Text and live at CBGB’s photo by Robert Barry Francos
Album images from the Internet
Interview text © FFanzeen 1977; intro and outro text © 2009
The following interview was originally published in the first issue of FFanzeen (issue dated 7/7/77).
I had done a few interviews for groups that were handled by Shelter Records, and the staff was quite excited about a new, freshman album that was about to come out by a yet-unknown Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They gave me an advance copy of the first album, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. While it didn’t bowl me over, I enjoyed the quirkiness of it, a feeling which would not be repeated for following albums when the group became the musical mid-ground between John Cougar Mellencamp and Bob Dylan, both of whom would profit from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ success. The first album was sharp and its minimalist production, reminiscent of the Modern Lovers’ earliest recordings. Songs were based on minor keys and about a wider range of subject matter than just “love / hate”. The two best cuts were also the two hits from the album, “Breakdown,” and especially “American Girl.”
The publicity machine let me know that Petty would be playing at CBGB and I could be on the guest list, so I headed on down to the showcase. No one that I asked was interested in going to see the weekday show with me, since Petty was a total unknown. The place was filled with suits and very few of the public, who were possibly turned off by seeing all the aforementioned corporate types, or the lack of product by the artist. They weren’t a New York band, so they had no following here. I sat in front, which was easy since the record and publicity cogs circled the bar like flies on shit. I had my instamatic camera and took some slides to record the moment.
Soon afterwards, I was able to catch Tom Petty and his band again (and again be on the guest list) for his show at the Bottom Line, where he opened for Roger McGuinn. Originally I wasn’t going to go, but I thought it would be cool to see McGuinn, whom I had never seen perform before. It is very rare to find a rock writer / critic / reviewer / fan who will admit they want to get on a band’s guest list to actually see the group sharing the bill. It was actually a strange billing since McGuinn had just released a cover of “American Girl.” Both of them sang it during their own sets (and with different arrangements).
The day after the McGuinn show, I interview Petty. I dragged Alan Abramowitz along. Petty had two interviews before mine (also college writers, I believe), until finally it was our turn into the conference chamber. You would think that for someone who was facing only his third interview, Petty would be excited and into it. Well, if he was, he sure didn’t give any indication. He just droned, in that nasal voice, and went on like we were more in his way than trying to get us on his side, something that might help get a favorable article and serve to produce fans. He sat there and talked with a monotone, giving the impression he was thinking more about doing something else, like his laundry, than being in the moment. As this interview shows, as short as it was, Petty was egocentric and self-important, even back then. When asked a question, he’d follow his own course, whether connected or not; and when asked to clarify, he’d just go on without even realizing anyone else besides his voice was in the room. All in all, he was quite boring. In fact, after a few minutes, Alan fell asleep in the corner, and began to loudly snore. I envied him. I don’t believe that Petty was purposely trying to be nasty in any way, he was just highly involved with himself. That is why I gave the piece its title.
Tom Petty: A Petty Interview
Although Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are considered a West Coast band, they have been fairly well accepted by the rockers on both coasts. They’ve played on the same bill with such groups as Blondie and the Runaways. When I interviewed them last March 8, 1977, they were playing the Bottom Line with Roger McGuinn. They had played at CBGB a few months past. They have a definite rock’n’roll sound that, to some, may take some getting into (remember the first time you heard Television?).
While doing this interview, I kept getting the feeling that, at times, Petty wasn’t listening to what either I, or he himself, was saying. You may catch this on some of the answers. Despite this, I feel that, in most cases, Petty answered to the best of his ability.
FFanzeen: With all the names for the music being played these days, what do you call what you play?
Tom Petty: We just consider ourselves a rock’n’roll band.
FF: Have you seen any other New York bands when you were here?
Petty: Yeah, I’ve seen, well, I just played in L.A. with Blondie for four nights. I saw the Ramones. I haven’t seen a lot of them but I have a friend here [in New York] at Sire Records who sends me a lot of records for me to hear so I’ve heard some of it. I’m not really aware of it. No, we’re not trying to jump in on that one. We’re a young rock’n’roll band and that’s it. Gene Benson was punk as far as – I mean, he was probably more punk than the Ramones are. So was Elvis.
FF: When you played New York, did you find that anyone got confused between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and [Johnny Thunders and] the Heartbreakers?
Petty: Yeah, the first time we came here we didn’t know about that band for a long time. We heard about it right before we played CBGB’s; that there was another local band called the Heartbreakers. But by that time, I said, I haven’t heard them to this day, and, well, ours is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and they can’t get too confused, and sorry and all that but we ain’t gonna change our name or nothing. That’s really a New York problem. It doesn’t come up everywhere.
FF: How did you like playing CBGB’s?
Petty: Good gig. When we came that time, we wanted to play the street place, you know. All I said about New York is “Alright, I’ll play there, but I don't want to go to the Bottom Line, come on with a big press party, and I hate that sort of thing. It just ain’t my nature. I’d like to play the street place where the kids go.” Went there and all the press came.
FF: You picked a bad night, a Tuesday night.
Petty: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of people here and it was a really good couple of days. I like New York.
FF: Did you like playing the Bottom Line?
Petty: Yeah, I had a great time. I think, you know, that the audience, they weren’t quite ready for what happened on the first show, for either show, but coaxed with it, ya know, they dug it. I could tell they dug it. They were with us.
FF: Are you on tour now?
Petty: I’ve been on tour about at least five weeks and I’m gonna be out for another two months. We were with the Runaways the night before we were with McGuinn. Roger was a strong influence on me when he was with the Byrds. They were some of the first records I ever bought. I met him in L.A. I like him, I really do. He’s a cool cat. No matter what he does, I dig him. He’s a legend, ya know? Roger McGuinn. I’m really going to enjoy this gig. The last night of the tour is in Long Island at some university.
FF: What was it like playing with the Runaways?
Petty: Well, we’ve only played with them once. We have another date in Cleveland. We played with them in Detroit with a band called Cheap Trick. It was just this Detroit rock show, you know, just give me blood, you know. We went down fine. It was really simple for us. I had never seen the Runaways till then. They were what you might call weird. It was kinda like a teen porn show, or something. I didn’t get to know the girls really well. I know them but I don’t know them. They just look like sex teens. They’re just some kids trying to play. They just happen to be girls. It was strange to see the guys go nuts.
FF: You’re from [Jacksonville] Florida.
Petty: That’s where I was born and raised. I haven’t lived there for ... four years. I live in L.A.
FF: How did you meet the Heartbreakers?
Petty: They’re from Florida, too. They were all in different bands. I was in a band there that got pretty popular. We came out to L.A., and got a record deal, and I quit about halfway through the album. The band broke up and the album never came out. Then I signed another record contract, sort of an artist-in-residence thing with Shelter for about three years. I would sit back and play in the studio ... Then the other guys drifted out to L.A., like Michael Campbell, the guitar player, was with me all the time. We’re playing together about five years. The rest of them just drifted out for various reasons. Through a series of chance meetings, we showed up on the same demo session and it was so good ... so we got together and we did a couple of tracks and we said all right. I went to a record company ... with my hat in my hand, “I’m joining a band, the Heartbreakers.” They were real understanding.
FF: What was the group (you came to California with) ...
Petty: The Heartbreakers.
FF: No, what group was it ...
Petty: We’ve been together now for about a year. It’s a great band. I’m still on the rush. I don’t understand how it happened or what went right. I dig this band, and I’m pretty hard on bands. No ego trips. No leader and nobody’s got more say than anybody else. It works very well.
FF: I take it you’re satisfied with the way the album came out?
Petty: For a first album, it’s pretty true to where we were at the time. It’s getting played on (W)NEW (New York) with moderate airplay. We got a single that’s a hit in England.
FF: What single?
Petty: “American Girl.”
FF: Roger McGuinn has the same single out ... are you satisfied with the way McGuinn did it?
Petty: Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way. I obviously didn’t do it that way.
FF: I haven’t heard his single yet. I heard him do it last night though.
Petty: He did it very Roger McGuinn-ish. A lot different. A lot more laid back. We do it like Bo Diddley. Roger does it a little cruizier, and he changes some of the words. When I played one day in L.A., I was teaching the song to Roger. Like, we just sat, and it was a real standoff situation. I came in and they say, ”Whoa, a real punk. What a punk.” Like Roger would call me a punk. “Who the fuck are you callin’ a punk? I ain’t no punk.” I put on my guitar and I say, “It goes like this: One, two ...” But I respect the guy a lot. He knows what he’s doin’. His audience is probably better that way, than my audience. This is really sort of a great compliment to me. I’m really second generation to Roger. I’m flattered he did it at all.
FF: What music do you listen to now?
Petty: Now? Sort of the same stuff I used to listen to. I listen to everything. I really do listen to all kinds of music. I have not heard Bruce Springsteen. I mean, I heard him once and that’s it. Right before I went on tour I listened to the Everly Brothers’ greatest hits. I listen to Aerosmith and I tend to go by tracks. The ones I listen to all the way are usually classic albums, like the Kinks. The Low album is probably a classic.
FF: What do the Heartbreakers listen to?
Petty: There isn’t really much we disagree on. Stan (Lynch, drummer) is definitely into heavy metal and Ron’s (Blair, bass) into heavy metal. Michael (Campbell, guitar) is into Stones stuff, Beatles. Ben’s (Tench, keyboards) a thousand things.
FF: Will a time come when a Heartbreaker will sing a solo?
Petty: No, I don’t think so. It might happen. If it does, it will be a group thing. I’m the lead singer because I’m the lead singer. We didn’t dye our hair, we didn’t curl it, no one did any of that. People actually ask me, “Did you dye your hair?” We’re just a straight rock'n’roll band. No smoke machines. None of that. We’re straightforward guitar, drums rock’n’roll. We’re song-oriented.
FF: What is your ultimate goal?
Petty: We want to be successful. Not just money. You know, just making a successful record and a successful show. Whatever that means, that’s what it is. I just want to be successful. I could feel successful without selling a million records.
FF: Do you see yourself branching out into other media, like television?
Petty: We ain't never gonna do no TV special. I don’t think we’d do the Midnight Special. I wouldn’t go on with one of those “Alright, the stage is gonna go upside down. Here’s this camera angle. Here’s the same old fuckin’ set we look at every week.” I would like to do a variety show. I could dig that.
FF: Do you have any hobbies?
Petty: Girls are my latest hobbies. I think that’s the Heartbreakers’ latest hobbies now-a-days. Yeah.
Perhaps it’s only my hometown pride, but I was pissed about the way Petty was dismissive about Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, as well as the Ramones. Sorry, TP, but the Heartbreakers are not just a local band, and still have an international appeal that, on some level, your Heartbreakers could never reach. While Tom Petty’s band may have a wider audience demographic and sell more product, the New York Heartbreakers have influenced many more musicians, even if they didn’t have the music business industry behind them (most likely due to the industry’s fear of their unreliability and their, er, peccadilloes). Petty’s music became ever more mundane and tiresome, while Thunders’ would be innovative until he died. How many Tom Petty bootlegs compared to Johnny Thunders. And more importantly, how many people have listened to Tom Petty and wanted to play music as compared to Johnny Thunders. For both of these, I would lean toward the latter.
In retrospect, Petty comes off a bit hypocritical in the interview. He goes at length to say how he’s not in it for the money, but he’s responsible for the raising of the retail prices of records in the early 1980s. Yet, he also managed to get himself in enough debt to file for bankruptcy. He claimed money wasn’t important to him, but I guess spending it was.
I became more convinced of Petty’s shallowness – if just lack of withallness – when he appeared on one of the Friday night concert shows, the very kind he stated he’d never be on, within a year or two of his decrying the genre. And sure enough all of the weird camera angles and close-ups were on display. Most likely he thought it was a “good gig” and “dug it.”
I’m not trying to harp on Tom Petty, as I really don’t have anything against him, even though I’m not a fan (again, except that for that first album). I’m sure he’s a southern gentleman who plays a decent guitar. With his band, he’s done a lot of fine work in his career, especially backing up musicians like brother-in-monotone-nasality, Bob Dylan. What I was disturbed about was his “whatever” attitude, which made him appear so oblivious (and seemly uncaring) of what is going on around him.
On a positive note, Petty was the leading force in getting a headstone for Jackie Wilson, who had died penniless after years of being a shut-in as a result of an on-stage heart attack; so, I guess Petty does have his compassionate side, and assured himself a place in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.