myth …
Campbell: It’s got 441 in it …
Petty … and it’s probably got a southern setting. A lot of songs are based around there. I’ve written a lot of songs with a southern setting. “Magnolia” could be that area. There’s a lot of magnolias there.
I’m trying to remember writing “American Girl.” I think I wrote it in an apartment in Encino, California in ’76 or ’75.
Campbell: It was the Fourth of July, wasn’t it?
Petty: Fourth of July. And it came quickly. It was written very quickly. Instantly.
It’s a song about suicide …
Campbell: Naw. BULL-shit!
Well, the story goes that the girl jumped from Beatty Towers in Gainesville …
Petty: No, the line is “If she had to die trying …”
Campbell: Love is dead, that’s what it was about. It’s a figure of speech! “If she had to die trying …”
Petty: “If she had to die trying.” She didn’t have to DIE. “It was one little promise she was going to keep.”
Well, it’s desperate …
Petty: Yeah, it’s very desperate. Well, maybe that’s why they thought she just lept off the balcony. I always pictured her as a much more stable bitch than that.
That was back in the period where all the songs were two minutes, 25 seconds.
Petty: Yeah, we just figured “Let’s get in, get out,” you know? We were highly criticized at the time for that. I kinda miss that, you know? Verse, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, get out. A good rock ‘n’ roll song doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes long anyway.
We got songs on this record now that are nine minutes long. There’s one song that’s probably a whole side. I don’t know, Campbell will probably edit it.
We just play. We record everything played in the session. If one guy’s playing, it’s recorded. And there’s always somebody out there playing. It’s not the kind of band that can learn a song and do, say, 10 takes any more. We’re too impatient. We’ll go on to something else. Because we just want to hit a feel and play it. If we know it too good, we can never record it.
Is the live stuff as much fun now as it was when you first started playing with Bob last year?
I like playing with Bob. Bob’s all right. He’s just a good friend to play music with. And God, he sure has done a lot for us. We’re allowed to do whatever we want. It’s kind of like having another band. We got another singer who writes, you know? We treat it like a group. That’s the way Bob’s arranged it. I respect him for that.
It’s kind of like jamming for three hours. You don’t really know what you’re gonna play, or what rhythm it’s gonna be.
You’re hanging back a lot in these shows.
I like hanging back. I sing a lot in this show, man. I must sing 15 songs in this show. I got at least five songs to sing with Bob, and what’d we do tonight? Eight. That’s a lot of singing.
Still, where’s the ego fit in, when you’re playing a supporting role?
What ego? What are you talking about? Listen, man, if you’re in a rock group and you’re even dealing with ego, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t deal with that and do anything!
That’s not what I heard.
Well, there’s a lot of things you hear that ain’t true. I’ve done this a long time. I’m much too smart to get into ego. I want to make Bob good, and Bob wants to make me good. And that’s why we get along, because we’re way above that.
It’s a matter of feeling, this music. It’s all about feel. To send out something and make somebody feel good. It’s not any deeper than that. And if you can learn that, then you’re gonna be around more than a record or two.
Bob was out there tonight pulling these Jesus songs out of the hat …
Petty: And rightfully so!
Right after your second set, after Ronnie Wood came out for “Rainy Day Women,” then there was a Jesus song. I could feel the momentum dive.
Petty: Yeah, but see, you’re still talking about it. You know what, the Beach Boys wouldn’t-a done that. They’ve have probably just steamrollered that baby to the end like Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what this is about. He had something to say at that point.
This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that.
Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus. David Lee Roth might not want to do that. But I admire a man that’s confident enough in himself to do that. And I tell you what, nobody left.
Campbell: He does that on purpose. I know what you mean by momentum. It builds up and it’s boogie till you puke. Bob doesn’t want to boogie till he pukes.
Petty: I respect a man that can bring it down and still hold ‘em. This is not boogie till you puke. We’re not there to do that. We’re there to offer an alternative. To expose people to an alternative.
A lot of times we don’t know who’s taking the solo or what’s gonna happen. This is the only band left like that. And it’s a shame. Except for some of the younger bands that nobody wants to give the time of day to. And I’m real concerned about that.
A rock show’s gotten to be such an organized, routine thing. I don’t know when’s the last one I went to, because they’re so fuckin’ predictable. You know what’s gonna happen. You know they’re gonna play an encore. You know they’re gonna do another encore. Da, da, da, the big lights are gonna come on …
Fuck it! It’s like you may as well watch Johnny Carson. Bob did a great show, and he didn’t concede to anything. And that’s an artist. That’s when you start calling this shit art. (laughter). If you must!
A lot of these guys are great performers and entertainers, but they’re not taking the medium anywhere as far as I’m concerned.
But is Bob’s intention, with those kind of songs, to get people to follow him?
They’re never gonna follow you. Did they ever? If they’d ever followed him, I mean, there wouldn’t have been a war. They’ll follow you to the record store. They’ll follow you to the concert hall. And they might have a great time, but very few retain a sense of “following,” as far as taking the lyrics … but you can inspire them. You can inspire them to think for themselves, which is the greatest thing you can do for them. You can inspire them; you don’t want them to follow you.
Campbell: Even the Jesus songs, they’re not pro-Jesus. They’re just sort of calling attention to it.
Petty: You have to ask Bob those questions, because I don’t really know how to interpret that. But I respect it. And I don’t think he’s ramming anything down anybody’s throat. And he certainly offered a wide variety of his material tonight. Bob’s done 35 albums; if he played one song from each of his albums, that’s the show.