This is the final part of this conversation with Tom about Highway Companion, Tom’s solo album which came out this week 14 years ago. This chapter was originally published in the book we did together, Conversations with Tom Petty. As Tom and I met at his home by the ocean almost every Saturday in 2005 and into 2006, he played many tracks from Highway Companion, the third of his three solo albums he made in his career inbetween albums with The Heartbreakers and other projects. It was very much the soundtrack of this project, and an inspirational one.
What struck me most back then and still to this day was the purity of his exultation about the new songs he wrote, and the recordings of them. We’d meet there in his home studio usually, where he was making this album; the first one he made entirely at his home. His drum set was there, a symbols of both his talent and humble nature. He played all the drums on this album himself, the only album on which he did this. Even among musicians who can play many instruments, drums isn’t usually one of them. But Tom could do it, which impressed me.
But rather than revel in his own greatness, he was quick to say that he could do it on record, where it’s easy to fix anything, but not live. As his fans know well, Tom had so much love and reverence, which he expressed often, for great musicians. Though the personalities of the Heartbreakers, past and present, were sometimes tough for him, never did he have anything but great praise for their musicianship. (And for Steve Ferrone as well. Tom said Ferrone’s playing on “You Wreck Me” is so great that if the song came on the radio, Tom would think, “Wow – is that us?”)
I’d already nterviewed him for a few years prior to the book, starting back during the era of Wildflowers. So it was joyous to spend so much time with him during this part of his journey. Here he was, all those years since the happy season of Wildflowers, and he was completely engrossed and excited about songwriting, and recording, about every aspect large and small (such as the tone that Mike got on his Magnatone amp for the riff in “Down South,” or the perfect bass parts played by Jeff Lynne)
And it was exciting and so illustrative of who the man was that his passion, which had lit this band on fire for decades, while entrancing millions of us with song was still absolute. The man was a real rock & roll champion, and this album, even today, is alive forever with that truth.)
The idea all along was to do a chapter on this album in the book. But the recording went beyond our deadline, so that our final chapter, I was told, was impossible.
That is, until Tom interceded, and we got an extension. Which let me know that what might seem impossible often isn’t. Especially if you are working with one of the world’s most beloved rock stars.
So we had one more interview to do this final chapter, of which this is the end. It closes on an ideal crystallization of his relentless passion for songwriting. It’s Tom talking about a new song he was working on, and his inability to crack its code. Though the album was done and he could have taken a break from writing, he preferred to be in the ring for one more fight.
That the interviews telling his official history ended on this note is perfect. Our last words from him are about a new song that had all his attention. He was doing what he did best and loved most. Whether songs came easy or required a prolonged, even painful, labor, he didn’t relinquish his post. He was a man on a mission, which is why at this moment his songbook overflows with timeless greatness; every kind of song there is, all of which came directly from his gentle heart and pure soul.
The final sentence here, which is the final one of the book, is perfect. This is no ending, just a quick stop on the song highway before he got back to work. About the song he was working on then, waiting for him like an unfinished painting on an easel, he said:
“I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it yet.”
“Around The Roses” is a nice song.
TOM PETTY: That’s a good melody. I wrote that in Mexico. I checked into this hotel. There’s English but it’s not the best English. When I checked in, the guy said, ‘Anything we can do for you, let us know.’ I started thinking that I would really like a gui- tar. I called the concierge and asked him if he could get me a guitar. And he was kind of thrown by that. I said, ‘It doesn’t have to be an expensive one, but it’s got to be one that tunes up.’
And I didn’t know how well he understood all that. And then I went out and rode horses for a while. And when I came back, there was a guitar. A nice Spanish guitar, nylon string. And I still have it. I brought it home with me, because I really liked it. But I thought it was so great that I called the front desk and they brought me a guitar. We were about thirty miles from Puerto Vallarta, and I guess somebody drove into town and bought me one. And it tuned up.
So I wrote “Around The Roses” and I finished the chorus to “Down South” when I was there. And I was really happy with that melody to “Around The Roses.”
So I came back, and I had that song, and [Jeff and Mike] just dove right in on it. I love Mike’s solo on it. God, it just got me when he played that solo. ’Cause he did part of it on regular 6-string, and on the turn-around he did that slide. Which I thought was so nice.
It’s an odd little song. It’s not normal. But I like it. I don’t think it’s one people are going to be drawn to immediately, but the more you hear it, the more it will grow on you.
It’s funny that even when you’re on vacation, you want a guitar, and you want to write.
It’s better than TV. [Laughter]
It was a wonderful vacation I had. I had a hammock outside the door, and I would lie in the hammock with my guitar.
I love the beginning of the song “Home”: “Left town in a hurry/blackmailed the judge and the jury. . .”
Yeah, I like the song. I don’t know if it’s as deep as the other ones. And [Jeff] made a great record of it. Maybe it will make the cut, I don’t know. The only reason it wouldn’t make the cut is because I’m trying to police myself on the length of the album. I was very vocal with everybody that I only wanted to do twelve. Because I think it’s hard to remember more than twelve. I might wind up breaking up my own rule. Because I really like the songs. It would be painful to cut anything.
“Home” has that great line, “Sometime everything’s nothing at all.” Which ties into bigger themes throughout your work.
I have to remember that. Everything, in a tangible sense, can add up to noth- ing. You’ve got to keep your head to where you realize what’s important and what isn’t. I think that’s what I was trying to say.
And “Honey, your arms feel like home” is such a romantic line.
Well, we’ve all felt that. That’s home, isn’t it? When you’re with the person you love, and you can go anywhere and still feel at home. That’s an important thing to find in life.
“Flirting With Time” has such a catchy chorus, almost like an old Motown hook.
It’s almost too catchy, isn’t it? [Laughs] I played that for Jeff, and I was kind of worried that he might say, ‘That’s too catchy. It’s too obvious.’ I was worried it was too light. But Jeff and Mike liked it. That was another one that I wrote, and the chorus emerged right out of the verse. So I’m still not dead-sure what that song’s about. I just followed my nose until the end of it.
It’s on that theme of realizing that time is precious, and you’ve got to really use it every day. It’s not a song I would have written as a kid. It’s like a little letter to myself to remember to do that.
The song “Golden Rose” is beautiful. About a boat.
Yeah. Probably like a riverboat. That’s what I saw. I wrote that song way back before the album. And I actually did a track of it with The Heartbreakers, which didn’t quite come out the way I wanted. So I remembered it during the sessions, and I played it for Jeff, and he wanted to do it. So it’s really just a little riverboat story. A guy’s stuck on a boat. The Captain’s nuts, and the son is worse. [Laughs] He’s left someone behind.
The chorus is lovely.
Jeff and I sang that in unison. We had a lot of fun singing it. And we did the harmonies together in unison on one mike. We went out into the big room, so we could get a nice ambient room sound on it. And it made a really good sound. Then we put a piano through a Leslie speaker with some tape delay, which makes that
strange sound at the end. I tried playing it a few times, and I couldn’t get it. And then Jeff took a go at it. I think he came up with a really nice melody for the ending.
“Ankle Deep In Love” is about a horse.
It’s a story about a daughter that steals her dad’s prize racehorse. And it’s got a little bit of humor in it.
I love that line, when the girl says, “Daddy, you’ve been a mother to me. . .”
[Laughs] Yeah, that was a good way to tie it up. I don’t know where that came from. That just came into my head, and I followed the story to see where it would go. It’s like I’ve said, you don’t have a lot of room to write a story in a song. So you have to be economical with your lines. But I like that one because I was able to do it, and get a chuckle out of some of the lines. This girl runs off with a field- hand, and they steal a prize racehorse from her father. So you kind of get the pic- ture that the father’s wealthy. And the field-hand isn’t. “Found her hiding high in the family tree.” I liked that one.
The song “Jack” is cool. It has a different feel than the others.
Yeah, that’s a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. It was fun playing the drums on that.
It’s got great drums on it, especially on the turn-arounds.
Yeah, I was pleased when I found that part. I had a good time doing the drums. I did the drums here on that. I did a lot of that track alone, and then they helped me finish it. Jeff did a bass. It’s not the deepest song in the world, but I thought it would be good to have a nice rock ‘n’ roll song. Fun to sing, too. It’s got a good melody. I also played lead guitar on that one. Where it was actually so bad, they kept it. They said, ‘No, that’s too authentic, we’re not gonna touch that. Leave it the way it is.’
Damaged By Love” is a nice song about time. With another beautiful chorus.
I could hear the Everly Brothers sing that song. It is about time again. Love is a funny thing, because it can really damage someone, as well as redeem them.
Dana actually helped me with two lines in that song. In the last verse. I was kind of stuck. It’s not something I would ordinarily do, but I said, ‘Hey, what would you put here? What would you say? I know what I want to say, but I can’t really find a way of saying it.’ And that was her line, “In a crowd all alone/walk- ing around in a song.” That was hers.
“So young and damaged by love.” I see that all the time. Parents can damage a child, too. So it’s kind of a serious song, but it’s a very beautiful song. I played that tremolo guitar. It’s basically just an electric guitar with a tremolo and an acoustic. It’s very sparse, but it’s a great song. I love singing that, the chorus especially. It’s one of my favorite ones, I think. It was done late in the album. I really love that kind of song. We were finishing the album, and I wrote it at home. It was the last one I wrote, and I played it for Jeff, and he said, ‘Damn, how do you do this? You’re on a roll. You should run this out as far as it can go.’ And I think that’s as far as it went.
It’s funny, because I wrote all those songs, and it’s probably been about four or five months since we quit working. And I haven’t written anything. So it’s weird, you get in a space, and things start coming in. But then it quits. So I’m just sitting around, waiting to write another song before I go back to the studio. Because I don’t want to go back with just one song. But nothing’s coming. I may just have to say that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because nothing’s coming.
But part of my goal with this album was to have something that is of a piece, and it’s got a certain vibe, and it keeps it throughout.
How about “This Old Town”?
That was written in the middle of all the other things. It’s a little bit of a story about someone who is somewhere they don’t want to be, and feels the town is closing in on him. I hear a lot of people say that when they’re unhappy where they’re living.
Was it L.A. you were writing about?
No, not necessarily. I think it could be any town. The bridge was good. And it was another song that was fun to play the drums on. I got to do a little bit more in that one. I got to do some fills and stuff. I think maybe that’s one of the best tracks. Just as a record. That’s one of the best ones on there. I still haven’t figured out where to put it in the sequence. Right now I have it at the end, but I don’t think it’s the perfect ending.
I like the chords. The chords have a nice turn-around in them. I like that one a lot. That was another one I did here. I did the vocal and the guitar and voice, and then took it over there and did the rest there.
Where did the title Highway Companion come from?
It just came to me, that this would be a nice highway companion. Like a good book that you could take with you on a trip. I liked that. It’s good traveling music. Something you could go on a journey with, and it would be a nice companion.
I’m pretty proud of this album. I think I’ve done something that I’m particularly proud of. I hope people get to hear it. Because it’s hard these days, with the way radio is, to get a lot of exposure for rock ‘n’ roll. I think those that do will enjoy it.
I keep thinking I want to go back and do more. I’m struggling so much with this song I’m trying to write now. But I don’t know if I’m gonna finish it in time. Because I know I’ve got something there, but I can’t seem to get in all to tie up. It’s just a huge headache trying to finish it. It’s just a nightmare trying to finish it.
Is that unusual for you, to struggle to that extent?
This much is unusual. But there’s something that makes me not want to give up on it. Because I know the bit that I’ve got, as much as I’ve got, is really good. But I can’t quite find the line or two I need, melodically and lyrically, to tie it all up. So I’m at a point where I’m almost tired of working on it. So I’ll take a break of a few days, and then come back and work on it again. I think that if I could pull it off, it could be really good.
Does it have a title?
No, that’s the tough part. I don’t know really where to hang my hat. [Laughs]
I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it yet.