- 23 Oct 17
Music recently lost another iconic rock and roll figure with the sad passing of Tom Petty. As well as being one of the great American songwriters, Petty’s extraordinary life and times also encompassed record company wrangles, divorce, drug problems, a mid-career slump and an eventual triumphant resurgence. Tribute: Pat Carty
In a recent Guardian article, Michael Hann argued that celebrity deaths affect us so, because the generations since the ’50s have really been co-parented by popular culture. Thus, when someone in the rock pantheon dies, we are reminded of the death of an actual parent, or shockingly prepared for one. I’m more inclined to think that the death of someone like Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, and now Tom Petty, cuts so deeply because no art form touches us in the same way that music does. Indeed, there have been scant few artists who could transfigure R&B, pop, country and poetry into pure joy like Petty. And he had The Heartbreakers, America’s greatest rock and roll band outside of E-Street.
Petty was true believer from early on. His uncle took him to the set of an Elvis movie, and the thunderstruck 10-year-old immediately traded his Wham-O slingshot for a stack of 45s. The Beatles arrived when he was 13, and his path was set. Once time was served in school bands, he formed the fabulously named Mudcrutch. While auditioning a drummer, he found guitarist Mike Campbell in a back room, who was attracted to the songwriting; Petty already had future hits like ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ on the boil.
They added Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Petty would marvel all his life at his good fortune in finding these two virtuosi. He made the trip from his native Florida to LA to hawk a reel-to-reel tape around the record companies.
London Records bit, and sent him back home to get the band. Petty confidently persuaded Tench’s father, a circuit court judge, to allow his son to quit college to pursue the dream. As they got ready to return west, Denny Cordell, famed producer to The Moody Blues and Joe Cocker, got in touch. Hearing that they had yet to actually sign anything, he invited the band to drop into his studio in Tulsa. The band auditioned, and Cordell offered them a home on his Shelter record label. In time-honoured fashion, however, he really only wanted the singer.
Petty decided that, realistically, Mudcrutch were over – although he did cajole Campbell to stay on. Tench was devastated, but arranged a session to record his own songs with old friends Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, asking Petty and Campbell to help out. Petty, being no eejit, knew a good thing when he heard it, and persuaded them all to throw in behind him. He brought this band to his next session, Cordell nodded his approval, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were born.
Released in November ’76, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers remains one of the great debut albums, but nobody in America thought so at the time. Luckily, the music press in the UK identified them with the new wave just starting to break, so a European tour was a surprise success. Back at home; another year of hard work finally saw the record get the attention it deserved.
Songs like ‘Breakdown’ and ‘American Girl’ – so Byrdsian that Roger McGuinn once joked he couldn’t remember writing it – are probably blasting out on several US FM stations right now. 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It! carried on where the debut left off, and charted slightly higher. Among the higlights were ‘I Need To Know’ and ‘Listen To Her Heart’, the latter allegedly directed at Ike Turner for putting moves on Petty’s wife.
While the band were working on the third album with new producer Jimmy Iovine – who Petty was first alerted to due to his work on Patti Smith’s Easter – ABC Records was sold to MCA, along with the rights to The Heartbreakers. Petty baulked at this lack of control, and went to war, eventually declaring himself bankrupt to get out of his contract. The band played the Lawsuit tour, sporting “Why MCA?” shirts, in order to pay legal bills, and smuggled tapes out of studios to escape the clutches of both the courts and execs. The record company finally gave in, realising Petty never would. They returned his publishing and formed a new label, Backstreet Records, just for the band. If The Clash had stood up to the man like this, and won, we’d have never heard the end of it.
Damn The Torpedoes proved a huge hit. With songs like ‘Refugee’, ‘Here Comes My Girl’ and ‘Even The Losers’, it remains the band’s high watermark. The follow up, Hard Promises, opened with ‘The Waiting’, another smash, and sparked the love affair between the band and Stevie Nicks, who sings on ‘Insider’. ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’, a Petty/Campbell co-write from her Bella Donna album, would remain their biggest hit for years. Nicks often claimed she would have gladly left Fleetwood Mac to join The Heartbreakers, if they had only deigned to ask.
When it was proposed that Hard Promises would use what was called ‘superstar pricing’, already successful with Steely Dan’s Gaucho, to gouge an extra dollar out of the fans, Petty took another successful stand. He delayed the record and threatened to call it $8.98, the then standard price. A few years later, he was back before the courts, successfully fighting a car company who imitated his voice and style after Petty had refused their offers. “I hate to be fucked around,” he would later tell Liam Fay in this very magazine.
Long After Dark, with new bassist Howie Epstein replacing the exhausted Ron Blair, followed quickly in 1982. Petty has described it as treading water, but songs like ‘Straight Into Darkness’ argue otherwise. The western/sci-fi nonsense concocted for the ‘You Got Lucky’ clip was also a huge hit on the then-nascent MTV.
After a break, Petty worked on a loose concept record about the South he grew up in. Cocaine was causing problems, as it tends to do, and, in frustration, the singer smashed his hand into a wall, requiring a lot of specialist treatment. This lunacy served to wake him up. He called Iovine back in, who brought Eurythmic Dave Stewart with him. One presumes that Stewart is currently living on some tropical island with no extradition, so he can’t be banged-up for his musical crimes.
Nonetheless, the Petty/Stewart co-write ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ – originally intended for Stevie Nicks – was a deserved success. The heavily rotated video cast Petty as a Mad Hatter who swallows Alice whole, but we probably shouldn’t read too much into that. The duo’s other co-write, ‘Dogs On The Run’, wasn’t half-bad either. The finished album, Southern Accents, followed in March ’85, the title track’s lyric serving as Petty’s manifesto: “I got my own way of livin’/But everything gets done with a southern accent/Where I come from”.
Touring with Bob Dylan through 1986, as both opening act and backing band on the True Confessions tour, was a good fit. The Australian jaunt was extended to the US, rejuvenating the band, according to Campbell. The Hard To Handle concert film from the period, available on YouTube, deserves wider recognition as one of Dylan’s more successful live recordings. ‘Jammin’ Me’, the best song on the following year’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), was a resultant Dylan co-write, but neither it, or the Stonesy title track, could save a lacklustre record.
During the Dylan tour, Petty’s Californian house burnt to the ground, taking everything he owned with it. That it proved to be arson made matters worse, but rather than wallow in doubt and fear, he took his family on the road, for a triumphant world tour that he would look back on fondly as a sort of rebirth.
Petty was already a pal of Jeff Lynne’s, and helped out with ‘You Got It’ for Roy Orbison’s brilliant comeback album, Mystery Girl, which Lynne was producing. At the same time, George Harrison needed a b-side for his new single, so roped in his mates to help out at the only studio available, Bob Dylan’s house. ‘Handle With Care’ was obviously too good to languish on a b-side, so the idea for an album was born. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 sounds like what it is – five superstars arsing around, having the craic – and is all the better for it. There’s a follow-up record, 1990’s Vol. 3, but it’s probably best left to the completists.
Lynne and Petty had already been putting a few songs together before the Wilburys, and the resultant Full Moon Fever became the singer’s greatest commercial success. Despite utterly baffling reluctance on the part of Petty’s record company to initially release it, the album arrived in 1989. The idea of this solo record didn’t sit well with some Heartbreakers, drummer Stan Lynch in particular, but Mike Campbell was all over it, co-producing it in his own garage. One might argue that Lynne’s influence watered down Petty’s trademark roots rock sound, but there’s no denying the genius of songs like ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and, especially, ‘Free Fallin’’ – most likely the ones Petty will be remembered for.
Released in ’91, Into The Great Wide Open – basically The Heartbreakers re-doing Full Moon Fever – was another commercial success, with instant classics like ‘Learning To Fly’ and ‘Too Good To Be True’. However, it generated more unease with Tench and Lynch. ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, an unfinished Full Moon Fever-era tune recorded to fill out their Greatest Hits, would be Lynch’s last stand with the band, after one too many personal clashes with Petty. A parting gift to MCA, Greatest Hits was a wild success, eventually shifting north of 12 million copies. Chances are if it’s not in your car, it’s in the one next to you.
The brilliant solo Wildflowers (1994), was followed by the band’s underrated soundtrack to the 1996 movie She’s The One. The same year, the group backed Johnny Cash on his Grammy-winning Unchained record, which had the marvellous working title of Petty Cash. 1999’s divorce-documenting Echo – their last record with producer Rick Rubin, and Howie Epstein, who would succumb to a heroin overdose in 2003 – contained some of their finest songs, including ‘Free Girl Now’, ‘Swingin’’ and ‘Billy The Kid’. Released in 2002, The Last DJ was a lament for a changing music industry. The record was less than vintage, and it would be eight years before another Heartbreakers record.
In the meantime, Petty released his final solo album, the good-in-places Highway Companion, working again with Jeff Lynne, and reformed Mudcrutch for their very-good-actually, long delayed, eponymous debut album. Like the Wilburys, there’s a second Mudcrutch record out there that’s best ignored. In 2007, Petty was also the subject of superb four-hour retrospective documentary by the legendary Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich, titled Runnin’ Down A Dream.
The same year, the singer appeared on the deluxe DVD reissue of the classic ’90s comedy The Larry Sanders Show. Extras on the boxset included a fascinating conversation between the series’ creator, Garry Shandling, and Petty, who made a memorable cameo on the show.
Remarkably, and sadly, Shandling and Petty would both pass away within 18 months of each other – both from heart problems aged 66, and both well before their time. The Heartbreakers eventually returned with 2010’s Mojo, which houses perhaps their last great song, ‘I Should Have Known It’ – Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ taken outside for a good kicking. Their final album, Hypnotic Eye, arrived in 2014 and it too has its moments, such as ‘U Get Me High’, and ‘Red River’. Proving Petty’s enduring popularity, the album topped the charts in the States.
Years ago, I travelled through Tennessee and Mississippi in the company of my friend and personal philosopher, The Coff (“Everything is better when you’re getting the ride”). It seemed, as we drove around the South having a high old time, that every third song on the radio was Tom Petty – and why wouldn’t it be? The history of American rock and roll is forever intertwined with that of the automobile, and Petty’s music is alive with the joy of this awareness, just as Chuck Berry’s had been before it. His songs are also deceptively simple. Elvis Costello once said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that writing complicated music is easy; it’s the simple, catchy stuff that’s hard. It never was to Petty – and that’s why his best music will outlive us all.
Eleanor McEvoy pays tribute to Tom Petty
"Initially, I wasn’t that into the Heartbreakers – it was Tom Petty’s solo stuff and the Travelling Wilburys that hit home. But when the Heartbreakers reformed, I really got into him. His songwriting is amazing, in particular the economy of his lyrics. ‘Learning To Fly’ is a classic example. When I was signed to Geffen, he had been on the label in LA too. So obviously people knew him – and he referenced so much about record companies on ‘Into The Great Wide Open’.
"I could identify with all of that shite: “He got an agent and a roadie named Bart/ They made a record and it wet in the charts”. I saw a lot of characters in the industry from that song. I actually got into the Wilburys because I was a fan of George Harrison. What struck me about the band were these really diverse identities, and how they could gel into this collective. Dylan and Orbison? Come on, blending that takes skill. So often with distinctive singers, you find they do terrible backing vocals. Often it’s better to use blander voices. I had that difficulty with Only A Woman’s Heart and the live shows at the Olympia; trying to blend talents like Sharon Shannon, Gemma Hayes, Wallis Bird and Mary Coughlan, with me in the middle. I was writing those songs with the Travelling Wilburys in mind.
"Probably Full Moon Fever is my favourite. It was just a moment in my life where I really identified with everything on there. It’s emotional rather than intellectual. Into The Great Wide Open is great too; it’s just that whole picture of the record industry. When it was going horribly wrong for me, I feel like he got it so so right. I tend to rip songs apart and look for every kind of trademark. There are a couple of techniques he used on ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ that I admire. “He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo/ He met a girl out there with a tattoo too”. When he wrote songs, he was asking how many words can I take out and still preserve the meaning? He does that so well.
“I’m learnin’ to fly/ But I ain’t got no wings/Comin’ down is the hardest thing” – he says it in almost a couple of words each line. He put a lot of work into songwriting. Treated it like fishing. He used to describe it it that way. It’s like how Benny and Bjorn from Abba compared the process to sitting in a cave and waiting to catch a bear. Even if you don’t catch it every day, you have to show up.
"I have to say, I’m real sad that I never got to see him live. It’s the same feeling that I got with Leonard Cohen when he died."
Gavin Glass speaks about his love for the late star
I got into him when I was 11 or 12 – Full Moon Fever had just come out and my older sister had the record. We loved it and I started playing guitar after; the songs were just easy to play. He was always known for these intricate arrangements, but at the same time, he straightened them out beautifully too. Then I went back to Southern Accents, but kinda fell out of love with him for a while. It was only when I got older that I fell back in love with him, and that was because of Full Moon Fever.
On the production side, Full Moon felt too clean; it wasn’t a Heartbreakers record. I always loved how simple his set up was. Two guitars, a B3 organ, one bass and drums – you can see why he was embraced by new wave, but he also really borrowed so much from The Byrds. It was always quintessential rock and roll. Even when rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t cool, Tom Petty was. There was nobody like him. His voice was uniquely his own, but he always paid the debts he owed too. Literally, I mean when Roger McGuinn was in trouble with the IRS, Petty bailed him out. It always was meat and potatoes rock and roll with incredible musicianship.
I never saw him live. The last time he was over, I missed it because I was on tour. It’s one of my biggest regrets. It’s weird though, the night before he died me and Mundy were playing his songs in the set. People always compare me to him – Hot Press always fucking compare me to him in reviews! I never felt it was right, but I guess it’s up to them. As for the Travelling Wilburys, I love that record and I kinda love ELO, but Jeff Lynne is so squeaky clean with Wilburys. I’m a huge Orbison and Harrison fan, and on Petty’s own tracks like ‘Learning To Fly’ you can hear that sheen. But to be honest, I was never really drawn to that side of him. It has to be anything off Echo or his stuff with Rick Rubin when it’s greasy – that’s what gets me.
Many of his songs are unabashedly rock and roll. He knew they were a bar band from Florida who could really fucking play. I know people who worked with him and they say on the Heartbreakers that they’re all still teens, a gang who think rock and roll could change the world. He believed that until the day he died. When you think of ho he was fucked over by the industry, with all of the burning down of studios and losing recordings… but no matter what, he never stopped touring.