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Super Seventies RockSite! presents

 Tom Petty - In His Own Words

Blacklight Bar

Tom is a real rocker and a dedicated fan of others who preceded him. His success and his relationships with Bob Dylan and Del Shannon tell you a lot about the range he covers.

Tom Pettyn 1974, when we came to Los Angeles from Gainesville, Florida, we heard there were two places to play -- the Starwood and the Whisky. But you needed to have a record out to play those places, and we had no record. So we'd go to the Valley trying to find some little beer bars to play, and the people in those bars, all they wanted to hear were the Top 10 songs of the day, which was pretty awful music in the mid-Seventies. It wasn't the kind of stuff you could whip up with a combo and play. It was very frustrating.

After our first album came out, we got to go to England, and we had big success over there, opening for Nils Lofgren. We ended up staying in England and headlining our own tour. When we came back, it was like coming from success back to nothing. No gigs, nobody knows about us.

But we did get to play at the Whisky. Elmer Valentine at the Whisky was kind enough to let us have a few shots in the beginning. We opened for Blondie. It was a two-week stretch, two shows a night, us and Blondie. By the end of the first week, there were tons of people lining up in front of the club. Then the same thing started happening for us at the Starwood. It was then that they started playing us on the radio.

I remember this one fellow, Jon Scott, walking up to me out of the blue and saying, "You don't know me, but you're going to know me because I'm going to get your record 'Breakdown' played on the radio."

Tom Petty's Seventies
Billboard Top 40 Singles

"Breakdown"  2/78  #40
"Don't Do Me Like That"  12/79  #10

And he did. It was, like, slow at first. Took almost a year, actually, before stations really began playing it.

In '77 we went back to England, and all of a sudden we're seeing a lot of people emerging -- the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello. And people were just showing up. There was quite an excitement about it. You gotta remember, this was during the time when disco was so huge, which none of us could stand.

When I got back to L.A., Denny Cordell came around to my house, and I told him how exciting things were getting in England, and he said, "You're not going to believe what's happening here."

He took me Madame Wong's, which had just opened. We drove over to the Troubadour and saw the Knack. Then there were the Go-Go's, and all of a sudden every little place was a club. I thought, "Great. Things are finally the way they're supposed to be."

As a band, the Heartbreakers had learned how to play a lot of different kinds of music. We can play country, we can play folk, we can play rock 'n' roll. I think the reason Dylan gets along so well with us musically is that we can kind of jump to whatever channel he wants to change to.

Tom Petty

"I mean, lyrics are important. They have the power to lift people, or whatever they do, but the true spirit of rock 'n' roll is still in the music."

I think Dylan and I were among the first people Neil Young asked to do Farm Aid. We'd all done Live Aid, and that was the last time I'd seen Bob. I didn't know him, really. I had only met him a couple of times, you know, "Hello, how are you, what do you say?"

But after Neil called him, he called me and said, "I've seen your show. What do you think about us playing together at Farm Aid?"

I said, "Sure, Come on over to rehearsal and we'll see how it goes." Well, we wound up playing for hours. It was over at MCA, at the Universal Sound Stage. We stayed there for a week, and that week was the biggest thrill of my life. We would play way into the night.

Tom Petty's Seventies
Billboard Top 10 Album

Damn The Torpedoes  12/79  #2

Not only does this guy have so many great songs, but he also knows hundreds of cover songs that he could play at the drop of a hat. We'd be playing something, and then Bob would go, "OK, now let's play 'Tears of a Clown.'" And he'd just go right into it. For us, it was incredible. I was OK for him, too, because it'd been so long since he worked with a unit that plays together all the time. He said it was like talking to one guy. Well, by the time we got to Farm Aid we were beaming.

Tom Petty Lyrics
Tom Petty Videos

People talk a lot about Dylan because he's such a great lyricist. I've always had trouble with reviewers because all they tend to do is review lyrics. It's very hard for people to write about music. How do you describe music? Most reviewers, at least in my case, base their reviews on lyrics. When I read the reviews to Southern Accents, I thought I'd written a book. I remember saying to my wife, "I didn't mean to write a book." It was taken much more seriously and literally than I ever intended it to be. Part of me enjoyed that, and part of me was rather disgusted.

Reviewers can get a little snooty sometimes, condemning a whole album because of one particular idea. And it's fine, whether they like it or don't like it. I mean, lyrics are important. They have the power to lift people, or whatever they do, but the true spirit of rock 'n' roll is still in the music. "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was a great rock 'n' roll song. Same with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Tutti Frutti." Great songs. But I wonder what would happen if those songs were being reviewed today. Would they be dismissed as slight? I don't know. Records are funny things. You can't always write down the words to a song and read them as poetry. But they work perfectly fine within the record. I have never quite figured that one out.

Dylan told me recently I was a poet. Although I was impressed by what he said, I couldn't help feeling it was like being told you're an archer. Well, they may think you're an archer, but you know you don't own a bow. 

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