“I still haven’t gotten used to it,” Tom Petty says, shaking his head as he steps out into the bright afternoon sunlight on Sunset Boulevard. “You know – putting another record out.”
This morning, radio stations have received copies of Hard Promises, the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. Now, as Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell head off to view some promotional videotapes, Petty is clearly uneasy. I’ve just mentioned seeing an upcoming Los Angeles Times review of the album, and Petty’s immediate reaction is an only half-joking “Should I start quaking?” As soon as he slides into the front seat of Campbell’s tan BMW, Petty makes a stab at the tape player, popping out a cassette and flipping on the radio. Before we get half a block, he’s twirled his way to pay dirt: a station playing the final bars of the Petty-Stevie Nicks duet, “Insider.” “Heyyyy,” he says with a toothy, thin-lipped grin. “Here we are.”
From the back seat, the whole scene seems ludicrous. Maybe such concerned dial-twisting made sense back in 1977, when Petty’s airplay was scant and his sales slow. But these days, he’s a certified FM hit. Damn the Torpedoes reached Number Two last year, spawned a couple of hit singles and turned the sinewy Florida gator into the most authentic all-American rock hero this side of Bruce Springsteen – a grand, fervent, mainstream rocker who fought a vicious court battle to wrest his future from the hands of his record company and emerged with a batch of anthems shot through with the spirit of a cornered gunfighter going down with both barrels blazing.
For weeks, radio stations have been fighting to grab a few morsels from the closely guarded new album. So why is Petty searching the dial so anxiously?
“It still makes me real nervous,” he says. “The minute the album leaves my hands, it’s an ordeal. I start thinking, ‘Oh God, what’s gonna happen to it?’ or ‘Hey, let me listen to it again, I gotta make sure it’s okay.'”
But with his track record of late, isn’t success a foregone conclusion? “Well, yeah, I can’t get that worked up about it.” Petty speaks more quietly, slowing his pace and choosing his words deliberately, the way he does whenever a subject hits close to home. “But it’s different for me now. It’s not just that I want them to play it… Now it’s important that they like it, too.”
Radio, for one, loved it. Hard Promises didn’t hit with the startling force of Damn the Torpedoes; it’s a more seductive, less assaultive album that finds Petty straying – sometimes too tentatively and awkwardly – into such uncharacteristic areas as narrative songs and lighter musical textures. The record derives its impetus not from personal turmoil but from a venturesome musical eye, its keynote not the passion of vindication but the eclectic musical embellishments brought to the established Byrds-cum-Stones sound of Tom Petty and the Heart-breakers.
That sound is just now fizzling to a halt inside the airplane hangar-size Universal Studios sound-stage the band is using for its tour rehearsals. Ten minutes into this particular practice session, the Heartbreakers – Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, drummer Stan Lynch and percussionist/semi-Heartbreaker Phil Jones – have already blown two bass amps. “We gotta stop buying our stuff at Sears,” mutters Petty as “Kings Road” limps through its premature coda.
He steps down from the stage and in his distinctive rolling gait heads toward an island of furniture and food. One bony knee sticks out of a hole in his faded straight-legged jeans; an elbow protrudes from a ripped sleeve in his untucked red and white shirt. At several inches under six feet, Petty’s too short to earn the term ‘gangly’, but that’s the impression he gives.
While he’s waiting for the amps to be repaired, Petty pulls a bottle of Gatorade (“no puns intended”) out of the dented refrigerator and plops down on a ratty, cigarette-burned thrift-shop couch. With a grin, he waves a copy of Bill Hard’s latest tip sheet. Inside, it makes two pointed references to Petty: One calls him rock & roll’s Picasso, the other, its Fernando Valenzuela.
Everyone agrees that the Picasso tag is a little weighty. But Fernando Valenzuela – that’s pure flattery to Petty, who’s already called this rehearsal “spring training,” and to a roomful of baseball fans scheming to play hooky the next time the Dodgers’ young pitching phenomenon takes the mound.