Exclusive Excerpt From ‘Conversations with Tom Petty, Expanded Edition’

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Coming to L.A.

Though Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were from Gainesville, Florida, it was in Los Angeles that their rock & roll dreams came true, and here they remained. Tom, while always honoring his hometown, loved L.A. from his first moment here, as he recalls in the following conversation, and said many times that The Heartbreakers were an L.A. band.

Unlike so many who come to Hollywood in search of stardust only to be dismayed by the squalor, Tom loved it immediately. Even staying at what he called “a hooker’s motel,” the Hollywood Premiere on Sunset, east of Western, he loved Hollywood and never stopped. Because everywhere he looked, he saw rock clubs and record companies. He moved here, became one of America’s most beloved and accomplished songwriters, and never left.

He did move around though – from Hollywood to Encino to West Hollywood and ultimately to Malibu, where he and his beloved Dana lived by the ocean for a long time, the happiest time of his life.

So to launch this, our first day of this new site, American Songwriter Los Angeles, here at long last to to celebrate the songs, songwriting and songwriters of Los Angeles, we knew we had to include Tom. With an open invitation to join us for much more of Tom and his songwriting, to all lovers of his music, and to all my friends in the great and expansive Tom Petty Nation, the ever-expanding empire that loves Tom and his songs with a devotion as pure as the songs themselves.

Tom at his last show, Hollywood Bowl, September 25, 2019. Photo by Paul Zollo

From Conversations with Tom Petty, The Expanded Edition, which comes out on February 13, here is our talk about the decision to move to California, the journey itself, and his first impressions of Hollywood upon arriving.  

PAUL ZOLLO: Gainesville was great for you, yet you felt you had to leave. Even though you were playing for thousands of people?

We weren’t always playing for thousands of people. We might play a gig for a thousand people. And then on Monday night we might be playing for two hundred people in some beer bar somewhere. The circuit was wearing out. We had to play anywhere to make enough money to eat and pay our rent. So we were doing all kinds of gigs, like playing in country bars with Wyatt Earp ties on. [Laughs]

Then maybe the next night or the next week we were at a pop festival somewhere. And we were back to that. So we were constantly just trying to keep enough gigs to pay the rent, and keep working. But we could see it wasn’t going anywhere. How big can you get in Gainesville? We had certainly hit the top of the ladder there. We were probably even then the most famous band in Gainesville. I imagine we were. Even then. I still meet people who tell me they saw Mudcrutch. That they were fans, and would regularly go out to see us. But we knew we had to break out of there.

So that’s when California came into the picture. Because Bernie [Leadon] had gone to California and had a lot of success, and started The Eagles, and he would come home now and then. We’d talk to him. And then Tom Leadon, when he left the group, he got a job with Linda Ronstadt playing bass. And that was before she was really happening. But he was going on tour with Linda Ronstadt. We were really impressed, like, ‘Wow, you got a gig.’

Then he got in some group that actually had a hit single, in some band named Silver. A completely forgettable single, but it was a hit. That did it. Okay, we’re going to California. That’s the way it is. We’re going to L.A. Where the Byrds are. Because the South had become completely inundated with the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers had gotten big, and every group had become an imitation of that. Literally everybody but us was an imitation of the Allman Brothers. And they were playing really long songs, and jamming. And we hated it. We liked the Allman Brothers, but we hated all the imitations. We thought it was stupid. We were kind of like a three-minute kind of band. And we didn’t fit in anymore. And we didn’t want to be there any longer. We wanted to go to L.A., where we always felt like we belonged.

We drove there. Me and our roadie, Keith McAlister. And Danny Roberts had a van, so we drove. Tom Leadon was already out here. He had left our group. The idea was to come out here and see him, and try to hook up with something. It was the greatest trip of my life, really. It was this incredible journey through the country. I had never been west of the Mississippi. To suddenly see cactuses, we would pull the car over and get out and say, ‘Shit—look at this!’ We were so naïve.

We got here, and we had to sleep on the floor of a friend of a friend. And I could see that we really weren’t welcome. [Laughs] And it was kind of really uncomfortable. I don’t think they thought we would really come, but we did. So they let us sleep on their floor for a couple of days. In their living room.

We drove in to Hollywood. And then it seemed really easy to me, because we went down Sunset Boulevard, and in those days, there were record companies everywhere! Everywhere you looked, there was a record company. There was MGM Records, and of course, there was Capitol. I just thought, ‘Well, all we’ve got to do is go in to every one, and we’ll get a deal.’

And we fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there. We just thought this is heaven. We said, ‘Look—everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.’

A lot of people who arrive in Hollywood expecting glamour are disappointed or confused by the reality of the place. Was it that way for you?

No. To me it seemed like everything I wanted it to be. There were literally record companies all down Sunset Boulevard. You could see them, with their names on them. There’d be A&M, MGM, RCA. You just saw them down the road. So we would just go in the front door of every one with a tape and say, ‘Hi, we just got here from Florida, can we play you this tape?’ We didn’t know that that just wasn’t done. So I think just having the balls to do that got a lot of people to listen to us.

The only addresses we had, we’d written down from record ads in Rolling Stone. And I was trying to find some more, so I went into this diner, I think it was Ben Frank’s on Sunset, and I went to a phone booth to look up record companies. And on the floor of the phone booth there was a piece of paper. And I picked up the paper and it’s a list of twenty record companies, with their phone numbers and addresses. And at the same time, I kind of went, ‘Shit— there’s a lot of people doing this.’ But I swear to God it was there. And that’s how I got the number of Shelter Records. Which was out on east Hollywood Boulevard. And we drove out there with a tape.

Did that hurt your enthusiasm at all, the thought of so many others vying for a record contract?

No. We were young and the world was at our feet. At that age, anything seems possible. We’d get turned down, but I just kept thinking that there are so many of them, we’re bound to hit one that’s gonna take us. And that’s what happened.

Did you ever consider going to New York?

New York seemed really cold to us. We knew we weren’t Manhattan kind of guys. And we weren’t. We could kind of picture ourselves in L.A. But we would have never survived being in New York.

We loved the Byrds and we loved the Beach Boys, and Buffalo Springfield and The Burrito Brothers. And we kind of felt we belonged here [in L.A.]. And we always have, though we’re still never referred to as an “L.A. band.” We’re always referred to as a Southern band. But the truth is every bit of music we’ve ever made was in L.A. We’ve been in L.A. for over thirty years. We’re a Los Angeles band.

From the upcoming Conversations with Tom Petty, Expanded Edition, by Paul Zollo and Tom Petty, featuring new interview with Dana Petty [Omnibus], coming out on February 13, 2020.

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