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MALIBU, Calif. — While getting his 14th studio album off the ground, Tom Petty happily discovered he was past the point of learning to fly.
“All the craft I’ve picked up and all the life experience I’ve had rolled into a place where making records is easier,” he says. “If I get an idea, I know how to put it down. When I was a kid, that was the struggle. Now I can do what rolls through my head without a lot of effort. It validates the idea of being in rock ‘n’ roll when you’re 55. I feel, what’s the word?”
He frowns, then brightens.
“Relevant!” he says, erupting into laughter.
“I feel like there’s a reason to buy another Tom Petty record. Once you’ve put out 10 or 12, is there a reason to make more? In any job, you eventually ask yourself, ‘What’s the point?’ I feel I still have something to say and something to contribute.”
He’s relieved and surprised to find himself in this spot 30 years after he and The Heartbreakers released their debut album.
Since then, the band has sold more than 50 million albums globally while cementing a reputation as inventive rock traditionalists with unyielding integrity and commitment.
Despite nursing a toothache, Petty is unusually buoyant as he discusses his third solo disc, Highway Companion, out today. First single Saving Grace is No. 1 on triple-A and classic rock radio charts. In this digital age of one-track buys, he has built another carefully sequenced song cycle, a sparse but textured soundscape slashed by Mike Campbell’s sterling slide guitar and overlaid by Petty’s tales of searching, escaping and yearning.
“These characters are all on the move, leaving home, going home, wondering where home is,” Petty says. “It’s not a real loud record or an all-out rock fest. It’s quieter but not mellow. I wanted to make this for a long time. It’s not a record I could have made in the ’70s. I wasn’t seasoned enough.”
Ensconced in a dressing room at the Malibu Performing Arts Center, Petty fetches a bottled Coke after stubbing out a Camel. A few creases betray his years, but his look has altered little over the decades: wispy blond hair, faded jeans, scarf and loafers, a sly grin.
He’s proud of Highway, a close-knit collaboration with co-producers Jeff Lynne and Campbell, the only other players on the album. Petty revised his writing habits, approaching melodies only after painstakingly finishing lyrics and completing songs before entering the studio. He played guitar, bass, harmonica, keyboards, even drums.
“We were like young kids,” Petty says. “We never hit any bumps. Wildflowers (1994) was good, but it was a lot of trial and error. A lot got thrown away. This didn’t seem like work.”
His joy today sharply contrasts the pressures that clouded recent projects. The Last DJ, 2002’s concept album that took aim at music industry greed, drew heat from all corners of the business.
“Yeah, I got beaten up pretty good and halfway expected to be,” Petty says. “At that point in my life, I had gotten so upset about all that stuff, and I had a lot to say. It was a relief to have it out of my head. I knew it wasn’t going to be popular at the record company, but I think it will stand the test of time.”
He’s less enamored with 1999’s Echo, which opens with the grim Room at the Top, “one of the most depressing songs in rock history,” Petty says, grinning.
“If anything will make you want to kill yourself …”
He trails off, then adds glumly, “I was in a rough place when I did that record.”
Depleted by divorce and other personal blows, Petty opted for a hermitic existence in a ramshackle Los Angeles hideaway.
“I had some long periods of severe depression,” he says. “I took some hard knocks and retreated from the world and lived in this little cabin. I didn’t see a lot of people. I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t want to lay that on everybody.
“Even when I was in public, I didn’t want to be there, and that’s a terrible feeling. It took me a while to want to come back.”
Petty, who says he maintains very few close friendships, also was crushed by the deaths of best buddy George Harrison in 2001 and Howie Epstein, who overdosed on heroin in 2003 shortly after being fired from The Heartbreakers.
Petty’s saving grace was Dana York, whom he married in 2001.
“She saved me from going down the tubes,” he says. “She got me to a good place where I did want to rejoin society and keep going. I’ve got a great girl, and she’s strong. It took a strong person to deal with me at that point.
“It got pretty dire. I had a lot of repair work to do with my family and children. I had to grow up in a lot of ways. If you do this all your life, you don’t have a normal experience. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle does not encourage you to be responsible. I’m still sorting it out, but I’m on better ground.”
Little can deflate Petty’s mood these days. He’s blasé on the talk about unmistakable similarities between his 1993 rocker Mary Jane’s Last Dance and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ current Dani California. It’s not grand theft, he says. Possibly Petty larceny?
“I don’t know if they stole it or not,” he says. “It’s their cross to bear, not mine. That one does sound particularly close in meter and chord and even subject matter. I think it’s odd that Rick Rubin produced both records and never noticed it when my gardener did. I won’t sue, but I wouldn’t mind if they cut me in for a piece.”
He laughs and adds, “I sometimes hear my stuff in other songs, and I don’t get that upset because I do the same thing. You don’t set out to steal something, but there are only so many notes and chords.”
It’s little surprise that artists deliberately or subliminally lift from Petty’s hit-heavy catalog, says Paul Zollo, author of Conversations with Tom Petty, the first exhaustive overview of the rocker’s career.
“He’s had so many powerful hits, but he’s never contrived hits to get on charts,” Zollo says. “His songs are about solid songwriting, craftsmanship, inventive lyrics and tremendous musicianship. It’s never about trends and fitting into one time. He had an authentic rock ‘n’ roll dream and realized it without getting derailed in a way so many musicians were.
“More significantly, he had a burst of greatness in his 20s, but unlike so many others, he continued to create music with substance and meaning, and sustained that quality over decades. He’s certainly in the pantheon.”
A reluctant elder statesman, Petty claims to have little understanding of the industry’s modern machinery and doubts he’d survive the rigorous media drills imposed on newbies.
Band websites may be cool, but music on the Internet is “so vast and unfocused,” he says. “It’s impossible to keep up. I miss the idea of record stores.”
He’s encouraged that music lovers are digging up the past for inspired sounds, but he believes the beloved rock ‘n’ roll that set fire to his youth has gone the way of jazz and blues and is no longer a driving force in pop music.
As a kid in the ’60s, he reveled in ’50s rock. He still looks back, marinating in “the beautiful purity” of Chess label blues and rooting out even older fare he may have overlooked.
Likewise, he’s a Turner Classic Movies junkie, favoring Howard Hawks and John Ford and sophisticated ’40s films.
But that’s a luxury his music obsession rarely accommodates. His wife leans on him to slow down, and he might curtail touring duties — to make more records.
“There’s rumor that I’m not going to tour anymore,” he says. “I don’t think that’s true, but I’d like to take a long break. I have recording projects I want to do, and that’s going to last longer than the shows. I love playing, but it eats up so much of your life.
“I’m really conscious of wasting time. It’s funny when you realize there are time limits. I’m impatient now with anything that gets in the way of what I want to do. I want to get everything down. Why would I want to do anything else? Rock ‘n’ roll is such a good job.”
Current Tom Petty Tour Dates
Tom Petty Tickets September 14 – Chicago IL – Charter One Pavilion – Northerly Island
Tom Petty Tickets September 15 – Chicago IL – Charter One Pavilion – Northerly Island
Tom Petty Tickets September 21 – Gainesville FL – Stephen C. O’Connell Center
Tom Petty Tickets September 22 – Atlanta GA – HiFi Buys Amphitheatre
Tom Petty Tickets September 26 – Los Angeles CA – Hollywood Bowl
Tom Petty Tickets September 27 – Chula Vista CA – Coors Amphitheatre-CA
Tom Petty Tickets September 29 – Berkeley CA – Greek Theatre-Berkeley
Tom Petty Tickets September 30 – Berkeley CA – Greek Theatre-Berkeley
By Edna Gundersen, USA Today
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