That's all we need is another dog onstage." Tom Petty's calm drawl has just gone as thick as black smoke from a smudge pot. Petty is standing midstage in the indoor twilight of his late-afternoon sound check in an aging arena at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. Even as he says it, Petty can't quite throttle the conspiratorial smile we know so well from the videos. How many platinum-selling bandleaders get to address this issue?
The Heartbreakers, the 1995 version, stay busy around him. Benmont Tench is adjusting a pair of rear-view mirrors that allow him to watch his band mates when he's facing the Wurlitzer to his right, and Mike Campbell is cranking out trial licks from the 12-guitar array behind his amps. Scott Thurston, utilityman and bon vivant on 3 tours with the band, tweaks his "Thurstophone" keyboard. Steve Ferrone, who has replaced longtime drummer Stan Lynch, listens to Petty as Howie Epstein, bass player and owner of Dingo, the massive German shepherd perched nearby, studiously does not. Petty glances toward the wings, and Dingo cocks his head. This is the Dogs With Wings Tour, 52 packed shows on this leg and another three months about to be tacked on. With Petty's second solo album, Wildflowers, headed for the 3 million mark in sales, the line from the track "lt's Good to Be King" is hardly obscure. "Yeah, I'll be king," sings Petty, "when dogs get wings."
With each week of this road trip, the inside joke makes more sense. Petty is indeed kingly these days: Wildflowers is rooted in the Top 30 six months after its release (the band's Greatest Hits made the Top 5 and still nestles in the Top 100 after I8 months), and Petty's mug is on MTV and VH1 every other time you hit the remote.
Petty has walked, not without some fretting, the fine line between bandleader and solo artist. He and the band collected critics and fans in the 70s, hits in the '80s and turned the corner to the '90s on the strong surge that Petty's solo hit Full Moon Fever provided. A Grammy nomination for that record and an MTV Best Male Video award for "Mary Jane's Last Dance" are among his trophies, but the thing that has been dawning on pop culture for a while now is that the gawky Florida boy, who's looking ever more like a saddle-weary conquistador, has grown or is it simply remained? – well, cool.
When the band was filling only half the seats in the venues, Petty would say: 'The hall's only half-full, but we're gonna play the best we can. We've always been the steady tortoise, not the hare. Keep going, keep hoping"
Thus we find the man talking dogs in this 8,700-seater in South Bend, Ind., three dates into the Mid-western plank of the tour. The prototype dog with wings is sitting 30 feet directly above Petty. Leaper is a giant bronzed fiberglass Chesapeake who, technology willing, makes a nightly flight down a metal track above the screaming fans.
But now Petty's wife, Jane, has proposed bringing their 120-pound shepherd, Enzo, on the road. "Do you want to deal with him every morning at dawn?" he asks her. 'Every morning when the sun comes up?" Still, it tells much about Petty that he said reflexively on Day One that Epstein's Dingo could come onstage "if he wants to." Doesn't Petty know that you should never share the footlights with kids or dogs? 'They just gotta take us as we are," he says. wand that dogs part of Howie's life."
The tour trots on then, still somewhat . . . dogged by the open questions the band faced when they descended on Louisville, Ky., for the first show. Would the people buying so many copies of Wildflowers be the same ones in the crowd, or would audiences be hollering for the '80s hits? Still brooding over the internal strains that led to Stan Lynch's departure, the band has yet to test the new lineup onstage. And what would it mean to have a front-man who's now a twice-certified solo star?
"Groups are a very complicated thing," says Mike Campbell, recalling the first days of Petty's earlier solo shot. "It's like a family, it's like a business relationship, it's a very emotional thing. You care about each other, and you tug just like brothers; you're jealous, and then you love each other. It's a very complicated monster."
Campbell, despite co-writing Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" and producing Patti Scialfa's album, Rumble Doll, adds that "honestly, at this point in my life, I'm really not interested in working outside the group unless it's on my own stuff I haven't really enjoyed anything as much as the band. We've got so much to do: the box set and another album and tour and this and that."
The box set Campbell is referring to is a career-long retrospective; the band will halt its tour in June to finish it off for Christmas release. "We're late to turn it in, but Tom said, 'No, let's go out and play.' I was glad to hear that." Campbell gives a tight grin, eyes veiled behind blue mirrored shades. 'Tom calls the shots."
The closer you look, the more unshakably together Petty and the remaining two 20-year men seem. Benmont Tench, one of rock's true master keyboardists, has known Petty since their short-pants days ("We go way back to when we were little boys," Petty tells one crowd. "I wouldn't go anywhere without him"). And Campbell has similar stature on guitar. Without his writer-arranger skills, says Petty, 'I would be completely lost." But for all his cronies' prowess, Petty, by serendipitously making a string of solo hits, has added much weight to his half of the old frontman-plus-band equation. To play with Petty is to always keep your eye on him. He's the one who says where the seesaw goes and when.
The Heartbreakers are assembled onstage for rehearsal in the drafty Louisville Gardens when Petty arrives, drapes a guitar strap across his shoulders with many seasons' nonchalance and abruptly kicks off a stirring version of the Byrds' "It Won't Be Wrong." It's easily the most beautifully harmonized song of their live set, with Epstein skying along above Petty's vocal, Campbell and Petty's guitars stinging sweetly along with Heartbreaker-for-hire Scott Thurston's. Thurston – a reed-slim, drolly grinning Midwesterner who has played with everybody from Ike and Tina Turner to Stooges-era Iggy – plays harmonica on a run-through of "You Don't Know Flow It Feels" as Petty turns to subtly conduct Ferrone. When "Love Is a Long Road," the Full Moon Fever track that opens each night's set, runs awry, Petty beckons the band in to talk, and both the tour's film crew and a VHI team lean in, boom mikes poised. Petty unslouches, a little North Florida redneck electrical crackle that's felt rather than seen.
"You guys are gonna have to luck off," he says casually, and both crews retreat. Next it's "Wildflowers," as potbellied guys in green T-shirts arrive to lounge dully in the front row. "Wow, security's here," says Petty flatly into the mike that sends his voice to every comer of the empty hall. "Great." The way he draws out the last word sends them shuffling off. "You were so cool back in high school," sings Petty on Wildflowers' "Wake-Up Time," bearing down on his work at the baby-grand piano he takes over from Tench. "What happened?"
"I'd been nagging Tom to write a piano ballad for this record because we had plenty of guitar songs," says Wildflowers producer Rick Rubin. Indeed, from the first chiming, folkie-style strums of Petty's acoustic on the title cut, the album declares itself a homespun singer/ songwriter's effort. Tench's tintinnabulary keyboards as well as a cannily integrated orchestral backup are there only to serve the guitar's buoyant mood. To run down Petty's influences is to enter a nicely appointed maze, but the what-the-hell drumming, whimsical harmonica and telegraphic Petty guitar solos are out of a mid-'60s Basement Tapes ethic for which the recent years of MTV Unplugged have readied our ears.
Petty worked zealously on sequencing the record as he cut 25 finished tracks down to 15; just after the string-section zephyrs of "Time to Move On" threatens to glue the record to the middle of the road, he throws in the garage-rocking "You Wreck Me," a Campbell riff-fest. "Rick suggested this song that Mike had played him," says Petty. "And I thought, 'Man, this sounds just like the Heartbreakers about 1980' – that style [that tells you] exactly who that is. So I got into it, to do a nostalgic song – 'All right, we'll go as far back as high school."
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