Cameron Crowe Talks to Tom Petty for First Rolling Stone Story
Excerpted from the October 19th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone
Two rent-a-cars carrying Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers roll toward Vancouver International Airport for an early-morning flight back to Los Angeles, where the band will take a two-day break from touring before heading to England for more shows. Suddenly, one of the cars pulls up alongside the other. Wildly motioning to roll down the window, drummer Stan Lynch shouts, “We’re on! Right around 102.”
This is tantamount to red alert. Hands dart to the radio dial, and these weary rockers come alive with schoolboy fervor. Hearing the last notes of their new single “Listen to Her Heart” on AM radio, the Heartbreakers – Petty, Lynch, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair – give themselves a whooping cheer and continue on to the airport.
Once on board the plane, the band members happily collapse for the two-hour flight. All except for Petty, who orders coffee and, in an uncommonly talkative mood, reflects on the past two years. “Everything’s banking on that one song right now,” he says in a slow drawl, “and I’m prepared for the worst.”
Though their second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, has gone gold, they still need a big hit single to make their mark in the platinum-oriented business. The problem is that “Listen to Her Heart,” the second single off the album, contains the line “You think you’re gonna take her away/With your money and your cocaine.” And despite record-company and radio-station pressure, Petty has refused to change “cocaine” to “champagne.”
“I mean,” says Petty, “first of all, it’s anti-cocaine. I don’t even like the stuff. And second, what’s champagne going for these days? Two bucks a bottle?”
The last three days on the road illustrated why a hit is so vital to this band on the verge of stardom. There had been a riotous 3,000-seat sellout in Seattle one night, a half-full house in Portland the next, and a curious club-full of Vancouver teenagers the third. Through it all, Petty and band had gladly shared rooms, met the local media and collected fanatical concert reviews. But, says Petty, “The last thing I want to be is a critics’ band.”
Today, for the most part, that doesn’t appear to be a problem. “Did you see the reviews in England?” Petty asks, brushing his yellow hair out of his eyes. “They criticize us because we’ve become too L.A.-ized. Comparing [the new LP] to a Linda Ronstadt record is really funny to me. And I don’t care, to tell you the truth. I really don’t care if they want to give me shit about where I live. I could live in New York and do the same album. How dare they think that we’ve become too L.A. We’re saving the place. Don’t give me shit.”
The son of a Gainesville, Florida, insurance salesman, Petty was toothy and unpopular in school. After quitting school at age 17, Petty eventually became a local bar sensation with his band Mudcrutch. Watching other regional stars like Duane and Gregg Allman find fame out West, he brought a Mudcrutch demo to L.A.
His first day there, Petty began making calls from a pay phone on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood. By the end of the day, he had collected offers from Capitol, MGM and London. A week later, Petty returned to Gainesville with seven such offers. The day before the band was to move out to L.A., the phone rang with yet another deal. The group signed with Shelter, which at that time was co-owned by Leon Russell, and the label’s president, Denny Cordell, sponsored Mudcrutch’s move to Los Angeles. “But we did the L.A. freakout,” recalls Tench, who along with Campbell was also a member of Mudcrutch. “We fought over songs, over having been together too long, and we broke up.”
Petty and Campbell stayed together to try and salvage the Shelter contract. But an attempt at a solo Petty album with L.A. session men came off stilted, and Petty found himself “hanging out at Leon Russell’s, getting desperate. I didn’t know how to get a band together.”
The solution came while Petty was driving back from Cordell’s Malibu house one afternoon and decided to swing by a Benmont Tench demo session. He found a roomful of familiar Gainesville musicians. “We played together that day,” he says. “The next day I asked them if they wanted to start the band.”
The band became the Heartbreakers, and their goal was to combat “disco trance music” with “the kind of rock that used to come blasting out of the AM radio when every song was a new Creedence or a new Stones, and all you wanted to do was crank it up.” The group finished its first album in two weeks.
By the time Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released, in November 1976, Petty says, “Everybody white, in a band and under the age of 25 was a punk.” With an album cover that pictured Petty in black leather and bullets, the band found itself categorized. The group took early jobs playing with Blondie and Tuff Darts, but Petty spent most of his early interviews pointing out that he was not a punk rocker. Sample quote: “Call me a punk and I’ll cut you.”
When the group’s album went unadvertised by ABC, which distributed Shelter, Petty’s quotability helped bring the group to the public’s attention, particularly in England. Opening for Nils Lofgren on a British tour, the band was quickly invited back as headliners. “American Girl” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll,” both from the first album, became hits in England.
Petty’s anti-punk reputation also earned him an early confrontation with Johnny Rotten. “We were walking into our hotel lobby in England,” remembers Petty. “I hear this snotty voice saying, ‘Oh, it’s the American pop star Tom Petty.’ I ignore it, check into the hotel, and Stan and I start walking toward the elevator. We hear the same voice, kind of whining, ‘There the hippies go. Bye-bye, Tom.’ At this point, Stan wheels around and starts heading for whoever it is. He wants to kill.