Tom Petty Wanted to Make Every New Album an Evolution

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Photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

When I was in my late teens, there were records I played a lot. The Gun Club’s Fire of Love was one. X’s Wild Gift was another. A Boston band called the Lyres gave me some of my favorite things to spin back when things were spun. But Tom Petty’s records were there before the others and remained after they were gone. He was the link between the early rock and roll we loved — Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard — and the musical future we hoped to call our own. I’m not sure there was another artist who so successfully migrated new approaches to record-making into his own process without losing his identity as an artist. The guy I first discovered when I heard “Breakdown” on WBCN in Boston was the guy I recognized in “Forgotten Man,” from the Heartbreakers’ last recording. “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin’,” “Wildflowers”: three pretty different products, yet decidedly the work of one artist. Petty’s identity was strong, strong enough to be shaped and reshaped without trading in the parts of himself that were defining.

In writing Petty’s biography, I was dealing with an artist who lived his life album to album. He was a song hunter, always looking for the material that would give his next album lift off. He was never just looking out the window; he was always looking out there for something. He had a keen sense of responsibility, an almost ethical vision of what a record-maker needed to be doing at all times. He was driven, but with a purpose. As the excerpt below discusses, by the time of Long After Dark and Southern Accents, this need to make every album an evolution was a burden he felt, which led to some of his significant artistic breakthroughs.

Excerpt from ‘Petty’

“The touring is so seductive,” Tom Petty says. “Rock-and-roll musicians get something movie actors don’t, that instant feedback from the audience. The Heartbreakers absorbed a lot of that at a young age, in very large doses, when other people were out dealing with the DMV and the teacher conferences. You’re a visiting prince. That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that people get used to it.” When the Heartbreakers were in the studio making records, no one was clapping and no T-shirts were sold. Since 1976, the release schedule hadn’t allowed a moment to look up, to look around, and it was beginning to feel like emotional whiplash going between the tours and the recording studios.

Making records meant more to Petty than anything or, possibly, anyone. He was always readying himself for whatever studio time had been booked. The next record kept him awake at night, watched him from across the street when he tried to take a day off. But he knew that the next record wasn’t going to happen if his band wasn’t at his side, ready to push ahead to the next place they needed to go. Petty was a student of the Beatles, which meant he believed that every album needed to be different from the last. They didn’t make Rubber Soul twice.

“I think it was Paul Simon who said it,” says Bill Flanagan, reflecting on Petty’s situation. “Around the time when Simon and Garfunkel broke up, he said something like, ‘When you get in a position where you’re in control of everything in your life, like, that tree that’s blocking your view? Have someone move it. You want to go skiing out West instead of that trip to the Caribbean? Reschedule the private jet. And then you go into a recording studio, to do that thing you are the master of, that thing that brought you the control of everything else in your life, and you’ve got some guy sitting there going, “No, man, I don’t like it. Let’s do something else.” It’s really hard to handle.’ And I imagine he’s right. Everybody in the world is kissing your ass, and then you go back to the thing that made them kiss your ass—making music, writing songs—and some guy, just because you’ve known him since high school, is allowed to say, ‘No, it stinks.’ That could create some problems.”

Making Long After Dark was a matter of Petty wanting to avoid trouble that might come from the guys he’d known since high school, while recognizing that he’d been in that situation for years. He couldn’t have what he thought of as a real band and not find himself there. But the fatigue of that and the fatigue of the album cycle itself were both weighing on Petty. The Heartbreakers, too, were struggling with the relentlessness and its cumulative effects. “I think I was lucky,” Petty says, “that I was raising a family at that age, because it kept me grounded in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise. I was gone so much, but I made sure I was there when we were off the road. I was home working. I wasn’t on the town a lot. I could sit down, put the blinders on, and make sure the songs were going to do the job. You’re not always going to have a song fall in your lap. You have to go after them.” By that time, Petty and his family had built their home in Encino, a five-bedroom marker of success. “I poured my heart into that place,” he says. “It was special.” But he still came home from the road, grabbed the Gibson Dove, and went to work. If a song was circling in the San Fernando Valley air, there was a man ready to pull it down. “When I heard Long After Dark,” Flanagan continues, “I thought it was tremendous. There are great songs on there. I really thought it might be his best. ‘Straight into Darkness’ hit me very powerfully. But looking back, knowing what we know about all that would come, it feels too much like they’re at risk of repeating the formula. They’re going to loosen up. But it happens after that album.”

Petty spent good parts of the Long After Dark tour looking out the windows of his bus, particularly during the southern swing. He was seeing places, people, and images that triggered thoughts of his southern upbringing. More depressed than other regions, the South couldn’t have moved on if it wanted to. The past was right there, in the rotting barns and peeling billboards. Apart from truck stops and strip malls, it looked to him like the South couldn’t afford to be the future, so it remained the past. And it was his past. Backward, beautiful, fucked up, often forgotten, sometimes violent. People who knew music seemed to be aware that most American song traditions came from down there, but they often didn’t know much more about the South than that. It was a place with an incomprehensible character, America’s dirty secret. Somewhere between Walker Evans’s photography and The Dukes of Hazzard, in the trailer parks Petty saw out the bus window, there was a place that he recognized as having a heartbeat of its own. He thought of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, a meditation on the South that is as much a book of short stories as it is a song cycle. Petty wondered how far he could go in Newman’s direction himself before losing his audience. That, he figured, was just about how far he needed to go.

From PETTY: The Biography by Warren Zanes. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Tom Petty Wanted to Make Every New Album an Evolution