Tom Petty Still Won’t Back Down

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Photograph by Mark Seliger

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?”

Chase nods.

“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.”Petty’s paternal grandfather, William “Pulpwood” Petty, was a logger from Georgia who married a Cherokee woman named Sallie, who worked as a cook. One day, according to family lore, Pulpwood Petty got into a brawl in a logging camp over interracial marriage (presumably his) and wound up killing a man with an ax. He and Sallie fled to Florida, where Petty’s father, Earl, was raised.

Earl Petty was an Air Force veteran who drove a candy truck, owned a couple of small stores, and later sold insurance. “He was very charismatic and well liked by a lot of people,” Petty says. He was also a violent drunk. Petty’s mom, Kitty, refused to let Earl drink at home, so late at night he would stumble back to the house and beat up Kitty or Tommy or his younger brother, Bruce.

Not surprisingly, he never felt safe at home: “I learned to absolutely fucking disappear. I got the fuck away when he was around.

His saving grace was his mother, who was supportive and nurturing, in exactly the ways his dad wasn’t. “She tried to keep an element of civilization in the house,” he says, “to show us there was more to life than rednecks. She read to me a lot. And she liked music: She had a record player and would play Nat King Cole and the West Side Story soundtrack. I think of her every time I hear those songs.”

When the family got a TV in the Fifties, Petty realized there was another world out there, far from the Florida swamps and his terrifying father. “Los Angeles – television city,” he says. “That became my way out.” Around the same time, a brief encounter with a young Elvis Presley at a movie shoot in Gainesville led the 11-year-old Petty to fall hard for rock & roll. He convinced his mom to buy a Sears guitar, and he started hanging around a local music shop and learning to play. “Music,” he says, “was a safe place.”

When he was 14, Petty formed a band of his own, called the Sundowners, in order to impress a girl at an eighth-grade dance. Later he joined a group called the Epics, which eventually evolved to include future Heartbreakers Campbell and Benmont Tench. Petty’s dad wasn’t happy about his son’s hobby: One night he got drunk and smashed his son’s albums. But Petty never gave in. “Dad,” he once told Earl, “if you’ll just leave me alone, I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.”

Petty wonders what made his father so mean. “Maybe he was disappointed,” he says. “Or maybe he thought I was gay. I have this theory – I can’t prove it, because neither of my parents are around to talk to, but, you know, I was really into the arts. I didn’t have any interest in sports. I wanted to draw, go to the movies. I really liked clothes. And to him that probably seemed gay. I grew my hair long – he hated that. But it was so long ago. I hardly ever think about it.”

Petty’s mom died in 1980, the year after the Heartbreakers released their first platinum album. His father died years later, but the two rarely spoke. “I didn’t really like him, so I never really got to know him,” he says. “It was many, many years before I believed that people had real relationships with their fathers. I thought they were putting me on. I was scared to death of all adults. I didn’t trust any of them. Maybe he did me a favor in a way, I don’t know.”

Even after escaping Gainesville, Petty spent years being angry and resentful. “It took me a long time to work the rage out of me,” he says. “I could really go ballistic. Any sort of injustice would set me off. Any authority I didn’t agree with could just make me go crazy.” Finally a friend convinced him to go to therapy, and he started figuring out the roots of his anger. “I grew out of it with a lot of work,” he says. “I thank everyone who put up with that for as long as they did.”

These days, Petty seems to have let go of much of that anger. “Probably the greatest achievement you can reach is when you’re able to forgive the most heinous thing in your life,” he says. “I forgive anyone. That’s where I’ve arrived. And if I’m not successful at that” – he smiles wryly – “I forgive myself.”A woman from Petty’s management company pokes her head in. “It’s almost 4:30,” she says. “They’re worried about your supper.”

“Oh, no,” says Petty. “What day of the week is it?”

“Monday,” she says. “Veggie burgers.”

“Veggie burgers,” intones Petty, stroking his beard. “That could be good. You want a veggie burger?”

So we’re in the kitchen, eating veggie burgers, Petty sipping from a bottle of Mexican Coke. His dog, a fat yellow Lab named Ryder, is on the floor next to him, and every so often Petty throws him a sweet potato fry, furtively, like they’re getting away with something. Petty became a vegetarian last December, after realizing how much environmental damage factory farming was doing. So far it’s going well; the only thing he misses is barbecue. His brother recently became a vegan, and he’s thought about that, too. “Rick Rubin [who produced Petty’s 1994 album, Wildflowers] was the first vegan I ever met,” Petty says, “and his eyes just shine. But I don’t know that I can go that far.”

After dinner, we take a little constitutional around the grounds. Petty is a little unsteady on his feet these days – his right knee bows a bit, and he has a tendency to get excited when he’s telling a story and start hopping around and stumble. “You’ve gotta work harder to stay fit,” he says of getting older. “But I’m lucky because my job tends to keep me a bit younger than, say, people I knew from school. I’ll run into them and be like, ‘Whoa. Who’s that old fucker?’  ”

He’s not much of a party animal; last night he fell asleep watching A Hard Day’s Night in bed. He doesn’t have many vices: He’s never been a big drinker (“I didn’t like the taste or the buzz, and I can’t stand being around drunks”) and he never really got into cocaine (“I mean, I went through the Eighties like everybody, but cocaine was never a good look”). “I’m mostly just a reefer guy,” he says. “It’s a musical drug.” He laughs at the idea of a prescription, though. “I’ve had a pipeline of marijuana since 1967.”

Petty is a history buff and a fan of Thomas Jefferson. He says one of his favorite things to do whenever he’s in Washington, D.C., is to “wait until it’s really late, get stoned, go to the Jefferson Memorial, and just sit there and read the walls. I’ve done that a few times.”

Actually, Petty does have one other bad habit, and that’s cigarettes. He’s been smoking since he was 17, and though he’s down to less than a pack a day, he doesn’t even bother pretending he’s trying to quit. “I’m an addict, man,” he says. “I’m a sick fuck. I don’t light up in the car because people get upset. But I don’t understand why I can’t light up in a bar or park. I think that’s yuppie shit.”

As we stroll through the yard, Petty pauses to straighten a drooping flower. There’s a little blue sliver of the Pacific visible between the trees, and the air is filled with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle. He points down the hill. “I’ve got that whole area down there, too, but I’m scared to go over there right now. Too many rattlesnakes.”

Petty moved here roughly 15 years ago, after his divorce from his first wife, Jane, to whom he’d been married since 1974. He almost bought Barbra Streisand’s house in the Valley, but he came to his senses and headed out to Malibu instead. For the first year, he stayed in one bedroom and cooked on a hot plate while the house was rebuilt. Now it’s Petty, Dana, Dylan, and two guest bedrooms, which is perfect for him: “I don’t really want any more guests than that.”

Petty and Dana recently celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary, but they’ve known each other for about 20 years, after meeting backstage at one of his shows in Houston, where Dana is from. They ran into each other again in L.A. after both had gotten divorced, and a spark was rekindled. They just spent a week in Mexico for her 50th birthday, but otherwise they don’t travel much. (“Hotels make me think of work. And I’m completely unimpressed – ‘Here’s a beautiful view of the harbor . . .’ I don’t care about the fucking harbor! Get the fuck out of my room!”) When Petty’s not on tour, they spend most of their time just hanging out in Malibu, or else visiting his daughter and new granddaughter in Venice or his other daughter in Silver Lake. “I hardly ever even go into L.A. anymore, unless it’s for business,” he says. “Or to watch basketball.”

In his golden years, Petty has become a basketball fan. “I never had any interest in sports whatsoever, but then suddenly, about 10 years ago, I got interested in professional basketball.” He got into the Lakers, then became a diehard fan after Jack Nicholson started giving him his tickets when he couldn’t make it – which is pretty much the coolest way to see the Lakers. “I’m loyal to my team,” he says, “but right now, they’re just a fucking mess.”

Petty is full of opinions like this, on all sorts of topics. Like iTunes. (“iTunes sounds like shit.”) Or streaming. (“Streaming sounds like shit.”) Or Jack White. (“I think it’s beautiful what he’s doing for the blues, but that two-person thing wasn’t really that good.”) Or even Pharrell. (“I like Pharrell.”) But his crankiness is endearing, partly because it’s become part of his charm and partly because it’s much softer than it used to be. “As you get older, you get through life a little easier, because you know what’s not worth taking on,” he says. “There’s not much I can really endorse about getting old, but that’s one thing.”

We head back up to the driveway, where a 1979 Mercedes 450SL is parked under a drop cloth. It’s the first expensive car Petty ever bought, after his breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes, hit number two on the Billboard charts. But Petty doesn’t drive it anymore. “I haven’t driven in over a decade,” he says. “I’m too spaced out.”

He leans up against the Benz and recounts the last time he got behind the wheel. “I was driving to the store and I saw these big silver balls floating in the air,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, fuck! UFOs are landing in Malibu!’ I’m not normally the kind of person who would think that. But that’s what the fuck it looked like.”

Petty whipped a U-turn and drove home to get Dana, and they headed back down the Pacific Coast Highway to take a better look. Petty was simultaneously driving and looking at the sky – “and the next thing I know, bam! I hit the car next to me, spun off the road . . . and landed in a nest of about 200 paparazzi.”

As it turned out, Adam Sandler was getting married that day, and he’d installed balloons to keep the helicopters away. That’s also why the paparazzi were there. “So later I had to watch the whole crash on television,” Petty says. “Because they were filming everyone coming down the hill.”

And that’s when he decided to stop driving? He looks puzzled for a second, then shakes his head. “Oh, no. Later that night we went somewhere else, and I backed up and hit the car behind me. I’ve been a passenger ever since.”To hear Petty tell it, he never really wanted to be a front man. They’re only called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers because he’d already signed a solo record deal with their first label; he says he would have been happy to just be the Heartbreakers. Inherently shy and vaguely antisocial, Petty is the kind of rock star who got famous because he wanted to play music, not the other way around, which is partly why his career has been so marked by collaborations.

With so many hits, it’s hard to pick the best, but there’s a dark-horse case to be made for a minor one called “Walls (Circus),” from the soundtrack to the 1996 Ed Burns movie, She’s The One. It’s an expertly constructed song with a bulletproof chorus and just the right mix of formula and surprise, made even better by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, who lends harmonies and general awesomeness to the chorus. “The one with Lindsey on it?” Petty says, furrowing his brow. “Never listened to it. I hated that record – the whole idea of it offended me. I only did it because I didn’t have anything else to do. I was single and living on my own, and this idea came up, and I liked Ed and thought he was pretty sharp, so I wrote him a couple of songs. And then it just kept mushrooming into, ‘Do the whole thing.’ So I took some stuff I hadn’t used in Wildflowers, really crummy versions, badly mixed, and put them on there. It was terrible, really. I’m disappointed I did that.”

But at least the session produced one good anecdote. “I do remember trying to talk Lindsey into joining the band that night,” he says. “Stevie [Nicks] wasn’t playing with them at the time, so I said, ‘Why don’t you just join our band and get the heat off of me?’ I never wanted to be the front guy – I got that job and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.”

Buckingham’s bandmate had a different vision: Stevie Nicks, Petty says, was dying to join the band. “Oh, she wouldn’t quit,” Petty says. “Stevie showed up at my house every night for a year – maybe more.” But Petty was firm: “There’s no girls in the Heartbreakers.” Nicks followed them on tour anyway – “every fucking night,” Petty says. “ ’Stevie’s in room so-and-so.’ ‘Stevie wants a song.’ We gave her a hard fucking time: ‘No way you’re coming to a session. Look at the fucking clothes you’ve got on.’ The fact that she stuck around was amazing.” (They eventually did team up for what would be one of the all-time great rock duets: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”)

The only time Petty really faded into the background was with the Traveling Wilburys, the late-Eighties supergroup he formed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The band grew out of jam sessions in Malibu when Petty was recording Full Moon Fever, which Lynne co-produced and Harrison played on. They roped in Dylan and Orbison and recorded a song together, “Handle With Care,” then more or less on a whim decided to do a whole record. Petty recalls the night they decided to make it official.

“George came over one day and said, ‘What do you think? Could you do it?’ Then he called Bob and said, ‘We’re over here starting a band, and we want you to be in it.’ Then he hung up and said, ‘Bob’s in.’ And Jeff was like, ‘Well, great, but we need Roy Orbison.’ Roy was playing in Anaheim, so we drove out to see him.”

At 37, Petty was the baby of the group – like Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore. Even though his career was at its MTV-dominating peak and Dylan’s was at its nadir (as Dylan points out in his memoir Chronicles), Petty couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing there. “I still had to operate as if I were equal,” he says. “I wouldn’t be of any use to the group if I got starstruck. But honestly, everyone was kind of in awe of everyone. And we were all in awe of Bob.”

The group made one masterpiece, 1988’s The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, and one slightly-less-than-a-masterpiece after Orbison’s death. “The sad thing is, it probably would still be going on if those guys were around,” he says. “It’s kind of stupid that we didn’t do more. I used to say, ‘Just flash the big W in the sky like the bat signal, and we’ll all come.’ We just thought we had all the time in the world.”The sun is setting, and Petty feels like taking a drive, so we head to his beach house, a wood cabin nestled across the Pacific Coast Highway. On the walls hang an American flag and paintings of Abraham Lincoln and JFK. We walk out to the deck, overlooking what he calls his “little privacy cove.” On one side is a house Petty claims is owned by a founder of Whole Foods; on the other is a house built by Joe Kennedy, who used it as a love nest for his affair with Gloria Swanson and a smuggling point to ship whiskey into L.A. “That’s the rumor, anyway,” Petty says.

Petty lights a cigarette and watches a standup paddler go by. “Isn’t it great?” he says. “I might stay here three weeks and if it gets to be too much, I just go back up the hill.” He says he doesn’t have many hobbies. It’s basically rock 24-7 – listening to it, reading about it, playing it.

“It’s like I caught a disease. I’ve never been able to get it out of my blood for a minute. I’m overobsessed, and I know far too fucking much. But I love it really deeply. And I still love this band I’m playing in. If I was going to call people to play, that’s who I’m calling.”

Despite his side dalliances, the Heartbreakers are his chosen collaborators, 40 years running. “I haven’t found anything that excites me like that,” he says. “You plug in with them, it’s like you’re getting on a fucking train. That’s big-time ball. Sometimes I mistreat them, and I’m sure I can be a pain in the ass. But there’s nothing we like better than playing together.”

Mike Campbell says he hates to use the word visionary to describe Petty “because it sounds so Spinal Tap. But he’s always been the leader.” Adds Tench: “He’s the one we turn to, whether he likes it or not.”

Petty holds forth on the deck for a while longer, telling me about the whales that migrate through here in the springtime. An old lady shuffles by on the beach, probably pushing 90, and Petty eyes her respectfully: “Now when I’m like that, I probably won’t make any more records.” Eventually we get back in the car for the drive up the hill. His album happens to be in the CD player, in the middle of a scuzzy, cymbal-heavy quasi love song called “U Get Me High,” and he reaches over and turns it up.

Petty thinks this song could have been the single. “This is the one where I got to play lead,” he says, excitedly. “Mike let me play a solo for once.” He listens for a minute, praises the Heartbreakers’ playing. Then his big solo comes in, and he smiles wide and points to the stereo. “That’s me!”

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