If the old proverb “God loves the happy man” is true, Tom Petty is definitely divinely beloved. He’s a happy man for a number of reasons, as I learned while interviewing him in a succession of Saturday afternoons through interviews connected and preserved in our book, Conversations with Tom Petty (Omnibus Books). Petty is happily married to the ebullient Dana Petty, happy being the father of three children and happily making new music (as well as playing old favorites on the road with The Heartbreakers, one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time). The new music was made differently than in the past: It’s a solo album called Highway Companion and is the product of only three musicians-Tom (who plays guitar, keyboards and, remarkably, drums on the album), Jeff Lynne (who was a Travelin’ Wilbury with Petty, and also the producer of the magical Full Moon Fever album) and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell (who plays fluid slide guitar throughout the album).
Petty proudly played the album for me during one of these joyful Saturdays, at very loud volume (because “I’m partially deaf,” he said with a smile) in his home studio in Malibu, Calif. It’s a great album, matching and maybe even surpassing the level of Petty’s previous work. “I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said, later asking me to change the sentence to read in the book, “I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever done.” It starts with the slinky funk of “Turn This Car Around” and proceeds through a string of strong song, including “Down South,” a masterful return to Petty’s past in Florida, and “Square One,” which is tenderly painted by two acoustic guitars and is one of the most sweetly haunting songs Petty has written in years.
The original impetus for the book was to talk in depth and length about Petty’s music. I had interviewed Tom several times in the past, and have found him to be one of the warmest and most likeable of music’s superstars. We both soon realized that the book should contain more, however. As Tom wrote in the foreword to the book, “As the interviews progressed, it became clear that to understand the music, one would have to have knowledge of my life and how it has unfolded.” His is an extraordinary life in music, which created the timeless blueprint for some of the most memorable songs of the past 30 years.
It’s a life that took shape in Gainesville, Fla. Tom was one of two sons to a loving mother and an abusive, somewhat crazy father. “My dad was pretty wild,” Tom said. “He used to always be going to get his car out of a ditch somewhere. I thought it was completely normal to run your car into a ditch. Now I realize…wow. And he was quite a gambler, and my mother hated it. It was quite a turbulent household, really. Very turbulent.” Asked why his father was hitting ditches all the time, he answered, “He was quite a drinker… just as wild as the wind, really.”
His father used to take him hunting and on fishing trips, both activities that Tom despised. “I never liked it,” Tom remembered. “My dad was a hard man-to be around. He wanted me to be a lot more macho than I was. I was this real sort of tender, emotional kid, more inclined to the arts. I didn’t want to be trapped in a boat all day.” About hunting, Tom said, “It was awful. It was sitting in fields, really cold, to shoot a bird. I remember birds stuffed in bags, and cleaning the birds, picking all the feathers off. It was gross. I hated it.”
Petty’s father would often perform feats to prove just how macho he was to his tender son. “One day this small alligator came up by the boat,” Tom said, “and I actually saw my dad take his forefinger and his thumb and punch the eyes in on the alligator…to show me that he could knock the alligator out…and the gator rolled over in the water. He was just nuts. But he wasn’t afraid of anything. I once saw my dad grab a rattlesnake by the tail, swing it round his head and pop his neck. That’s pretty wild, you know? So I was kind of scared of him.”
Ironically, when Tom showed interest in playing music, his father bought him his first instrument of choice, a Kay electric guitar. Tom took two lessons, but they were too formal for him, and he preferred to learn from friends. “I met a kid who actually knew how to play,” Tom said, “and he showed me chords, and we sat and played guitar; you learn really quickly that way. The first key I learned was C, so you had to have F, and F is a tough one. I remember playing `Wooly Bully.’ It was the first one I mastered, and I was on my way. From there it just went on.”
He started writing his own songs as soon as he learned how to play. His first was called “Baby, I’m Leaving,” which Tom described as a “12-bar blues kind of thing. It was in C,” he said. Both parents were impressed and slightly incredulous about his ability to write his own music. “[My father] was really proud of it,” Tom said. “When he would have a friend over, he’d say, `Bring your guitar out and play a song for this guy.’ [My mother] was amazed that I could do it. She’d say, `I can’t understand how you can do it if you didn’t have any lessons, and you don’t know how to write music. How do you do it?’ And I said, `I don’t know, I just learned it from other kids.'”
He yearned from the start to make his living playing music, but he didn’t have any idea of a pathway that would lead to such a life. That is, until he saw The Beatles. “The minute I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. This really spoke to me. I had been a big fan of Elvis, but I really saw in The Beatles that…here’s something I could do. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.”