Thomas Earl Petty was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, a small town that thinks it’s Something Big because, for 50 miles east and west, there’s no culture, no big downtowns, no nothing; just pine forests and peanut farms, cattle ranches and cabbage patches. It’s smack in the middle of the skinny peninsula; pass through tiny, Andy Griffith–type cities with quaint names like Melrose, Newberry and Keystone Heights, and after 50 miles each way you hit water.
What separates Gainesville from its neighbors is the University Of Florida. The hallowed home of the Fightin’ Florida Gators is sprawled across half of Gainesville, and every year, when school is in session, the population swells by 30,000 people. In the summer when the college is relatively empty, Gainesville looks like everywhere else in northern Florida.
Other times of the year, though, the place is packed. What with all the students running loose, spending Daddy’s money, it was inevitable that Gainesville–of all the redneck bergs in the area–would be the place to get shopping centers and car dealerships, nightclubs, network TV affiliates and rock ‘n’ roll radio. Subsequently, it became the cultural hub for all of its satellites, the place where things happened.
If you lived there, however, and you wanted to try for the brass ring, Gainesville was as dead as they came.
“One thing I’ve noticed from traveling, whatever town you’re in, somebody will say, ‘There’s nothing going on here,'” Petty says. “Whoever you ask, they say, ‘this place is dead.’ So we always wonder where it isn’t dead.
“I’ve never had anything against Gainesville,” he adds. “I just wanted to make records. The other thing was, we were young and we wanted to do things, to make records and be on TV. And play places other than we’d played a dozen times. Or more.”
From an early age, Petty was sure that rock ‘n’ roll was going to be his ticket out. Ambitious, single–minded and stubborn as a gator on a sandbank, the tow–headed son of an insurance salesman literally never thought of anything else.
In the ’60’s, when rock ‘n’ roll came to town, many young Gainesville boys who would otherwise have wound up driving a truck or a tractor took up guitars–and those that could play them found plenty of work, gigging for fraternity parties or for the endless stream of students that frequented local bars.
Petty was in junior high school when he saw his inevitable future. It came via a chance encounter with Elvis Presley.
The King was in Ocala, 30 miles south of Gainesville, in the summer of 1961, shooting a scene from the film that would eventually be titled Follow That Dream. Petty’s uncle, who ran Gainesville’s camera–supply store, was assistant prop man for the movie shoot. He invited Tom’s mother–his sister–in–law–to bring Tom and his little brother down to watch Elvis work (they were present during filming of the “Elvis looks for a parking place” sequence).
Petty was deeply affected at the sight of Presley, in his white karate robes, breaking boards on the lawn outside his trailer. Behind the ropes, girls were squealing and sobbing Elvis’ name.
That quickly, Tom Petty knew he was finished with Midget League baseball and cowboys and Indians. He was 10 years old.
He traded a slingshot to a friend for a stack of Elvis singles (the friend had inherited the records from his college–bound older sister). He played them night and day, learning every word, and soon persuaded his father to buy him a cheap electric guitar. He taught himself to play a few chords.
The first Tom Petty band, the Sundowners, featured Petty on bass and guitar, with three of his friends from school on guitars and drums. As soon as Petty heard his first Beatles record, the Sundowners were transformed into mop–topped, Beatle–booted hipsters.
The Sundowners became the Epics when Petty was in high school; by that time, he didn’t do anything but play music. All his friends were musicians.
His father, who’d left school to join the Air Force during World War II, saw what was happening to Tom and demanded he ease up on the music. He thought Tom, who had a gift for drawing, could be an architect. A good, solid trade, as opposed to the iffy promise of show business.
Tom graduated from Gainesville High School in 1968, then tried junior college for a year. He came back to his father with an ultimatum: Daddy, he said, if you’ll just leave me alone, I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.
The Epics were one of the top bands in Gainesville; a good portion of their music consisted of songs that Petty had written.
In 1970, the band changed its name to Mudcrutch. According to Tommy Leadon, the group’s lead guitarist, “I think we liked it because it just sounded sort of dirty and decrepit. We thought it was funny–sounding; I don’t think it really means anything. It just projected a certain image, and we liked that.”
Leadon’s older brother Bernie had left Gainesville for California in the mid–’60s; by the time Mudcrutch was ready to cut its first record, in mid–1971, Bernie had been in the Flying Burrito Brothers and would soon become a founding member of the Eagles. He and Tommy conferred long–distance on how to go about recording.
“Bernie told me exactly how to do the basic tracks, the overdubs, how to mike my acoustic guitar,” Tommy Leadon says. “We set up in this club we were playing in and spent whole afternoons rehearsing the instrumental tracks. When we went down to Criteria, we nailed the first song, ‘Up In Mississippi,’ on take one. The guy (producer Ron Albert) was really surprised! We wasted no time, and got both songs done in one day.”
Mudcrutch knew Criteria studios in Miami because some of their favorite records, like Layla, had been recorded there. Their single–”Up In Mississippi” and “Cause Is Understood,” both written by Petty–was financed by a bell pepper farmer from the little town of Bushnell, Florida, named Gerald Maddox.
Maddox’ son was a friend of Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh, and he’d convinced his father to use the proceeds from a good crop of peppers to bankroll the Mudcrutch session. When the single was delivered, 500 copies, it was on the Pepper label; Maddox was listed as Executive Producer.
Mudcrutch had changed guitar players the summer before. During Marsh’s audition, his roommate, a wiry, curly–haired kid from Jacksonville named Mike Campbell, sat in on guitar. Ostensibly, Leadon was the lead player, and Campbell was auditioning for the rhythm guitarist seat (Petty was playing bass almost exclusively).
Campbell dutifully learned all of Mudcrutch’s original material, playing along as Leadon and Petty called out the chord changes. But when he took a searing, note–perfect solo on a jam of “Johnny B. Goode,” they knew he was a born lead player, and a potential asset. Henceforth, Leadon and Campbell would alternate between rhythm and lead guitar.
In those post–Woodstock days, the four–piece Mudcrutch appeared at innumerable free concerts in Gainesville, often playing for nothing. “We’d get up on the stage wherever we thought there’d be a good crowd that would be receptive to us,” Leadon remembers. “And in doing that, we’d get a lot of other jobs out of it. And we built up the name.”
Early on, Mudcrutch made a conscious decision to play original material almost exclusively. It made getting work in bars difficult.
“We used to say, ‘Here’s one by Santana! And just play one we wrote,” Petty remembers. “We used to call out whoever was popular at the time. They don’t know; the club owners don’t know. People’d go, ‘Oh, I dig Santana,’ and they’d hit the dance floor.”
On several occasions, they played “host band” for a weekend–long festival, held at the isolated, ramshackle farmhouse Marsh and Campbell shared on the north edge of town (the whole band lived there off and on, surrounded by girlfriends, chums and hangers–on).
With people camping in the woods, doing God knows what through all hours of the night, Mudcrutch and the other top Gainesville bands would play, one after the other, their amps turned up to maximum. The house’s official tenants, Marsh and Campbell, were evicted after the third “Mudcrutch Farm Festival.”
The band’s steady gig was at Dub’s, the concrete bunker of a rock ‘n’ roll club that was just a mile up the road from the “farm.” Often Mudcrutch pulled a six–week stint at Dub’s; the only thing they disliked was playing for the topless go–go dancers. It made them feel sleazy and unappreciated.
Once or twice, they played a regular “sit–down” concert at the university’s venerable old auditorium. Lynyrd Skynyrd, visiting from Jacksonville, would open. And whenever Mudcrutch played Jacksonville, they opened for Skynyrd.
Leadon dropped out in 1972, replaced by singer/guitarist Danny Roberts. The band also added organist Benmont Tench.
Tench, the son of a Circuit Court Judge, had spent his high school years in New Orleans. Upon returning to his hometown, he started hanging around with Mudcrutch. Petty took an instant liking to the shy younger musician and his creative keyboard work. His organ and piano playing added a layer to his songs that he’d never dreamed of.
Petty was determined to get Mudcrutch out of Gainesville. Between road gigs, when they’d pile in a van and drive south to Tampa, or north into Georgia and Alabama for a few nights’ work, he and the others worked on their promo pack. They also cut a crude demo tape.
After an unproductive trip to Capricorn Records in Macon (“They weren’t interested because it didn’t sound like Marshal Tucker or whatever”), the band started sending tapes out. They received the usual number of rejections. Petty: “We were pretty different from what was going on at the time–extended guitar solos…it was, well, the ’70s. Say no more. It was the mid–’70s.
“And the stuff we were doing, if you hear those first (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) albums, was pretty crude. Snappy. I remember they used to say, ‘But all the songs are so short; they’re too short!’ They didn’t understand it.”
In 1974 Mudcrutch got two responses from record companies that liked what they heard on the tape. One came from London Records, which none of the guys in the band took too seriously because the label didn’t have any contemporary artists, other than ZZ Top. And London requested a tape of cover songs! They knew it was far from prestigious.
The other–and it interested them greatly–came from Denny Cordell of Shelter Records. Cordell, who’d managed and produced Joe Cocker in his Mad Dogs And Englishmen period, had co–founded Shelter with Leon Russell in 1970. Cordell also produced classics by Procol Harum, and all of Russell’s albums. Shelter’s offices were in Tulsa, where Russell lived, and its studios were in Los Angeles.
Cordell was intrigued by the band’s short, snappy songs, a far cry from the long and rambling “free–form” guitar bands that were coming a dime a dozen out of the south during the period. He saw a tough, determined little band, possessed with a drive to succeed on its own terms, with untapped potential.
Cordell invited Mudcrutch west, an invitation they leapt upon. New York, their other option, was too cold a place to be starving musicians. On the way to California, they stopped in Tulsa and auditioned. In L.A., they did a session at the studio. Largely on the strength of Petty’s songwriting, Mudcrutch was signed to the label.
In 1975, Shelter released its one and only Mudcrutch single, a sloppy, reggae–country number called “Depot Street” (Depot Avenue is a large thoroughfare in Gainesville), backed with “Wild Eyes.” Both were Petty originals. The single didn’t chart, but Cordell encouraged Mudcrutch to continue.
“We started an album, and we floundered a lot because we couldn’t get the sound we wanted,” Campbell recalls. “We kept writing new songs and throwing the old songs out. We’d think we had an album, listen to it for a while and say, nah, and throw half of it out.”
Meanwhile, Petty was playing more guitar and less bass, leaving the latter to Roberts, who wasn’t crazy about the idea. Campbell says they were simply “trying to find the best approach. Then after a year or more, Tom started writing some better songs.”
Their future in limbo, Mudcrutch fell apart. “There were personal things, and musically, we were very frustrated,” says Campbell, “especially the rhythm section.” We sort of became a burden to the label after a while, spending money in the studio on an album that wasn’t working.”
When the band members went their separate ways, Cordell retained the contract in order to keep Petty, who he realized was the one with the talent. He’d signed Petty to a publishing deal and meant to keep him in the fold. The question was, would there be a solo career, or another band? He had Petty cut some demos with studio musicians.
At this moment, Tench, who like the others had stayed in L.A., taking gigs with Top 40 bands to pay the rent, accepted a friend’s offer of some free studio time. It would be after hours, from midnight until dawn, but all Tench had to do was buy the tape.
One afternoon, he literally ran into Stan Lynch, an old pal from Gainesville, on the street. Lynch had been the drummer for Road Turkey, another popular band in the university city, and had subbed for Mudcrutch’s drummer many times. He had also come west to seek his fortune. But Road Turkey has split up even before they reached California; now Lynch was drumming for a metal band and working the day shift at Tower Records.
Tench recruited Lynch to the ad hoc group he was assembling for his studio session; Lynch asked along bassist Ron Blair, yet another Gainesville alumnus, and Blair in turn called his friend Jeff Jourard. Guitarist Jourard was in a band called RGF with Blair back in Gainesville; his older brother Marty happened to be the guitarist in Lynch’s Road Turkey.
Lastly, Tench called Mike Campbell, who wasn’t doing much of anything, and Campbell invited Petty. Tench thought Petty could play a little harmonica, maybe add some guitar.
What happened surprised them all. They quickly fell into a pattern of Petty songs, the sound largely that of Mudcrutch, but with Blair’s solid bass and Lynch’s punchy but restrained drumming giving it the power and drive it had always lacked. Petty was learning to sing with a wild, new looseness. They all had a great time. Petty called Cordell in Tulsa; he had found his band.
The year was 1976. Elton John was on top with his Captain Fantastic album, disco was starting to happen, and Denny Cordell, who’d inherited all of Shelter’s Los Angeles holdings when he and Russell had parted company, was masterminding a quirky little rock ‘n’ roll band from Florida.
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers was released in December 1976. Just under 30 minutes long, the album contains some of the cleverest and most concise rock songwriting of the era. Petty wrote most of it; on some tunes he added words to Campbell’s music (they work this same way today, writing a good half of the Heartbreakers’ material jointly).
“Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Strangered In The Night” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” were structured like early Beatles songs: punchy, hooky and to the point. They were performed, however, like the Rolling Stones: gritty, loud and snarling. It was honest rock ‘n’ roll, young with an attitude.
Cordell’s gift was taking Mudcrutch’s somewhat twangy, country–rock sound and condensing and compressing it into a tight little fist of sonic rock ‘n’ roll.
Still, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers owed much to Petty’s other major influences–the Byrds, with their chiming guitars and lush vocal harmonies, and Buffalo Springfield, with their taste of playfulness and experimentation.
Critics, for the most part, loved it, praising it as a shot in the arm during the dog days of disco. What most American DJ’s concentrated on, however, was the cover, a photo of a sneering Petty in a black leather jacket, a belt of bullets draped over his shoulder. The photo clearly said, punk, and at the time punk was little more than ugly stories coming out of England about the Sex Pistols swearing on TV, and people putting safety pins in their noses. The album didn’t get airplay.
(Jeff Journard played on early sessions for the album–he doubles Campbell’s signature lead on “Breakdown”–but he was dropped from the final lineup because Petty felt there were already too many guitar players. He and his brother Marty went on to form the Los Angeles band the Motels.)
The Heartbreakers took a long stint at Hollywood’s famous Whisky A–Go–Go; they weren’t making money, but they got to be one of L.A.’s most popular club bands, opening for the likes of Blondie, Al Kooper and Nils Lofgren.
It was during a British tour with Lofgren, in fact, that people started paying serious attention to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. By the end of the brief visit, the crowds were responding more warmly to the Heartbreakers than to the headliner.
The British knew the Heartbreakers meant business, that Petty wore his heart on his sleeve begrudgingly. He was an angry young American. “It was happening in England,” Petty says. “We’d been there and seen the punk thing come down. We’d already seen it before America got a look at it. So when we came back to Hollywood, all of a sudden we were playing the Whisky and there started to be a real club scene again. People started coming, and from there, it slowly built.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers earned a silver record in England, where “American Girl” was a major hit; back in L.A., the band was still an opening act, a club band with a growing legion of rabid local fans.
Roger McGuinn, who was being informed more and more often that some blond guy from L.A. was singing just like him, checked Petty out–and recorded “American Girl” for his album Thunderbryd. Petty and Campbell sent McGuinn a new song called “Magnolia,” but McGuinn “couldn’t get behind it” and it was never released.
In early 1977 Shelter recorded the band at Paul’s Mall in Boston, and released four of the live tracks on a 12–inch disc to radio. Official Live ‘Leg contains in–concert versions of “Luna” and “Fooled Again” from the first album, plus a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Jaguar And Thunderbird” and a nine–minute “jam” called “Dog On The Run.” In a shorter form, this song had been recorded in the studio, but was left off the album.
At the end of ’77, the Heartbreakers were well into recording their second Shelter album, provisionally titled Terminal Romance, when fate intervened.
Irving Azoff, who was then managing huge careers for the Eagles, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs and Jimmy Buffett, included “Breakdown” in the soundtrack to his movie FM. The film, a forerunner of WKRP In Cincinnati (but not as funny), barely made a ripple when it was released. Its soundtrack album, however, was a bonanza for programmers across the country.
There on the wax were Steely Dan, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt…and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Petty, as himself, appears in the film in a laconic cameo).
Within weeks of the movie’s release, the sinewy “Breakdown” was all over the FM airwaves. It didn’t matter that the LP it was taken from was over a year old, or that the band’s sophomore effort, now titled You’re Gonna Get It, was released almost simultaneously. Shelter re–released “Breakdown” as a single; it went to #39. The Heartbreakers were Top 40!
They went on tour, opening for Patti Smith, who was then all the rage with her Springsteen–penned “Because The Night.” More often than not, half the audience left after their set. It was destined to be their last tour as an opening act.
Petty got on well with Jimmy Iovine, the one–time engineer (John Lennon’s Mind Games, Springsteen’s Born To Run) who’d produced Smith’s breakthrough. Iovine, in turn, heard so much in the Heartbreakers–potential he didn’t feel was tapped on the Cordell albums–that he agreed to produce the third effort. It would not appear without a fight.
In 1978 Shelter’s distributor, ABC, was purchased by the conglomerate MCA. Petty, who was stinging from what he perceived as chintzy deals with Cordell, saw it as the perfect chance to get out of his Mudcrutch–era contract once and for all.
MCA knew the next album was going to be the one to put Petty over the top; Petty knew it too, and the prospect of making lousy money didn’t appeal to him at all. But the company wouldn’t renegotiate.
Balking at the prospect of being “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” Petty claimed, the contract was invalid because he hadn’t been consulted via the switch to MCA.
The company, in turn, hauled him into court for breach of contract, and the resulting legal wrangling took more than a year. The band was forbidden from performing live, and in May 1978 it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Immediately, MCA was legally stopped from further prosecution until the matter could be resolved. But Petty had no label to release his (still unfinished) record. It seemed a stalemate.
In the summer of ’79, Petty and Cordell settled their differences out of court, and MCA, as weary from the proceedings, as Petty, offered a compromise; a new subsidiary, Backstreet Records, on whose (small) artist roster Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be in top standing. There was also a sizeable increase in the terms of Petty’s recording contract and publishing royalties.
Recorded in stops and starts during the year of legal hassling, Damn The Torpedos was released in the fall of 1979. It was immediately hailed as a great work of rock ‘n’ roll, its themes of rebellion and overcoming adversity made more raw and more real by the tough year Petty had spent in the courts, fighting for what the believed was right. (Of course, the same theme–Petty as the underdog who will fight to his last breath–was all over the two Shelter albums, too.)
Iovine’s production–and the dynamic boardwork of engineer Shelley Yakus–turned the muddy mixidown of You’re Gonna Get It into a sonic wall of sound. The sound got bigger, more expansive; Lynch’s drums, Tench’s organ and Campbell’s guitar seemed to share the wide front of the mix with equal space. The album was clean and melodic like its predecessors, but burst forth from the speakers with a crackling energy they simply didn’t contain. It was as if the Heartbreakers were being released from an iron grip after being held still for too long.
On top of it all was Petty’s voice; thin and reedy, bursting with anger and impatience on “Refugee.” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Don’ Do Me Like That,” each in turn a hit single (the latter went to #10 on the Billboard chart, and remains the highest–charting Heartbreakers single to date).
Disco was fading at last, but the rock ‘n’ roll scene was dominated by “corporate” rock entities, faceless bands like Styx and Kansas, with sterile and synthetic sounds that tended to blend together. Damn The Torpedos, an all–out rock ‘n’ roll guitar album, with intelligent lyrics and ballsy production, couldn’t have come at a better time.
Damn The Torpedos stayed in the Top 10 throughout the first half of 1980–it was kept from the top slot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall–and in time became Petty’s first platinum album. The 1980 arena tour, with Tommy Tutone in the opening spot, was a phenomenal success. (Petty came down with tonsillitis early in the tour, and a few dates were shuffled.)
In September, the band appeared at the “No Nukes” concerts in New York. They’re included on the soundtrack album, performing Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me,” but they’re not in the film. It could have been an important career move but Petty getting sensitive about his public image, thought they’d played badly and insisted his footage be cut.
MCA got in Petty’s face again before the dust over Damn The Torpedos had even been settled. Announcing that all 1981–and–afterward “superstar product” would be list–priced at $9.98, a dollar more than was standard at the time, they told retailers the first release under the new price structure would be Tom Petty’s follow–up to Damn The Torpedos.
Petty, of course would have none of that. Proclaiming that he would not be held up as an example, he threatened to sit on the album indefinitely–or he might let them put it out, but call it Eight Ninety Eight. MCA, tired of duking it out with its temperamental star, gave in and released the album at the lower price.
For a while, the album was called Benmont’s Revenge; ultimately Petty titled it Hard Promises (on the cover, shot in a California record store, he stands next to a crate of albums under a sign reading $8.98).
The LP’s title came from “Insider,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that almost didn’t make it onto the sequence at all. Nicks, a great fan, had asked Petty for a song, and he’d giver her “Insider,” a taut, emotional ballad about fighting for what you think is right–the classic Petty theme. But “Insider” showed a vulnerability Petty hadn’t displayed before.
Nicks, in turn told Petty that he was obviously giving up something very personal and she couldn’t bear to take it from him.
A grateful Petty then gave her a rocker called “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and he sang it as a duet on Nicks’ Bella Donna album, with the Heartbreakers providing the music. It remains her biggest solo hit, topping out at #3 in August ’81. A year later he wrote and sang “I Will Run To You” on Nicks’ second album The Wild Heart. Tench completed a world tour as Nicks’ keyboard player.
Hard Promises went platinum soon after its release. It spawned two singles: the Byrdsian “The Waiting,” and the moody “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” which featured old friend Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass.
Ron Blair had been growing progressively more tired of the Heartbreakers’ non–stop touring schedule; halfway through the album he told Petty he would do one more tour, and that was that; he just “couldn’t get on the bus” again.
Dunn auditioned as a new heartbreaker bassist, along with a dozen more of L.A.’s finest players. But the one who got the nod was a virtual unknown, and a guy who had almost nothing in common with the Floridian Heartbreakers. He was Howie Epstein, a Jewish kid from Wisconsin who’d played in John Hiatt’s band, and on a bunch of sessions for some minor artists like Cindy Bullens. He was a fine singer and songwriter in his own right.
When he met Petty, Epstein was playing bass for Del Shannon. The year was 1981 and Petty, a longtime admirer, had agreed to produce Shannon’s comeback album, Drop Down And Get Me. The album stiffed, but the Heartbreakers came away with Howie Epstein.
Epstein’s first appearance with the band was on Sept. 1, 1982 at the Santa Cruz Auditorium. Four nights later, he played before 250,000 at the US Festival outside of San Bernardino.
The fifth Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Long After Dark, appeared in October. Thematically bleak and shadowy, it was far less buoyant than its predecessors, yet still contained several Petty classics: “Straight Into Darkness,” “Change Of Heart” and the moderate hit single (#20) “You Got Lucky.”
Petty and the Heartbreakers toured for nearly a year after the release of Long After Dark (the promo video for “Change Of Heart” was filmed live in West Germany). Epstein’s harmony vocals were giving their live sound an extra dimension. When the tour was over, Petty took a long break.
“I just hit a point at the end of that tour; although it was a very enjoyable tour, musically. I just was ready to stop,” he says. “I wanted to stop everything for a year and try to resume living again. Because it was dawning on me that it’s impossible to write about things if you’re not out there living a fairly normal life; if you’re in a plane, or a car, or a room for year on end, then things to write about leave you.”
Petty hung around his Encino home (affectionately known as “Fort Petty”), taking his daughters to school, trying to be domestic. He and Lynch went to England to Las Vegas, home to Gainesville for a weekend, just to do something other than play and sing. He got bored very fast.
Ultimately, he built a studio in his basement, and the Heartbreakers assembled there to begin working on a new album in mid–’84. Petty had written several songs with titles like “Rebels” and “Southern Accents,” that described growing up in the south, yet included that patented Petty ingredient–fighting the odds. In many of the songs, just being southern stacked the odds against you.
He decided the album would be a concept piece about the south; ultimately, the band recorded 30 songs for it. They did a dozen in straight country arrangements. The plan was to make it a double album.
Another track recorded in the basement at Fort Petty was Nick Lowe’s “Crackin’ Up.” Lowe and his band had opened some of the American Long After Dark shows.
During the period the Heartbreakers were recording the Southern Accents album, Petty met David A. Stewart, the eccentric writer and producer behind the Eurythmics. Together, they wrote three songs for the album, including “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and recorded them with the Heartbreakers in record time.
With its ringing sitar, stuttering drum machine and mock–psychedelic atmosphere, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a single,” Petty says. “It was made like, say, ‘Good Vibrations’ was a single. We wanted to make something that was very different, that was gonna come on the radio and sound real exciting and different.
“I never worked so intensely on the production of a record! I would’ve liked to just send it out as a single; eventually I did get it out about a month before the album.”
But “Don’t Come Around Here No More” hardly fit in with the all–southern theme. Likewise, “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” another Petty/Stewart number, owed more to Manhattan dance clubs than to the glorious confederacy of “Rebels.”
So the theme was rethought, and the album was scaled back to a single. One southern song, “Trailer,” was replaced at the last minute by “Mary’s New Car,” and Southern Accents was ready for a release in April 1985. (“Trailer” became the B–side of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”)
The Stewart songs “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me”) were dressed up with sprightly horn charts; Petty loved the idea of putting out a record that wasn’t all “12–string guitars and organ.”
Likewise, Robbie Robertson had taken a vintage ’80 track, “The Best Of Everything,” and given it a horn arrangement and a harmony vocal by Richard Manuel. Robertson and Petty had intended it for the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, but MCA had refused to lend the track to Warner Brothers, which was issuing the soundtrack.
“The Best Of Everything” was about a Dixie gal; she’d stayed down south while the narrator, her boyfriend hit the road. Petty loved Robertson’s arrangement because it seemed such a fitting coda to his album about leaving the south for bigger and better things. He saw “Rebels” and “The Best Of Everything” as bookends.
The sessions were not without their moments of conflict. Out of frustration, Petty smashed his left hand into a studio wall during the final sessions; so many bones were broken, a steel pin was surgically inserted into his hand to hold it together. His doctors doubted if he’d ever play guitar again.
Petty put the lie to that when the Heartbreakers hit the road in July for another extended trip. It was an elaborate show. The band was joined by a three–piece horn section and two female backup singers. The set was built like the front porch of an antebellum southern plantation home.
On one of the first dates, in Florida, old pal Roger McGuinn showed up to join the band for “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” The song, which had been in their set on an earlier tour, became a staple of all the ’85 shows.
They appeared at Live Aid in Philadelphia, the first act (at 5 p.m.) to perform after the emotional finale from London had ended.
Campbell, Tench and Epstein had contributed to Bob Dylan’s spring ’85 LP Empire Burlesque. In September Petty’s manager, Tony Dimitriades, was approached by partner Elliot Roberts with a thought about the impending Farm Aid concert. Dylan, Roberts’ client, didn’t have a steady band at the time; he’d done Live Aid acoustically (with Keith Richards and Ron Wood). Maybe a Petty and the Heartbreakers/Dylan matchup would be a cool thing.
All parties agreed, and after a few weeks of rehearsal the ensemble played Farm Aid, the Heartbreakers barreling through breakneck versions of “Straight Into Darkness” and Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” along with several songs behind Dylan, including “Maggie’s Farm” (they were all joined on that one by a befuddled–looking Willie Nelson).
The final concerts of the Southern Accents tour, at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, had been recorded and filmed. The film–which was scaled down from a potential theatrical release to a long–form home video–was a pretty straightforward souvenir of the concert. But the album–titled, like the film, Pack Up The Plantation (something the roadies did after each show) was something else again.
Petty pulled out live tracks from as far back as 1978 (the Animals tune “Don’t Bring Me Down”) and ’81 (a version of “Insider” with Nicks) and sequenced them alongside the selections from the Southern Accents tour.
Nicks was featured singing harmony on the Searchers’ “Needles And Pins” from the ’81 tour; Petty later confessed it had been the one and only time they’d performed the song. And original bassist Ron Blair was included on no less than five of the LP’s selections, alongside the Howie Epstein material.
MCA released a promo video for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” to MTV, but issued “Needles And Pins” as a single instead. It went nowhere. (Petty had lobbied for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” as a single–it was upon the album’s release, the #1 AOR track in the country–but MCA didn’t agree.
Petty and his bandmates were especially prolific in 1985. Petty and Campbell gave “Ways To Be Wicked” to the L.A. band Lone Justice; he and Tech wrote “Never Be You,” Roseanne Cash’s #1 country hit, and Lynch co–wrote “Drivin’ With Your Eyes Closed” with Don Henley. Tench recorded and toured with the Eurythmics.
Campbell made the biggest score of them all. He gave Don Henley and instrumental track that Petty had elected not to write words to; Henley turned it into “The Boys Of Summer,” and his recording, featuring Campbell’s melancholy guitar, became one of the year’s biggest hits.
At Christmas time the Heartbreakers backed Dylan on short tours of Japan and Australia (where the “Hard To Handle” video was shot), then brought the show to the States for a series of concerts. The Dylan/Heartbreakers concerts were three–hour marathons of re–worked Dylan chestnuts and a healthy dose of obscure material. The band played several short sets without Dylan, too.
While in Australia, Petty produced a Dylan/Heartbreakers single, “Band Of The Hand” (the theme for Miami Vice director Michael Mann’s feature film of the same name). It appears only on MCA’s Band Of The Hand soundtrack album.
In the spring of ’86, Petty’s friend Timothy Hutton badgered him into making a cameo appearance in director Alan Rudolph’s fantasy film Made In Heaven. Neil Young and Ric Ocasek, both handled by the same management firm as Petty, were also given small roles.
Petty starred as Stanky, a disreputable nightclub owner robbed at gunpoint by Hutton and Ellen Barkin. His onscreen time totaled about three minutes.
It was also during this period that Petty became acquainted with country star Hank Williams Jr. Along with Willie Nelson and Reba McIntyre, Petty took a verse on Williams’ cover version of Hank Sr.’s “Mind Your Own Business.” The record became a sizeable country hit later in the year.
Petty and Dylan wrote “Got My Mind Made Up,” for Dylan’s album Knocked Out Loaded, released in the summer of ’86. Petty recorded a version too, with slightly different lyrics.
After the first round of Dylan commitments, Tench, who’d gigged on Elvis Costello’s King Of America, joined Costello’s Confederates Band for a swing through Europe. He was back for a Heartbreakers session in no time, however.
In late 1986 and early ’87, Petty and the group ducked into the basement to record tracks for their seventh studio album, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).
Issued in spring 1987, the album was recorded in short bursts, and some of the songs–”The Damage You’ve Done,” “A Self–Made Man,” “How Many More Days”–were literally written as they were recorded, then embellished with overdubs later. Petty said they’d learned “the joy of throwin’ some chaos in” from Dylan.
“Jammin’ Me,” another song co–written by Dylan and Petty, was issued as the album’s lead–off single. It was then announced that Petty and the Heartbreakers would headline a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan” tour during the summer, sharing the bill with the Del Fuegos and the Georgia Satellites. Petty told the press the multi–bill reminded him of the rock ‘n’ roll tours he’d known as a teenager in Florida.
Other highlights on the album were “Think About Me,” a bouncy rocker in the manner of the old days. “It’ll All Work Out,” featuring Campbell on mandolin, and the dreamy synthesizer ballad “Runaway Trains.”
Only days before the tour was set to begin, someone set fire to the back porch of Petty’s Encino home. Petty, his wife and daughters, plus a housekeeper, barely made it out before the blaze engulfed the two–story structure. All the fire department could do was spray it with water and stand back.
In the end the house was a total loss. Petty’s basement studio–where many of his master tapes and unreleased material was stored–was ruined from smoke and water damage.
In a state of shock, Petty left on his road commitments. Before, he’d introduce a solo version of “The Waiting” with a story about how he’d fought his doctors when they said he’d never play guitar again; he’d beaten the odds. This time, he talked about the somebody who’d torched his house. “You didn’t get me,” he’d call out. The case remains unsolved to this day.
During the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan” tour, Petty heard a radio commercial for the B.F. Goodrich tire company that sounded suspiciously like his own recording of “Mary’s New Car.” The company had asked to license the song earlier in the year. Petty had refused, and now they were using a sound–alike song, and a sound–alike Petty! Furious, he threatened to sue B.F. Goodrich. The ad was quickly withdrawn. Once again, Petty had seen his artistic integrity on the line and had refused to back down.
Originally, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was going to be a double album. Petty was really hot for it this time. But the constant touring with Dylan made such a commitment to recording impossible.
The Dylan/Petty/Heartbreakers axis finished up ’87 with a swing through Egypt and the Mid–East (with Roger McGuinn as opening act) before moving on to Europe and finally England, where it played a multi–night stand at Wembley Stadium.
It was backstage at Wembley that Dylan introduced Petty to George Harrison, and he in turn introduced Jeff Lynne. The two Englishmen were coming off a great season with Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. Lynne was about to leave for America to produce a comeback LP for Roy Orbison.
A month or two later, just around Christmas, Petty was sitting in his red Corvette at a stoplight in Hollywood when he looked over in the next lane and saw Jeff Lynne waiting for the same light. It being the holidays, with no one in town, he was as bored as Petty. Shouting through their car windows, they made plans to get together.
Later, Petty showed Lynne a song he was working on, “Yer So Bad.” Lynne suggested a chord change, one that Petty hadn’t thought of, and together they finished the song. The next day they wrote, “Free Fallin’.”
Hot to record, they rushed over to the nearest studio–at Mike Campbell’s house–and proceeded to lay down the tracks. Phil Jones, who had been Stan Lynch’s drum roadie and Heartbreaker percussionist on a couple of tours, was brought in to play drums. Before they knew it, they were making a record.
“We’d done a couple, and I said to Mike, ‘Well, it ain’t the band, is it?'” Petty says. “He said no, it ain’t. I said, well, I don’t want to cut these again and try to bring the band in. I’m just gonna call everybody up and say, ‘I’m gonna make a solo record.’
“It was a period of time when I don’t think the Heartbreakers were planning to work anyway. So I’d say, ‘Come on Jeff, let’s do just one more.’ He’d say he had to go back, and I’d say, ‘Aw, one more…’ through the whole album, really. ‘You can do two more, can’t you?’ We wanted to get all we could drag out of Jeff really.
“It was really incredibly easy with Jeff there; he has this amazing knack for arrangement. He showed us tons of things that we’d never come across, and by the same token, I think he learned a bit from us. I think that’s why it was such a pleasurable experience, because it was all new guys hanging out together.”
By the spring, they had laid down nine tracks, including “You Got It,” co–written by Orbison and destined for his own album. Harrison played and sang on several of the tunes.
In April, Petty’s manager played the finished songs for Billboard magazine, announcing the imminent release of Songs From The Garage, the fist Tom Petty solo album. Some radio stations received an advance cassette of a song called “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”
Warner Brothers asked Harrison for an extra song to serve as the B–side of a European single. He started to polish up an unfinished tune, “Handle With Care.”
Together Harrison and Lynne found themselves in Petty’s living room, finishing off the song. They had a great time. Bitten by the recording bug, they drove to Dylan’s Malibu home–and the four of them tossed ideas around, finished up “Handle With Care,” and cut the rhythm track in Dylan’s home studio.
Somebody thought of Orbison, who was doing a concert in L.A. that night. He came over and his vocal provided the finishing touch that “Handle With Care” needed. Right then and there, both the Petty and Orbison albums were put on hold. Harrison nixed giving Warner Brothers “Handle With Care” as a B–side. He knew it was too good.
Without thinking about it too much, the fivesome–dubbed the Traveling Wilburys –became a working unit.
Together, acoustic guitars in hand, they wrote nearly 20 songs, each contributing lines. Whoever wrote usually sang, but there were exceptions. On the finished album, Traveling Wilburys Volume One, Petty sang lead on one track, “Last Night.”
“All the Wilburys songs, people want to think that we wrote them individually, but we didn’t,” Petty recalls. “I think Dylan wrote most of ‘Last Night.’ We sat on the floor, the five of us, and wrote, literally, all those songs.”
“It’s even hard for us to believe, really. When we stared that record–this is another thing people don’t really understand–we had been hanging around for quite a while, all of us except Roy. But Roy had been around the sessions for my album.
“The core band then was me, Mike, Jeff and Phil Jones. George was around a lot too. We’d say, oh, Randy Newman’s coming in today–let’s do one for Randy. So it wasn’t like it was just the whole bunch of us together for the first time.”
The Wilburys’ album is unassuming and fun; it’s as if all the participants took off their serious caps for a spell. “It was 10 days to write them, if you don’t count “Handle With Care,” which was done first. Then 10 days to write nine more. We did the basic tracks and went to England and worked for another month, I guess, finishing up.”
Petty says the Wilburys loved what they’d done from the outset. “We were like little kids, leaping on each other’s backs. We were just so thrilled. When you could finally put it up and hear it all going by, that’s when I started to think, hey, this is a pretty good album. We didn’t think about it much until then, because we were so busy. It was a frantic pace we were keeping.
“(But) we set out to make a great album. We didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t going to be real good. And we knew we’d get a bunch of shit if it wasn’t real good.”
Traveling Wilburys Volume One appeared in October, to ecstatic reviews. Many critics commented on how good it was to hear Dylan and Harrison enjoying themselves for a change. And Orbison, it was noted, was in better voice than ever. Two months later, Orbison died of a heart attack. “I’m just glad that I knew him,” Petty says. “I’m honored that I got to spend that much time with him, and work with him. I think the last conversation we had, a few days before he died, he was just over the moon. They’d just finished his album. Roy had a good idea, I believe that things were really about to go his way; we all wish he could’ve seen the great success he’s had ’cause boy, he would’ve loved that.”
Orbison’s Mystery Girl, with contributions from Petty, Lynne and Campbell returned to the studio and finished the solo album, now called Full Moon Fever. Petty thought Songs From The Garage might be construed as a throwaway title, denoting garage rock or just playing around, and that was definitely not the point.
Released in April 1989, Full Moon Fever was cleaner and more accessible than the recent Heartbreakers albums; Lynne’s gift as a producer seemed to know when to bring Petty’s reedy voice up to the front.
Four hit singles came from the album: “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and “A Face In The Crowd” made the Top 20, “Free Fallin'” went to #7 (Petty’s highest–charting single to date). A fifth single “Yer So Bad” was released a full year later after the album appeared, but did not chart.
Petty left two completed songs in the can: One, “Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger,” appeared on the British CD single of “I Won’t Back Down.” The other, “Down The Line,” was issued as the B–side to “Free Fallin'” in the United States.
Full Moon Fever turned into the Album That Wouldn’t Die. Eventually, it sold over four million copies and stayed in the Top 10 for the better part of a year. With the Heartbreakers, Petty toured the country twice in support of the album, in summer ’89 and again this winter.
During the first leg of the tour, Petty invited the radical environmentalist group Earth First along to distribute literature. As he approached his 40th birthday, he felt a growing concern over the sorry state of the planet. The dedication–in public and in private–to the environmental issue was carried over into 1990, and the second leg of the tour, on which the band returned to Gainesville for the first time in seven years.
In 1976 his onstage raps were usually “Let’s hear it for rock ‘n’ roll,” “Are you feelin’ alright?” and things of that nature. On this tour, he talked about saving the earth, every night, just before breaking into Thunderclap Newman’s 1970 song “Something In The Air.”
The Traveling Wilburys’ version of “Nobody’s Child” (an old country song by Mel Force and Cy Coben) was scheduled for release as Wilbury/Warner Bros single in mid summer. The song was supposed to be included on The Romanian Angel Appeal, a benefit LP (organized by Harrison’s wife Olivia) for the orphans of revolution–torn Romania.
The Wilburys reportedly were finishing up their second album, with no one replacing Orbison, in early June.
Mike Campbell is producing much of Springsteen paramour Patty Scialfa’s first solo disc; in ’89, he and Don Henley collaborated on “The Heart Of The Matter,” which became another hit for the one–time Eagle. Howie Epstein was behind the board for Carlene Carter’s forthcoming comeback LP.
Stan Lynch and Benmont Tench are in the studio with other artists; last year, Lynch co–wrote Henley’s solo hit “The Last Worthless Evening” and other tracks on Henley’s The End Of The Innocence album. Tench most recently appeared on Elvis Costello’s Spike and U2’s Rattle And Hum, among others.
Inevitably, they’ll all regroup as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and cut another record. They’re brothers; they’ve lived and breathed each other for nearly two decades. And to the member, they couldn’t name another band they’d rather play with. Each of the four Heartbreakers name Tom Petty, unequivocally, as their favorite songwriter.
In a career that’s spanned 14 professional years, Tom Petty stands out as an artist fiercely dedicated to his own freedom of expression; he saw what he wanted as a boy back in Gainesville, and he’s fought–and won–many a battle to make sure his dream happened the way he wanted it to.