The drive out to Tom Petty's house feels a lot like a Tom Petty song. It starts in the Valley, of course, passes Reseda and Mulholland, and Ventura Boulevard. Then comes a rolling stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway as it rises up toward Malibu, the ocean blasting in the left channel, the canyons in the right. After a few miles comes an unmarked driveway, followed by a gate, then another gate, and then you're there – 30 miles from downtown L.A. and a world from everything else.
On this sunny afternoon, as is frequently the case, Petty is in his home studio, an airy extension off the main house with a cardboard sign taped to the door that reads beware: cranky hippie. There are platinum records on the wall and expensive rugs underfoot, and the air smells like incense and cigarettes. Follow the sound of the distorted guitar into the next room, and there's Petty, a guitar slung around his neck, eyes closed, rocking out with more joy and enthusiasm than can reasonably be expected from a 63-year-old grandfather.
"Come on in!" Petty shouts, not interrupting his jam. "We're just checking out this amplifier!" Fender is releasing a line of amps honoring the Heartbreakers' lead guitarist, Mike Campbell, and Petty's doing some last-minute quality control. He cranks out a few more power chords, then calls to a lank-haired kid across the room, "I love it!"
Chase, 21, is a friend of Petty's stepson, Dylan. After Chase's dad passed away a few years ago, he was in a funk, so Petty took him on the road, and Chase caught the rock bug. Petty bought him a guitar, he joined a band, and now Petty's helping out on their first album. The record is pretty much done; all the band needs is a name. Chase says there's one they've liked for a while, the Speakers. Only there's a wedding band in England that has already staked a claim to it on their Facebook page.
Petty leans back and strokes his beard. "They only have 500 likes, right?"
"Then I think you just gotta take it," he says. "Storm the barricades."
That's what Petty did. Back when he was starting out, a skinny, self-confident 23-year-old from Florida who blew into L.A. and started calling record labels, there was another band called the Heartbreakers, who were slightly better known. That didn't deter Petty, who simply planted his flag and took the name for himself, his first big conquest in a career marked by combativeness, determination, and the animating conviction that he would both stand his ground and not back down. Those other Heartbreakers have long since disappeared, while Petty and his went on to make six platinum albums, plus Petty also made two smash solo albums, Wildflowers and Full Moon Fever. Now in his fifth decade of professional music making, he's as cantankerous, fired up, and as in love with rock music as ever.
Last year Petty and his band played a series of small shows in New York and L.A. for which they set aside their usual "play 'Free Fallin' for the 900th time" and dug deeper into their back catalog. "It did us a lot of good," he says. "Just to break out of the greatest hits. There's a whole tier of other good songs that we don't play. I think I needed to remind myself of that."
Petty's new record is called Hypnotic Eye. It's his first studio album in four years and his 16th overall, and it's way better than it needs to be. Petty has spent his life unlocking the secret of writing the great American rock song, churning out defining hits for at least two generations. You could drive from San Bernardino to Seattle without running out of damn good Petty songs to play. He is to songwriting what Tim Duncan is to basketball: unflashy, consistent, amazingly dialed-in. By any measure, he's earned the right to be collecting seashells in Oahu right now, dusting off his VH1 staples when he wants a new pool. So what keeps him caring so much?
"Well, I have a contract for one thing," Petty says, chuckling. "So that gets me started. But success is a dangerous thing. What great band hasn't done some absolute shit? So I'm kind of to a point where, if I'm gonna do it, I want it to be good. Otherwise there's no point. Who needs another Tom Petty record?"
There was an earthquake in Malibu last night. Dana, Petty's wife, was in their office and felt it shake like crazy. Petty was in the bedroom and didn't feel a thing. It made him wonder if part of the house was built on bedrock. "That would be good," he says. A little while back, he and Dana were looking at a seismological map of California, checking out the fault lines, when Petty made a joke: "Hey, I've got some of those." The joke blossomed into "Fault Lines," one of the best songs on his new album, in which he uses a geological metaphor to convey all manner of subterranean turmoil. "We all have them," he says. "Things that could just break open."
Petty is sitting on the couch in his studio, a moss-colored coffee mug in his hand. He's in an unbuttoned denim shirt, over a T-shirt with a picture of Henry Miller on it, and worn-out jeans with a strip of red flowers stitched into the seams. Two sets of what he calls Indian trading beads dangle from his neck, and his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses. His overall affect is Lebowski-esque. Every few minutes, he stands up, walks to the front door, and tosses his coffee into the bushes, then comes back and pours himself a fresh cup.
Here in Malibu, Petty has a front-row seat for all manner of geological calamity. The house straddles a fault line called the Escondido thrust, and mudslides and wildfires are ever present. He already had one house burn down, back in 1987, although he thinks that was arson ("I can't name anyone publicly," he says, "but I have some suspicions"), and he almost lost this house a few years ago when a wildfire came right up over the canyon rim. "God, it was scary," he says. "But when you think about it, there's really no safe place on Earth. Venice is sinking. Bangladesh is gonna go down. Florida's not looking good. I don't know where you can go where there's not some kind of disaster waiting to happen."
Petty moved to California 40 years ago. "Wow, I hadn't really thought about that," he muses. "Forty fucking years. That's a long time." By now, he can't imagine living anywhere else. "I'm so Californian, dude. I've been here twice as long as I was ever in Florida. So I'll ride it out."
L.A. in the mid-Seventies was a place in transition, and Petty and his band found a way to fit in. "It was a great, great time to be a young man in Los Angeles," Petty says. "It was the land of milk and honey; it was Shangri-la. And we had an adult portion of it – we took a big dose of L.A. The audiences were just great, and we were free as birds. And there was an element that was fed up with what was going on, that was going to overthrow that, and this feeling that there was something in the air."
(You might notice that he inadvertently quotes one of his own songs here, which happens surprisingly often – or maybe, considering he's recorded hundreds of them, not so surprisingly.)
Since then, Petty and the Heartbreakers have embodied sounds from mass-appeal rock to rootsy Americana, so it's easy to forget that in the beginning, the Heartbreakers were considered punk – scowling in leather jackets, opening for Blondie and Elvis Costello. The band was even offered a starring role in the movie Rock 'n' Roll High School, which they turned down, and it went to the Ramones instead. "I never felt like a punk, but we had that mentality," Petty says. "It was us against them. We were going out there and we didn't give a fuck. We were going to make this shit happen."
Professionally, at least, Petty has long had a reputation for being stubborn and standoffish. He famously had a showdown with his label MCA over its decision to raise his album price by a dollar. (He won.) He once punched a studio wall, breaking his left hand and jeopardizing his guitar playing. His old friend and bandmate Campbell characterizes young Petty thusly: "amped up, angry – 'I've got something to prove and don't get in my way.' "
I ask Petty where that determination comes from. "I don't know," he says. "Probably from having the shit beat out of me all my life."