superlatives

The Best, Worst, and Most Florida of the Heartbreakers, According to Mike Campbell

Our hair icon, second from left. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I can count on one hand the number of good things that have come out of Florida over the past century. Three of those are Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench, the core Heartbreakers members who formed the band out of Gainesville in 1976. Them and Disney World. End of list.

The Heartbreakers transcended to become America’s band. They crooned about life’s eternal battle to overcome adversity (“Learning to Fly”), women wanting more (“American Girl”), relationship woes (“Don’t Do Me Like That”), and small-town angst (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”), always bringing a moment of herby zen when needed most. But don’t let their jaunty tenderness fool you. They also rocked out, and they rocked out hard, so please listen to “Refugee” and “Breakdown” before the prosecution rests.

Next week, Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ lead guitarist, will release a new album, Wreckless Abandon, with his band the Dirty Knobs, following months of Campbell making cute quarantine music videos at home. He’s still optimistic that the band will be able to keep their summer and fall 2021 tour dates and is happy that Petty’s posthumous album, Wildflowers & All the Rest, was at least able to be released. In honor of getting back, somewhat, to business, Campbell spoke with Vulture about the the best and worst of the Heartbreakers — beyond Petty’s tragic 2017 death for the latter, of course. “The lowest point in the Heartbreakers career is when we lost Tom,” Campbell makes clear. “Nothing else is lower than that.”

Best Heartbreakers song

That’s really, really hard, but I’d have to go with “Refugee.” It’s so universal and it’s one of the first big hits we wrote together. I had a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and a record that had some drum beats on it. I played that on the machine and I made up some chords because I wanted to practice lead guitar, and those chords became “Refugee” as we know it. I gave the music to Tom and he wrote the words. It was a lucky moment for us.

Heartbreakers song you wish was never recorded

“Mary’s New Car.” [Laughs.] It was a total throwaway song.

Most misunderstood song

Oh, it’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Most songs tend to morph and grow when you go through life. Some people interpret it as a dance, and others interpret it as [about] marijuana. What’s funny is that when Tom wrote this song, when he first showed it to me, the chorus was, “Hey Indiana girl, go out and find the world.” It was a completely different chorus and we all hated it. A few days later Tom came in and sang, “Last dance for Mary Jane.” I love that it can be interpreted in many different ways by the listener.

Most requested song you’re sick of playing

That’s easy. “Free Fallin’.” It’s been played to death, but people love it to death. I most recently did it on the Fleetwood Mac tour every night to honor Tom, and, of course, I played it at pretty much every concert for 30 years. I love it, but I’m sick of playing it. I wish people would request something else, but I realize it’s a very popular song.

Song you wish became a bigger hit

There’s a song called “All or Nothin’” that was on [1991’s] Into the Great Wide Open. I wrote it with Tom. I hear it on the radio from time to time and always think that it should’ve gotten more attention. Great song, great music, great performance. I wrote the music and gave it to Tom, and it has one of my favorite guitar parts that slides all the way through the song. I did that first and Tom wrote the lyrics in the holes where I instinctively left for him to sing. He came up with the greatest lyrics [see: “Sweet chariots of L.A. swing low / At twilight time the smog makes a rainbow”] and, to me, it’s the perfect combination of inspired music and inspired words.

Solo Tom song you wish the Heartbreakers recorded together

It’s funny because I love and respect the solo songs so much, especially since the Heartbreakers contributed to a lot of them and played them on tour. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is such a great live song to perform with the Heartbreakers, so I’d have to go with that one.

Song that sounds most like Florida

“American Girl.” We were so young when we wrote that, and it was the first song where we found our sound: the harmonics in the instruments, the beats, the words, the youthful angst and excitement. We had just come from Florida out to Los Angeles and it comes across in that song beautifully. It’s who we are, it’s our Deep South roots. It’s the soul of the song.

Heartbreakers’ most surprising failure

We did an album called The Last DJ that was released in 2002. Tom was in a real mood. He wrote most of the songs, and they were all directed at the underbelly of the music industry. [See from the title track: “Well you can’t turn him into a company man / You can’t turn him into a whore.”] It pissed people off. To put it delicately, it would’ve done better if people were a bit more open-minded and didn’t take it personally.

Signature guitar moment

“Breakdown.” People always tell me that they instantly know who it is when they hear that. It’s a pretty simple lick, but it’s my sound and my feel. It holds up after all of these years. We were working on our first record and Tom brought the song in. He had written it on piano and our first cut was about six-minutes long, which we knew needed to be cut down. I told Tom, “Put on the track and I’ll noodle along and try to come up with some ideas.” But nothing was really good. Near the last minute or so with the guitar, because my mind got bored and shut off, I went, da da da da / da da da da.

I didn’t think twice about it and went home. Two hours later Tom calls me up and excitedly goes, “Mike, I’m down at the studio listening to the track. You gotta come back to the studio because that guitar lick you played at the end of the song should go at the beginning!” I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went back to the studio and realized what he wanted me to do. Those notes just came from a jam. It’s a great story because, as a musician and writer, it speaks to the magic that happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. [Laughs.] I wasn’t thinking about it or trying to do anything — just following my stream of consciousness — and that little piece came out. That happened a lot with Tom’s writing, too.

Guitar solo that took the longest to master

I never really composed guitar solos. I’d usually ask to run the tapes and I’d go off the top of my head to make something work. A song that had some of the most intricate work, though, was “First Flash of Freedom” from [2010’s] Mojo. It was a rough and jazzy guitar part, kind of in the Allman Brothers’ style. The harmonies at the end were really intricate and took a while to form. Generally, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on a solo. I’d try to catch something out of the air spontaneously.

Most meaningful compliment you’ve ever received

It might be from Jeff Lynne [of Electric Light Orchestra fame], who I greatly admire. We were both working on Tom’s [1989] solo record Full Moon Fever, and we left a part at the end of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” for a long guitar solo. Jeff and I were just getting to know each other. He’s not really used to playing with other people, since he plays all of the instruments himself. I got the guitar on and I did a stream-of-consciousness solo and made some stuff up. We did three takes. I remember when I was doing it, Jeff leaned over and put his glasses down and stared at my guitar. He had this look on his face, like, How do you do that? He didn’t say it, but his eyes said it all. [Laughs.] That was the highest compliment he can pay somebody.

Favorite Tom lyrics

Gosh, there were so many. I have to say “All or Nothin’” again. I think of these lyrics often: “Your daddy was a sergeant major, you didn’t wanna but he made you / Wipe his brass from time to time, it left a picture in your mind.” Tom was such a master of simplicity. I’d ask him all the time when we were recording the studio, “Where did that come from? Where did you get that?” He’d always respond, “I’m a writer!”

Preferred songwriting process

The hardest part is getting your mind into that zone and tuning out all of the clutter. Songwriting is such a mysterious thing. It’s a magical channel that’s a gift to you and you can’t really conjure it up when you want it to. It could pop up when you’re driving or out having dinner. I try to do things that inspire me to turn that switch on. If I don’t know what I want to do or if I’m uninspired, I listen to old records that I love. I might hear something that’s a great rhythm or a chord and then I’m off and the switch goes on. I try to hear new music and find new bands and can’t really find anything. [Laughs.] I grew up in the ’60s, and before the ’60s, my father was into Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, so I heard those records all the time and soaked that up. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Animals — there was a renaissance of musical creativity that I haven’t seen since. I’ll go earlier, too. Give me the blues and Muddy Waters any day.

Album cover you would go back in time and change

Photo: Shelter

[1978’s] You’re Gonna Get It! I call it the “blues magoos cover.” When I see it, I always think everyone is trying to look so cute with the blue light. It’s like, Get over yourself guys.

What the Heartbreakers’ future would’ve looked like if Tom hadn’t died

We were going to carry on and do what we were doing. There was one project next on the table that we had several conversations about and Tom really wanted to do: a Wildflowers tour just for that album [Petty’s 1994 solo sophomore album]. Maybe just play small theaters. Get away from “the Heartbreakers’ greatest hits” arena set lists for a change, and maybe have different singers come out in different cities and do some of the songs. That album was very close to him. I’m sure we would’ve done that and kept on going as long as we could. We had wonderful audiences. I miss them.

Most cherished memory of Tom

Tom and I were tighter than brothers. We shared a dream and a bond that will never go away. I fondly remember working on the song “You Wreck Me” [off Wildflowers] together. I wrote the music and Tom wrote the words. It took us a long time to finish it because he had trouble figuring out the words that he wanted. He kept calling it “You rock me, babyand would always go, “That’s too generic, that’s not good; I’ll find something better.” Finally he came up with “You wreck me.” We finished the record and I always got the feeling he wasn’t enamored with the song that much. We went on tour a few months later and during the rehearsals he frequently undermined himself and would say things like, “I don’t think we should perform it, I’m still not sure I like it.” We convinced him to put it in the set anyway.

Two or three days into the tour we played it and it went down so, so well, because it’s a really engaging and fast song. He came to the drum risers after we finished the song, the crowd was going wild, and he leaned over to me and went, “I get it now, Mike, this is a really good song.” God bless him.