“Of course, you’re shocked,” Bruce Springsteen said two days after he dedicated the first preview performance of his New York solo residency, “Springsteen on Broadway,” to the late Tom Petty. “Tom’s only 66,” Springsteen went on, “and he had just played a week ago.” In our interview for Rolling Stone‘s feature tribute to Petty, Springsteen described the effect in his home when he received the news of the singer’s death on October 2nd. “There were shrieks of horror. You couldn’t quite believe it.”
In these additional excerpts from that conversation, Springsteen recalled Petty as an artist and friend. He also insisted that in Petty’s absence, the music will carry on. As Springsteen said in the story, “Good songs stay written. Good records stay made.” Petty “made a lot of great music, enough to carry people forward.”
There is this feeling, especially with rock & roll artists of a certain, classic vintage, that as we grow up with them, they will always be there for us. The sudden shock of a leaving like Petty’s cuts deep.
Tom is my generation. We were from the same generation of rock & rollers. And so you feel very close to those guys. There’s not that many of them that have survived. I felt a real kinship with Tom and the Heartbreakers. We started around the same time. We had a lot of the same influences. We took it in slightly different directions, but there were still so many places where we crossed over. He had a great band that he had for a very long time and a special relationship with [guitarist] Mike Campbell, like the very special relationships that I’ve had. And Mike produced Patti’s first album [Rumble Doll, the 1993 solo debut by Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa].
You and Petty both came up through the hard graft of bar gigs and cover versions, figuring out how to write songs – what you wanted to express – from that experience.
It was an old-school way that doesn’t happen as much anymore. It lent you a certain kinship. When you met each other, you had a lot of the same experiences, a lot of the same disappointments, a lot of the same successes. And my recollection of the time I spent with him was very lovely. When we left California, I didn’t see him as much. But when I did, it was like bumping into a long, lost brother. Patti and I – we were devastated. It’s unimaginable, losing him.
How would you characterize the musical differences between you and Petty?
Tom was a great classicist. He followed those forms pretty religiously. I veered slightly away from some of those things, into other things. But what was charming and exciting about the Heartbreakers was their formalism. It was kind of like the great bands of the Sixties, like the Beatles. It was a guitar band, something I envied very much. Because when we tried to push the guitars [in the E Street Band], it never quite worked for us. But they were a real guitar band.
And the music was beautifully written, beautifully constructed. He had an ear to the classics. But Tom’s attitude and personality, his own vision, gave it a modern edge.
Petty had a unique connection to women in the way he wrote about them. He didn’t idealize them; he told stories about them, grounded in a reality that his female fans recognized: “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Listen to Her Heart.”
That was unique about what he did. It was an unusual way to go, and those were some of his most beautiful songs. “Here Comes My Girl” was one of my all-time favorites. Of course “American Girl,” but also “Free Fallin'” – it’s a song with a girl as the protagonist. He did something unique in that.
Petty once told me of a conversation he had with you at the time of his legal battles with his record company over “Damn the Torpedoes.” He said you gave him some very encouraging advice. What was it?
Well, I’d been through it [a reference to Springsteen’s legal problems with a former manager in 1976–77, after the success of Born to Run]. I always knew one thing. They can take this away. They can take that away. They can’t take your talent. They can’t take the music. They can’t take the fact that you can walk out onstage on any given night and light up the room. And isn’t that the most valuable thing we have? It’s the gift. The rest of the stuff is going to sort itself out. It might be painful at the moment. But it will take its course, and you will come out on top, because you’ve got the magic. They can’t take the magic.
This is a push-comes-to-shove question: Do you have a favorite Tom Petty album?
I liked the record he did with Jimmy [Iovine] back in the day, Damn the Torpedoes. But I like some of the offbeat things too. I like Southern Accents and Wildflowers. Patti loved Wildflowers. It was the gentleness of it. And that particular song [“Wildflowers”] was just beautiful. So we’ve got a lot of favorites.
Actually, Jimmy Iovine was something else you and Petty had in common. You made Darkness on the Edge of Town with Iovine. You and Petty often seemed like you were on parallel tracks, more than other artists of that era.
I always felt that. We were always keeping an eye on one another.
Competitively? Genially …
Of course, genially – and competitively. [Laughs] That’s musicians.
His hits have defined rock radio since the Seventies, and he never stopped writing great music. Here’s the definitive guide to Tom Petty’s best songs. Watch below.