Tom Petty’s 70th Birthday Bash, Part 1: “Echo”

Tom called it “the best Tom Petty record that Tom Petty wasn’t at.”

As part of our Tom Petty 70th Birthday Celebration today, we are starting with this, my discussion about “Echo” with Tom from “Conversations with Tom Petty.”

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He considered it his “saddest album,” because it was such a sad time for him. Yet he went through a reevaluation of it, as he did with much of his work. Before that he refused to listen to it for years. .

Released in the Spring of 1999, it was the last album by Tom that Rick Rubin produced. It was also, sadly, Howie Epstein’s final album. As Tom described, losing Howie was one of the hardest thing he’s been though. Never had I felt such sorrow from him.

One of the most overt signals that Howie was not up to the job, destroyed by heroin, was his absence from the photo session of “Echo.” Tom decided to do the photos without Howie, and his pal and touring Heartbreakers member Scott Thurston stood in for him.

Three songs were released as singles, though none were major hits. They were “Free Girl Now,” “Swingin’” and “Room at the Top.” Tom says in the following discussion that “Counting On You” should have been one of the singles.

He felt “Room at the Top” was not a good choice as single, because it’s a ballad, and ballads rarely become hits. He felt it was more than sad, it was depressing. It’s a song that began as a piano instrumental which he played for years, every time he’d sit at a piano, but never turned it into a full song, with lyrics and melody, until “Echo.”

It is the opening song of the album, the only time he opened an album with a ballad, except for “Wildflowers,” which starts with the slow, beautiful title song. Tom said he felt it worked well as an opener.

It’s also, he said, a great example of The Heartbreakers in the studio, and how much they bring to his music. It wasn’t planned out, but when doing a take, Ferrone didn’t kick in the big beat until the second verse, as Mike Campbell’s guitar went into overdrive. Tom never considered this arrangement until they did it instinctually, as they often did, expanding the feel and depth of the song.

Darkly ironic, after Tom’s death it was used often as a soundtrack for sorrowful events, including Tom’s own death, as well as with the film reels on awards show about all those who died that year.  

“Echo,” said Tom,  is “the best Tom Petty record that Tom Petty wasn’t at.”

I’ve heard you don’t like to talk about the Echo album, because it was such a dark period for you. But that’s a great album. It really holds up.

TOM PETTY: Well, I’m glad you think so. It was a dark, dark time and I think some of that is reflected in the music.

You know, that was my position for a long time. I didn’t listen to Echo. That was one of the worst periods of my life. When I made that record. I was going through a divorce, and really life had just gone to hell.[Laughter] I was having a really hard time. Living alone.

Rick Rubin [the producer] swears I wasn’t there on that record. Yeah. So that’s the best Tom Petty record that Tom Petty wasn’t at. [Laughter]

I didn’t play it for many years, and then we were driving into town one day, and it came on in the car, because Dana had been playing it, and I started to turn it off, and she said, “No, listen to this.” And I did. I listened to it, and I really enjoyed it. It was so much fun, because I had no idea what was coming next. It was one of those records during which I had shut down so much that I didn’t even remember some of the songs. They came on and I said, “What’s this?” I’ve never done that before. [Laughs]

I love the song “Counting On You.” It has kind of an R&B chorus, with that line “There’s a rumor going round…” It’s a great record.

Yeah, “Counting On You.” See, that was another one that I forgot about. Why didn’t they put that out as a single? That was such a good single. I don’t understand why they didn’t release that. Why you would release “Room At The Top” as the single, instead? Well, “Room At The Top” is beautiful, but not a typical single. It’s de-press-ing! It’s a depressing song.

That’s one thing that record companies do that kind of weirds me out in this day and age: They don’t listen much beyond the first track. I kind of feel if I put “Counting on You” as the first track, that would have been the single. They decide what is going to be the single. And you can go in and say, “No, you’re wrong, this is going to be the single.” But then you’re dealing with a bunch of people who are going, “If this doesn’t hit, it’s not my fault. I told you.” [Laughter] So you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

So you try to get behind what they want to do. But I think that record had a lot of good songs. When I heard it recently, I just thought there were a lot of good songs that just didn’t see the light of day. The song “Echo” itself is beautiful. It has a gorgeous melody. Long song. But it was a good song. But, again, it’s not the most upbeat thing in the world.

You thought “Room At The Top” was a depressing song?

Yeah, I thought it was depressing. I thought it was a very lonely, removed song.

It’s a nice opener for the album.

Yeah, it made sense to start the record that way. A lot of stuff that we’ve done, the nicest thing is that you can go back to it and it will hold up. I would be really disappointed if I went back and felt this was crap. and I don’t really have that feeling about much of it.

“Room At The Top” is about being solitary, cut off from the world. Was that how you felt at the time?

Yeah, I think that pretty much sums up where I was at the time. It’s still hard for me to listen to. We cut that track straight through very much like the first and last verses, which are soft and tender and almost countryish. We cut it all like that straight through. And then Rick had this idea of having Mike slam this really heavy guitar over the second verse. That was really Rick’s idea. And so Rick and Mike tried this guitar and we all got really excited, it sounded great. So we went back and changed the bass line through there and added a couple of other things, I think the piano, just to accommodate the heavy chords. And then we had a whole different record.

Then in that section, I took my own acoustic out. We also had Scott Thurston playing some kind of electric guitar there, I think through a Leslie. And I took my acoustic off, though we had cut to the acoustic. When we took the acoustic off, it had a whole different feel, which was less common than the acoustic strumming all the way through. And we just kind of did a reshuffle on it.

But we were all tremendously pleased with “Room At The Top.” [Laughs] I still think that’s one of the better moments of the album. I was really tickled by how that came out. It was a great example of The Heartbreakers at work. On my own I would have never arrived at that arrangement of the song. But they really took it somewhere that I would have never got to by myself.

You wrote that on piano?

Yeah. In the only key I’m really good at on the piano, C. [Laughs] Actually, I’ve been playing the music to that song on the piano for about a hundred years and I never knew it. I’d go in and sit down at the piano, and I would just start noodling that music, to “Room At The Top.” Those chords. And I was going to write songs with Jeff Lynne one day, and he said, ‘Do you want to do that one?’

And I said, ‘What one?’

And he said, ‘That one you keep playing on the piano.’ And I wasn’t aware that I was playing anything.

I said, ‘That’s not a song. I’m just moving around chords.’

And he said, ‘No, you kind of do the same thing every time.’ And I think that night I caught it finally, because I was just unconscious to what I was doing, and I was playing it at the piano and had my little cassette deck on and was singing along. And later on I realized that that’s the song I always sit down and play in the key of C.

It has such a beautiful lyric, too. The room at the top of the world in some ways is an escape, but also seems like a necessary exile.

It evolved into more than what it was when it started. That was really a joke on VH-1’s “Storytellers,” to say that this is a song about escapism called, “Escapism.” [Laughs] [The band recorded an episode of VH1’s “Storytellers” on March 31, 1999, at a Los Angeles-area soundstage.]

The guitar solo on that one is pretty wild. That is two guitars, yes?

No. It’s clavinet and guitar. It alternates between Ben playing clavinet through a guitar amp and Mike on guitar. Though you’re right, there are two guitars playing. He had done another pass and by mistake someone had both of them on once and I thought it sounded great. So we just mixed in a little bit of the extra part in just two places.

We actually cut down that solo section. That was much longer—it was twice that long. And I hated to do it. They really played some great stuff but I felt that it was really a little bit too long. It just unbalanced the song a little bit, so I had to cut it down. But they’re such great players, it’s scary sometimes.

And Steve Ferrone’s drumming on that one and the whole album—the way he kicks the band into gear—is so solid.

Yeah, he’s so good. And we’re teaching him to never play drum solos. [Laughs] ‘Steve, no. Just play this.’

And he’d say, ‘Really? That’s really all you want?’

And I’d say, ‘That’s all I want. I don’t want you to ever play anything else.’ But he has such a good natural feel. And he’s really good in the studio. He’s really quick and his time is immaculate. We can really count on him to hold the time.

You posted “Free Girl Now” on the Internet as an MP3. You were the first major artist to do so, which was revolutionary. Many felt this would dismantle the record industry.

They thought that radio was going to dismantle the record industry. They thought no one would need records any more. They thought blank tape was going to do the same thing. And DAT was another one.

I don’t think that this is the case, that this is going to dismantle the record industry. I understand their concern with protection, but I think if you can turn people on to music, in the end it’s only going to sell more music.

This “Free Girl Now” thing happened because it had been explained to me that singles don’t sell. They break even at best. The pop singles chart now is just an airplay chart. They don’t take a poll on what singles sold. They’re just promotional tools for selling albums. So if this is the case, I thought why don’t we just put it on and allow fans to download it? It will be a great promotion for the album, and everybody can hear the song if they like. And they had such an overwhelming response to it—hundreds of thousands of people in a day just downloading like crazy—and then I was politely advised that it would probably be a good idea not to do that. [Laughs]

By your record company?

Yeah. I must say, because we didn’t ask permission, we just did it—they were really polite about it, they weren’t jerks at all. They kind of said, ‘That’s funny, Tom. . .’

Did they say, ‘Don’t do it again, Tom’?

No. They said, ‘We really think you should take it off. It’s time to give it a rest.’

And did you?

Yeah. I had to. [Laughs]

Did they see the value of using it as a promotional tool?

I would think so, but I didn’t really ask.

“Lonesome Sundown” is interesting musically in that it’s got a shifting tonal center, so it’s not clear even what key it’s in.

Yeah, I’m not sure either. I don’t know what key it’s in. But I love to do that, if I can bust into another key from one, and then somehow get back. It’s not easy to do, as we have discussed.

“Lonesome Sundown” has some of your most beautiful lyrics—“Redemption comes to those who wait/forgiveness is the key. . .” Do you recall what triggered that verse?

I think I was thinking kind of deep there. I had gotten in that zone and it all just started coming. I was going through a lot in my life when I wrote that. I went through a divorce the year before, and I was trying to get just settled into a new life. And so some of that is reflected in the songs, I think. And my relationship with my children. But I didn’t want to write one of those, ‘I just got divorced’ albums. So I consciously tried to stay away from it. But some of it creeps in.

There are definitely many sad moments throughout the album.

Yeah, it’s down sometimes. It’s kind of bleak.

But with hope. “Lonesome Sundown” is a hopeful song.

Sometimes I noticed that even within one song, because I may be thinking about different people or different things within the scope of one song, one verse might be happy and the next verse might be a little bit melancholy [Laughs] because there’s a lot of good things going on in my life, too. Actually, I’m pretty happy now. I’ve been skating along pretty well now, I think. So there is hope in the songs.

The words changed several times in that song. But I finally got it to where I liked it. I think I worked on that one a lot more than any of the others.

It also has “Swingin’” on it, which is a cool song.

“Swingin’” is a good one. I actually ad-libbed it completely. That is the writing of the song. Yeah. It’s a complete ad-lib. I played that first round of chords, the band fell in, I ad-libbed the lyric from top to bottom.

Good ad-lib.

Yeah, good ad-lib. [Laughs] Lucky. It was the easiest one to write for the album. We got down to the end of the album and we started thinking we were going to do a recut of “Free Girl Now.” We were thinking we could make a better record out of this. There was some school of thought that we could make a better record, and some of us thought that it should be just as it was. Because it’s a real shaky record in a way, it’s like. . .

It’s raw, but it has a great feel.

Yeah, it’s very raw. So we got down to the studio and went back at the very eleventh hour of the record to see if we could make a better track. And really our hearts weren’t in it. Everybody knew we already had it. So we never actually played it. [Laughs] But while we were plugging in and sitting there, I came up with these chords to “Swingin’.”

I just started playing them, actually, underneath what they were doing— they were all jamming, and there was this feedback and this noise. And I was playing against them. I think they were even in a different key, and I just kept playing. And there was no real beat going on. It was just chaos. Dissonance. The noise of everybody getting plugged in.

And I felt, oh, this sounds good with the guitar sounds I had up, and these chords sounded good. And I just kept playing it because I had no other way to communicate it.

[Laughs] So I just kept playing those chords over and over. And then finally I could hear them one by one pick up on this chord thing.

And then koo-koo-a-bam, the drums fell in and we were on our way. And I just ad-libbed the whole song. Top to bottom.

The lyric is funny: “Swingin’. . .like Benny Goodman, like Glenn Miller, like Sonny Liston.”

Yeah. Those were all ad-lib things that just came out of nowhere. I wish I’d have gotten Dizzy Gillespie in there. [Laughs]

And then after that Rick Rubin was looking at what was going down, and said, ‘I think that is a really great song.’ Which seemed hard to believe, because I’d just ad-libbed it. We not only ad-libbed it, I mean Howie sang that back-up part live, and it all just came down. There were a few chords I was calling out. So we listened to it once again, and cut it one more time, and that was it. So there’s that done, and I don’t even know this song. It was really a thrill. I didn’t even know this song, and it was done. It was a record.

Do you mistrust the songs that come that easy?

Well, yeah. Because you don’t know where it came from. Where did that come from? But I’m getting better about just accepting it as a gift. Let’s just be happy you got it.

You didn’t have any of those words before?

No. I didn’t have the song before. We just started playing it.

“Accused Of Love”?

“Accused Of Love” took about two days. Two days of thinking that through. And what it was, was getting the title, was getting the punch line, to fall into place just right. Because I didn’t know what it was. I knew what I wanted to say but I didn’t know how to say it yet.

And I was actually with Dana. This was before we were married. [Laughs] About five in the morning I kept playing her this song. On guitar. And I’d just put in anything where the title goes: “Can of beans,” or whatever. And then suddenly, poof, “Accused Of Love” fell down, and I just fell all around the room laughing. I got so elated.

“Accused Of Love” has kind of a British, early Beatles sound.

Yeah. It’s funny how you see these influences go round and round, because I was thinking of Don Everly, that sort of melody. But it does have a mid-Sixties British sound. And he was obviously influencing them.

Like one of those old songs, it’s very short—under three minutes.

Yeah. It’s great when you can get it all in, in that amount of time.

The bridge is an instrumental. Did you ever think of singing words there?

No. I thought about that for a minute but I felt the song would get too wordy if I put in a big thing there. So in some of those British Invasion records they sometimes do that, they just hammer out some variation on the chord progression for the bridge. And that works.

The last verse is about judicial proceedings—with the defense flying out the window and all. Did you write that after finding the title?

Well, I did have a different last verse, but finding that title did inspire a quick rewrite in the last verse.

Does it feel more like a process of discovering what works, of finding that puzzle piece, rather than inventing it?

I always feel that way. Like it’s already been done, it’s just gonna come. I enjoyed writing those songs. I really enjoyed doing the album. I wrote them at my own pace and there was never any real pressure to hurry up. So it was really pretty enjoyable. I was kind of sad when it all wrapped up. [Laughs] I just feel like I’m really getting good now. [Laughs]

That enjoyment is reflected in the melodies and chord changes you often choose. The changes are often unusual but they always seem inevitable.

Oh yeah? Thank you. That is thorough, when you learn the chords. There were some good chords. “Lonesome Sundown” has some good chords—that weird turn-around at the chorus. I really liked that. I was kind of tickled with those chords.

Another one was “One More Day, One More Night.” I liked those chords. I originally wrote that as a skiffle. Like really fast. [Sings, in fast tempo, playing rhythm with his hands on his lap.] “One more day. . .” But then I thought, ‘I’ve done so many skiffles,’ so I took it to a more R&B thing with the band. We did it once as a skiffle and no one said anything but they had this look of, ‘I think we’ve been down this road.’ So I said let’s try it as an R&B thing.

The title song, “Echo” is a beautiful song.

Long. [Laughs] But it’s good. It’s a long song and it’s funny because it doesn’t hold any particular tense. [Laughs] It’s being sung to many different people. It goes into narrative and then it goes out of narrative. But I just thought that I would leave it just as it came out. There was no editing on this album at all, or any rethinking too much. I just let it come out the way it was. And sometimes that song is kind of scary. But it’s a good one. And I thought we got such a tremendous sound on it. The intro just falls in, and the piano is beautiful. It was an upright piano we used.

But I like this other rock & roll song on there called, “About To Give Out.” I thought they played really great on that.

It was funny, because I listened to the album, and there was a song that came on, that I had completely forgotten that I had ever done it. And I have no memory of writing it. Called “It Won’t Last Long.” [Sings] “I’m down, but it won’t last long. . .” And I thought, ‘What a cool song.’ I had no memory of writing that song. And I actually forgot that we ever made it. [Laughs] And it was such an odd feeling when it came on, because I was listening to it really as somebody who was hearing it for the first time.

But that was Echo. There was a lot going on then in my life. Howie was disintegrating before our eyes. That was a big issue. Not the happiest time for The Heartbreakers. We did a tour behind that record. We did a pretty long tour, for us. That’s what I remember most about it, doing the tour. And the tour went on and on and on. And we played quite a few songs from it. But I was kind of glad to get to another place after Echo. [Laughs] I was kind of glad to get somewhere else. I don’t know why, but I kind of felt like we came back into the sun after that. “Billy The Kid”?

I wrote that on the drive to the studio in Bug’s truck. My trusty roadie Bugs was driving me to work—and I got this idea for this song, “Billy The Kid.” I pulled out a pad as we were going over Topanga Canyon with all those curves, so I was really writing on the edge of the paper, and back and forth in the truck. And I wrote it all out on the way to work, and I had the tune in my head.

The tune just came from nowhere—no guitar or anything?

No, I just had it in my head. So I got in there to work, and I said, ‘Boy, I think I got a good one.’

They said, ‘How does it go?’

And I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, I’ve got to figure it out.’ And they were looking at me kind of like, ‘What?’ And I got the guitar out, and I started to figure out the chords, because I knew the tune in my head. And that was another one where I swear I didn’t know how the song really went. I put the lyric sheet up and I ran over the chords with them on an acoustic. And I changed the key right there because where I was humming in my head was a little higher than where I was playing. And if you hear “Billy The Kid” you hear this brrrrrng at the beginning. . .

Yeah, what is that sound?

What it is, is that Mike did all the engineering on the tracking dates. There was no other engineer. It’s Mike hitting record while the band is playing. Because the band started to play and this great feel came down and I yelled to him, ‘Hit it, hit it!’ And he turned around and he hit record and then you can hear his guitar slowly kick in because he’s just getting his guitar on.

And so, there’s “Billy The Kid.” We did it down, and we’re tremendously excited at the end of this. And then we’d go, ‘Well, wow, this is going to be great.’ And then we spent all night playing it, and it never got as good as that very first pass through. So we wound up using the one with the noise on the front of it. And then we got used to that sound on the beginning of it , so we left it on.

“I Don’t Wanna Fight” is a song written by Mike Campbell alone, without any help from you?

You know what I wrote? I wrote “I’m a lover lover lover.”

That’s the best part.

I put that bit in. [Laughs]

That’s the punch line to the whole song. It makes it work.

I thought so. But he had really done the whole song, so I didn’t think it was fair to take credit for it. But I did help with that one line.

I also love “Rhino Skin,” which is both a funny and a sad song.

Dark, yeah. It’s dismal and humorous at the same time. There were some people in the group that thought the ‘elephant’s balls’ line was offensive.

To elephants?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I didn’t find it offensive at all. Rick [Rubin] couldn’t stand it. He wanted me to take it out. I couldn’t take it out. I tried taking it out and it didn’t sound good to me. So I just said I was gonna have it in. I’m gonna have it in because that’s the way I sing it, it sounds right to me, and I don’t think it’s offensive or anything. And he couldn’t tell me why he felt it was offensive. Actually, I think the whole group, at one point, on one evening, everybody said, ‘You ought to change that line. It cheapens the song.’ And I got kind of intimidated by it. But in the end I’m glad I left it there.

I agree. Because it sounds like something a guy might say to another guy after having had a few drinks in a bar.

That’s what I thought. “You need elephant balls if you don’t want to crawl. . .” I just thought it was a conversational line. I’m glad you got it that way.

And the title, “Rhino Skin” is such a perfect way of expressing that need to develop a thick skin.

Well, you do sometimes need it these days. [Laughs]  

In “One More Day, One More Night” you wrote, “God I’ve had to fight/To keep my line of sight on what’s real.” Can you keep some perspective, being within the music industry, on the meaning and impact an album can have to some guy who is far outside of the system?

I hope I do. I mean I know what they meant to me and still do. I know how a record to me is so important, you can’t even weigh up the value, because you’re being inspired by something. I hope it’s still like that. I hope people still get albums and get inspired by them. I know they do. Because too many people tell me about it.

I make them for me. And if I get off on them, I feel that somebody else will feel the same way.

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