Tom Petty's Real-Life Nightmares

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 311 from February 21, 1980. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

At the moment, Tom Petty doesn't look much like a man who recently regained the upper hand in his career. Instead, hemmed in by hazy lights centerstage at Philadelphia's Tower Theater, he looks strained and ashen as he sings "Even the Losers," a hard-learned article of faith from his new album, Damn the Torpedoes. Appearances aside, though, Petty still barks with all the fervor and inflection of a raving tenor saxophone when he hits the chorus tag: "Even the losers/Keep a little bit of pride/They get lucky sometime."

Then, with barely a breath, Petty's skilled cohorts, the Heartbreakers — guitarist Michael Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch, bassist Ron Blair and keyboardist Benmont Tench — hammer into "I Need to Know." Suddenly, something in Petty's voice snaps, reverberating to the last row of the musty hall. Campbell and Tench exchange startled looks, but the group keeps pushing, with Petty's voice chafing and yanking all the way. "Stay right where you are," Petty tells the audience at the song's end, a confounded expression crossing his face. "We're gonna take a break."

Petty's comanager, Tony Dimitriades, has been sitting next to me back by the light board. His habitually unruffled face turns nettled, and he gets up to go backstage. "It sounds like he shot his voice. I was afraid something like this could happen."

It's little wonder. By his own account, Petty hasn't slept since his Saturday Night Live appearance three nights earlier. Since then, he's played a tour-opening date at New York's 3000-seat Palladium, filmed and refilmed a pesky spot for British television, posed for photo sessions and given a half-dozen interviews.

For Petty, the interviews demand the most. Time after time, he is asked to recount the events of his conflict-ridden year, including a bitter contract dispute with his record companies and some near-stifling wrangles within the Heartbreakers. By last summer, it seemed that the group, which in 1978 had stood on the edge of a radiant future, was tottering on the verge of dissolution, and Petty on the brink of bankruptcy.

In the end, though, Petty emerged boasting a profitable reconciliation with MCA Records and, more important, a triumphant Top Ten album. Still, reopening all those wounds has a way of peeving him. Last night, after a day of interviews, he sat alone in his hotel room, pensive and moody, until sunrise. Then today, as soon as his tour bus hit Philadelphia, it all began again with three more radio interviews.

Now, about ten minutes after Petty and the Heartbreakers had to leave the Tower stage, they're back. They ease into their springy, R&B-inflected hit, "Don't Do Me like That." Petty still bays hard, but the strain chokes his high notes and warps his face into a flushed pang. Although he skips "Refugee" because it requires him to yell like a banshee, Petty makes it through the rest of the set with an all-or-bust determination. The audience responds fervently. It's a riskier, perhaps more foolhardy performance than any of us could have expected.

Dimitriades and Petty pick me up in front of my hotel at noon the next day, en route to the Philadelphia airport. By the time he got back to his hotel last night, Petty's voice had deteriorated into a stinging rasp, but he declined the band's counsel to seek a doctor and Dimitriades' offer to cancel the next day's show in Boston. Finally, Petty agreed to spend the night in Philadelphia — while the band shipped out overnight on the tour bus — then fly into Boston the following afternoon.

Now, on a cold, slate-colored day, he sits in the rental car's front seat, his gauzy blond hair and a knotted gray scarf framing his crestfallen face. As I get in, he and Dimitriades are at the tail end of a discussion about the previous night's trouble.

"I fucked up a gig because I was out doing interviews," Petty says, his dry Florida twang sounding a little firmer than the night before. "All that talking cost me my fucking voice."

Petty glares out the window for a few moments. "That's never going to happen again," he concludes, turning to face Dimitriades. Tom nods me a far-off hello, then directs his eyes at Tony. "I should be all right for singing as long as I don't have to do any fucking interviews in the next few days."

Petty doesn't seem exactly euphoric to see me and my tape recorder tagging along. Not that he's surly or cold, just sort of appraising and close-mouthed. Monosyllabic, even. In part, that's just his nature with outsiders — this isn't. I've been told, a man who lets many people beyond his front door — but it's also because I'm just another impending interview, another smiling interloper breathing down his lanky neck. Now, with his dictum about no interviews still hanging in the air, I'm starting to feel like a medical liability — like a virus somebody hauled aboard the Nostromo. This, I start to see, could be a long trip.

I had something like a personal reason for wanting to talk to Tom Petty, so I guess I have little business mewling. Damn the Torpedoes mattered more to me than any other rock & roll in the last year, with the exception of Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks and a handful of songs by the Clash and Fleet-wood Mac's spunky Lindsey Buckingham. In terms of musical and vocal performances alone, Torpedoes is easily Petty and the Heartbreakers' most cohesive and resplendent effort. The band, prodded by ace producer Jimmy Iovine (who, interestingly, is slated to supervise Graham Parker's next project), erects a stormy, full-scale web-work of howling organs and glinting guitars, slung on one of the brawniest rhythm sections around.

Petty, meanwhile, coos and snarls like some chimerical offspring of Bob Dylan steering the Hawks, and Roger McGuinn sleeking the Byrds. The Heartbreakers, as some critics have noted, may not have outgrown their models this time around, but they have fused them into a proud, personalized composite. And they've outpaced them.

But there's more to Torpedoes than artful structure. As much as anything, it's an album about hard-bitten faith in the face of near-insurmountable forces: lovers who frivolously desert you, dreams that invariably defeat you. In that sense, it mines some of the same motifs as Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album about people cut off from their wishes but not their pride.

On Torpedoes, Petty ruggedly recounts a train of twisted hopes and delays. "It just seems so useless to have to work so hard and nothing ever really seems to come from it," Petty murmurs in "Here Comes My Girl." "Then she looks me in the eye and says, 'We're gonna last forever.' and, you know, I can't begin to doubt it." Of course, in the next song. "Even the Losers," she abandons him — and by "Louisiana Rain" at the end, like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, the singer's seen enough to simply become a narrative device, escorting us through a travelogue of disillusion, humor and renewal. Somewhere, somehow. it seems, Tom Petty has deepened, and toughened up.

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From The Archives Issue 311: February 21, 1980