Hours before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up their 2014 Hypnotic Eye tour at the Forum in Los Angeles, we conducted extensive interviews with three core members of the band: guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair. The conversations were intended for a special edition of Rolling Stone that chronicled Petty’s life and career, so we ran through the musicians’ entire history in the band. They have never previously appeared online. Here is our discussion with Ron Blair.
How did you wind up joining the Heartbreakers?
It would never have happened if not for Stan Lynch. We were all living in Hollywood, and I was playing in three or four bands, like everyone else. Stan called me up one day and said, “Do you want to do this session for me with Benmont [Tench]?” Tom just showed up to watch or something, and I guess it struck him that we were a good bunch of players. Not long after that, he asked us to do a session for him.
What were the first recording sessions like?
I remember recording “Mystery Man.” We set up, and we all played the songs just to get the sounds, and at the end of the take, the producer, Denny Cordell, went, “Fucking ace!” We were like, “What? We just cut it? It was that easy and quick?” It’s kind of like Keith Richards’ theory of catching musicians when they don’t know they’re working. You get some good stuff providing you are rolling tape.
What impressed you about Petty’s songwriting?
I was in bands before where someone would be like, “OK, I got a piece of music,” and we’d all jam and figure out verses and a chorus. They were always just thrown together. But Tom wrote these great songs with imagery we would all relate to. And, holy moly, he just kept writing them. He really kept us busy.
At what point did you realize the band was going to work and you guys were going to be around for a while?
We knew the sort of people, like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, that had long careers. But we were at the birth of what was called New Wave, and most of those groups didn’t stay in the picture for very long. I’m also from the generation of people that didn’t think there was life after 30. But along the way, I realized, “Oh, my God, I’m really working with a true-blue American songwriter. This is going to get big.”
You left the group in 1982. What happened?
There were three hellish years where we couldn’t get a fucking break, and about 200 awful-sounding gigs in a row. It was rough. There was something riding on every gig. There would be some small-town radio-station programmer there, and after the gig, you’d meet some record-company guy who supposedly controlled the money. Then, six months later, you’d meet someone else that really controlled the money. Everything was just life or death, and it took its toll on me.
Did you quit or were you fired?
Is there something in between those two? It was sort of mutual. Um … a conversation took place one day, and it was pleasant. It was, “We’re going to part ways.” I felt pretty relieved.
As the band got bigger and bigger in the Eighties, did you have any regrets?
No. Zero. I would even go to shows, and it was great to see everybody. After 12 years of separation, I started having dreams that I was hanging out backstage and Tom or someone would say to me, “Come out and play the rest of the set with us.” I’d go, “Holy moly, I don’t know ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane’ or anything.” Just to fall back asleep, I began learning the songs. It’s weird, but I learned about 20 songs just so I’d get a good night’s sleep.
What did you do for work in the Eighties and Nineties?
My wife’s family manufactured swimwear, and they had this great little store in Hermosa Beach. I was real sick of the music business, just jaded. So we ran a store, and I realized you can get jaded in any business. Even people at this little store could have monstrous egos. Every situation has its ups and downs. But I did that for about 15 years.
Did you stay interested in music?
The 1980s was a rough time for music because of all the manufactured songs. They’d spend thousands to take the nuances out and then spend thousands to put the nuances back in. But Mike Campbell kept me from drifting too far from the shore. In the late 1990s, he had me over to do little recordings with him. We did a surf CD that actually came out on Epitaph Records, totally anonymously.
When did you start reconnecting with Tom?
Mike was writing songs for The Last DJ. I played on a little demo for it he’d made at his house. They were having problems with Howie back then. He just wasn’t always available, so they brought me in to play on it.
Around this time, you played with the original lineup at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That was pretty groovy. I got real psyched for that. I got a great suit, stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. We did a few rehearsals with the old band and it sounded great.
It must have been difficult to see Howie in such bad shape around then.
It was odd. We did the soundcheck in the banquet room of the Waldorf. Everyone was real busy, so Howie and I helped each other out. I played on “American Girl,” since it was from my era, and he played on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” from his era. We basically roadied for each other. My impression was that he was trying to pull himself together. I think he was really trying to help himself, but I guess it didn’t happen.
How did Tom ask you to rejoin the band?
It was the grooviest thing ever, just like you can imagine. We had just walked out the studio door and into the great night air. Tom said to me, “What are you doing this summer?” I just went, “Man, nothing that I got to be there for.” He went, “Would you feel like going on tour?” It was just an unbelievable moment, like a flashback to when I first joined the band. I was like, “Hell, yeah, I’ll go on the road.”
Did you know then it was a full-time return?
No. I just knew that Howie hadn’t been showing up for photo sessions and was hard to get on the phone. They waited until the last four days before rehearsals started. I had these moments of going, “Holy crap.” I had to listen to everything, the band’s entire catalog. I felt like an archaeologist discovering some great songwriter from the 21st century. Tom’s catalog still blows my mind. I filled up a nano iPod with, like, thousands of songs. I learned them all by making notes the whole time. After four nights, I could barely play because my hand was so numb from taking notes. I remember at rehearsals we learned “It’s Good to Be King.” It was so complex, very dramatic. I remember the second night at rehearsals we launched into it and I played it flawlessly. Tom looked at me and goes, “Very impressive.” To get that from your guy is incredible.
What was your first show back like?
I was beyond nervous. Walking up the steps in the arena, I was just like, “Oh, my God. …” We opened with “I Need to Know,” and I opened in the wrong key. I was just so terrified. There were daily brushes with fear. After a couple of years I said to myself, “You have to learn how to enjoy this. You can be nervous, but don’t be terrified all the time.”
The whole thing must have been a weird time warp.
Yeah. Back in my day, all the lights and sound equipment had a certain look and certain engineering aspects to them. I come back 18 years later, and even in rehearsals I was like, “God, look at everything.” It seemed like an aircraft carrier. There was so much stuff. The lights are all robotic with servo motors. I felt like I had been abducted by friendly aliens.
I presume all the tension you dealt with in your original run was long gone.
Yeah. It’s a much easier vibe now, and it’s gotten better every year. Tom is easy to work for, but he expects a lot. If anything is not up to his standard, he lets you know. My only real quest since coming back is playing at the highest level. There’s also time off between tours to reinvent yourself. It makes me better the next time out.
You’ve had a pretty unique experience. Usually when someone leaves a band, it’s permanent, especially after 20 years.
It’s pretty darn special to be the first and third bass player. If any red flags pop up from the old days, if I see any forewarnings of trouble or people are complaining about something, I think, “Don’t get involved with this.” I’ve learned to watch what I say, and I’m more centered now. But as soon as you start thinking about how good something is, you’re going to get smacked down. You have to stay humble. People really love this band, and we’ve stayed around a long time. We’ve defied the odds, and we still really like each other, even after spending three months on the road in really close quarters. It’s just super unusual.
Did you enjoy the theater tour last year?
We’ve become a really good arena, shed and festival band. We learned the near-impossible: how to make that sound work on a big stage. Then we pulled it back into little theaters. I thought, “God, I used to like this, but I don’t know anymore. We’re really squashed up here with all the equipment. The sound has a weirdness to it that I don’t like.”
Making 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye must have been a blast.
Yeah. If you’re an artist, you want to do things out of an artistry that maybe doesn’t make sense to businesspeople. They might think, “Mojo is a little too bluesy.” On our last one, you can still hear the blues, but it’s a little more Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers old-school. It all makes sense, and one feeds the other.
What’s next for you guys?
I don’t know. We just finished a pretty hefty tour, playing every other day for two months. And we rehearsed really hard for a month before ever leaving town. I tell my friends, “If you’re in a regular band and you show up to rehearse, it’s usually just la-di-da, and you start getting good the next week.” That’s just not the case with us. We’re in high gear from Day One. We somehow just get better and better.
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 here.