Tom Petty was the oddest of rock stars.
He wasn’t flamboyant. He wasn’t even colorful. He was low-energy onstage from the first time I saw him in 1978 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis to the last time I caught him in June at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Throughout those years, Petty, who died Monday of cardiac arrest at age 66, distinguished himself as a terrific songwriter, a superb bandleader and a serious appreciator of music history and music makers.
So what if he was a reluctant rock star.
His reluctance, low-keyness and priorities were apparent in 1983 when I interviewed him by phone before a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers concert in Bloomington.
“I’m a fool for music. I’m probably pretty dull beyond that,” he confessed. “All we see ourselves as is just musicians and songwriters. We’re not in this to go on to make movies or become personalities.
“I’m just trying to make good rock records,” he continued. “I don’t want it to sound oversimplified but if I think about it much deeper than making a good record, then I get confused. All you can strive for when you’re making records is that they’ll still be worth playing a few years down the line. If we do something that lifts people up and inspires them a bit, then all the better.”
Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell — Petty’s best friend since their high school days in the Florida band Mudcrutch — pretty much reinforced that image when I interviewed him this summer before their St. Paul concert.
“He’s a good guy,” Campbell said of Petty. “He’s a hard worker. He’s got a great work ethic. He’s determined. He has a healthy ambition to be the best.”
Petty, like thousands of teenagers in the 1960s, was bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug. For many, it was seeing Elvis Presley perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” For Petty, it was meeting Elvis in person when Tom’s uncle was working on a movie with the King in Florida.
But, onstage, Petty was never like Elvis. The first time the Floridian came to the Twin Cities in 1978, fans weren’t sure if he was punk (Petty’s leather jacket and sour-puss expression on the cover suggested it) or new wave (thanks to the wonderful debut single “Breakdown”) or a Byrds wannabe (the gorgeously jangly single “American Girl”).
In concert that night at the State Theatre, Petty was pretty laid back, and the band was rock solid. But the show turned around when actor Gary Busey, a big star that year in “The Buddy Holly Story” who was in town filming a new movie, crashed the stage and pumped up the party.
Petty always seemed to be in service to his songs. Or somebody’s songs. He wasn’t the life of the party.
Petty and Dylan
In 1986, I spent two days on the road with Bob Dylan when Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were his backup band. The guys kept their distance from the Great One.
At the hotel bar, Dylan hung out — but not with Petty or any of the Heartbreakers. He traveled solo in a van to the gig. He never talked to the band until he walked onstage and they were waiting for him.
Between songs, Dylan might turn around and say something to Petty, the bandleader, who was there to be in service to Dylan’s songs, whether it be his classic “Masters of War” or “Shot of Love” from his so-called Christian period. And, of course, Dylan let Petty and the Heartbreakers play a few of their own tunes during his set.
Over the years, Petty talked about how touring with Dylan gave him a big shot of confidence. It also probably helped ease Petty’s entree into the Traveling Wilburys, the impromptu supergroup of George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Dylan that formed out of a Harrison recording session. There was Petty, the relative “youngster” in a group of superstars, all of whom started in the 1960s except him.
The sound of Petty’s own music was a tip of the hat to the classic rock of the 1960s — British harmonies, Southern rock rhythms, Byrdsian guitars and Dylan-like emotional realism.
Petty was soft-spoken but never afraid to be outspoken. Like his song said, “I Won’t Back Down.” He fought with record labels, most famously with MCA, which wanted to raise the list price of his “Hard Promises” in 1981 simply to capitalize on his popularity.
Petty and Prince
Petty’s laid-backness was on full display in 2004, the night he inducted the late George Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. As tradition has it, the night ends with a jam featuring artists who were honored earlier. The song was Harrison’s Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the lineup was Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, George’s son Dhani Harrison, the Heartbreakers and Prince, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame that night. Mid-song, Marc Mann, a guitarist from Lynne’s band, replicated the Eric Clapton solo from the original version.
Watching from the balcony, I remember the minute Prince stepped forward and started soloing on guitar. The ballroom was instantly galvanized. He wasn’t going gently into the night; he was in full rock-star glory and positively electrifying as Petty stood next to him gently singing the refrain over and over. Prince kept making these exaggerated faces as he took everybody higher and higher and Petty just strummed his acoustic guitar in service to the song and the moment.
Petty is not one for big glad-handing moments. That was underscored in February of this year when he was feted by MusiCares, the charity wing of the Grammys. A string of stars, including Randy Newman, the Foo Fighters, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Don Henley and Cage the Elephant, interpreted Petty songs and you marveled at how many top-notch tunes this Rock Hall of Famer had crafted.
Then he gave a speech and Petty was reluctant as ever.
“Twenty years ago I’d have been way too cynical to do this, but I’m 66 now and I feel ya,” he admitted. “I thank you for this and it’s a great honor.”
Before he was through, he thanked Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Leon Russell, Harrison and Johnny Cash, so many of the greats with whom Petty worked — and, of course, the Heartbreakers.
“We got together last week and rehearsed for this thing, and I realized I may actually be in one of the best two or three rock ’n’ roll bands there is. I’m so proud of them.”
After he spoke, Petty and the Heartbreakers performed for the first time in two years. They sounded like one of the greatest bands around, doing “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” And when Stevie Nicks joined Petty and company for the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and the obscure “Insider,” it was obvious why she’s always wanted to join Petty’s band. They made beautiful noise together.
In retrospect, that night in front of the music industry ended up as something of Tom Petty’s valedictory. A major rock star indeed, reluctant though he was. But once again he was the ultimate bandmate in service to the songs.