The waiting is still the hardest part.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are spending the day at Bob’s Airpark, part of an immense airplane graveyard in Tucson, Arizona. All one can see in any direction in this surreal location are the carcasses of countless aircraft of various vintage set dramatically against an otherwise barren desert landscape. Occasionally, military planes in far better condition than the ones below fly loudly overhead.
Everyone here this afternoon is waiting for some unusually cloudy weather to pass so director Julien Temple can finish shooting the video for “Learning to Fly,” the first single from the band’s exquisite new album, Into the Great Wide Open. Throughout the morning, Petty and the Heartbreakers — guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Howie Epstein — were balanced precariously on the wings of stripped-down planes as they braved, with varying degrees of stoicism, the intense desert heat for hours on end. Jane Petty, Tom’s wife of eighteen years, observed one setup and appeared concerned. “Look at poor Benmont,” she said. “He’s roasting out there.”
During a much-needed break, Tom hurries over to Jane, who could pass for his twin sister, and surveys the rather bizarre scene. “I suppose if you worked here at Bob’s, this would have to qualify as a pretty good day at the office,” he says, his deep voice still betraying a slight Southern accent. “It’s like ‘Oh, yeah, honey, then there was some band in here making a video.’ “
Moments later the skies open, and torrential rain comes pouring down. Crew members rush to cover the band’s instruments, while most everyone else takes refuge. Temple hides out in a nearby equipment truck and chats on a portable phone with Mick Jagger about the video he’s just completed for “Sex Drive.”
Petty — who’s sporting a button that reads, I can see your point, but you’re still full of shit — ambles over from the trailer that he and Jane are sharing to the one that’s housing the Heartbreakers. “Kinda romantic, huh?” Petty says, looking out the window. The band members shoot their leader a series of quizzical looks. “Romantic?” inquires Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ leading wiseass. “Tom, have you noticed by any chance that you’ve just entered a trailer full of guys?”
Tony Dimitriades, Petty’s manager for the past fifteen years, looks outside and diplomatically informs the band that even if the weather clears up soon, it might be a while before the ground dries enough to keep filming. “Don’t worry, Tony,” Petty says with great sarcasm. “I’m the frontman here. These guys would never even think of letting my feet touch the ground.”
For all the banter, there’s the unmistakable sense that Petty and the Heartbreakers are if not overjoyed, then at least relieved to find themselves still together. Not long ago many people outside the band, and some inside it, seriously thought Petty might be flying solo as a result of the success of his 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever. The Heartbreakers — with the exception of Epstein, who replaced original bassist Ron Blair in 1982 — have known one another since growing up together around Gainesville, Florida. That’s a lot of history — even if, as Lynch says, “it’s not like we’re blood brothers, camping out and taking canoe trips together anymore.”
According to everyone concerned, there’s never been a shortage of tensions within the group. Asked if he ever thought that the band might break up, the soft-spoken Campbell says: “All the time. Right from day 1. It’s a miracle that this band stayed together for two weeks. I don’t really know why we’re still together. There must be a bond that even we’re not aware of.”
The success of his solo album “made me such a nice guy for about a year,” Petty says. “I just wanted to hug total strangers.”
This moment of pure Heartbreaker male bonding is short-lived, however, as only minutes later the trailer door opens, and in walk Faye Dunaway, Johnny Depp and a few other members of the cast of Arrowtooth Waltz, a feature film that’s been shooting not far from here. Like a bunch of slightly unhappy summer campers trying to wait out a rainy day, the assembled group bitches amiably about the miseries of life on location. Dunaway joyfully relates the details of a jam session that she, Depp and Tench had at their hotel the night before. Then the group settles into a lengthy discussion of various one-hit wonders from the Seventies, building to a heated debate over whether it was Starbuck or the Starland Vocal Band that sang “Moonlight Feels Right.” (It was Starbuck.) This conversation seems to annoy Lynch, who keeps shaking his head and muttering “wimp-rock classic” under his breath.
Later in the afternoon the skies finally clear, and the professional actors make their exit, while Petty and his troupe of amateur video thespians take off for some more aeronautical lip-syncing. As the crew prepares for another shot, Jane Petty approaches her husband and asks how he’s holding up. “I’m doing okay,” he says. “But I sure do feel hot.”
In fact, Tom Petty is hot these days. Recently a friend sent Petty an ad for an Arizona club that was promoting an upcoming show by one Michael Furlong, the first known Petty imitator. “I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I get just a few hit singles, and now all of the sudden we’re getting into some really weird territory,’ ” Petty says with a laugh.
In the wake of Full Moon Fever, the best-selling album of his career, and given his tenure as the youngest Traveling Wilbury, Petty is flying high. “Tom Petty is not only one of the cornerstone artists of this company,” says Al Teller, chairman of the MCA Entertainment Group, “he’s one of the cornerstone artists of the whole music business.”
Yet this turn in Petty’s commercial fortunes comes not so many years after a time when it seemed as though he and the Heartbreakers would have to journey to the desert to get hot. After the breakthrough success of Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the group produced a series of distinguished albums that nonetheless seemed to sell progressively fewer copies. Though always a formidable and respected musical outfit whose albums routinely went at least gold, the group found itself receiving less and less attention. To the people buying the albums — or, increasingly, not buying the albums — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in danger of becoming just another bunch of not-so-new kids on the block.
Frustratingly for Petty — whose success had always been based on the music rather than the persona — he found himself making more news when he broke his hand during the recording of 1985’s Southern Accents, or when his home burned down in 1987, than when he put out a new record.
By the time of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ last effort together, 1987’s underrated Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), sales were slipping, and there were more and more empty seats when the group hit the arenas. “We played a lot of shows where they’d put a curtain up to hide the fact that there was only a two-thirds house,” says Campbell. “But we played like we had a full house and then worried about it when we got back to the hotel.” Like Spinal Tap, the Heartbreakers found that their popularity was getting more and more selective.
It was also during this period that Petty cemented his reputation as a tough customer, a man who stubbornly refused to compromise with the music industry. He refused sponsorships and battled MCA on a number of occasions, even threatening to rename Hard Promises, the 1981 album, $8.98 if the company jacked the album’s list price up to $9.98.
“Tom’s the kind of proud guy who will not bend past a certain point,” says producer Jimmy Iovine, who worked with the band from Damn the Torpedoes through Southern Accents. “He’s not going to do anything he doesn’t believe in. But over the years I’ve realized that the really great ones don’t have to compromise. Tom is definitely one of the great ones.”
Full Moon Fever — which started as a busman’s holiday with former Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne — ended up being the album that reminded millions that Petty is indeed one of the great ones. In the end the album sold more than 3 million copies in the United States and an additional million overseas, where Petty had not been a major star. And though Petty says he’s never been one to base his personal happiness on the Billboard charts, he discovered that having his work so well received meant a lot to him.
“It was incredibly gratifying,” Petty says. “It made me such a nice guy for about a year. I mean, I got so fucking nice, I couldn’t believe it. You know, I felt this overpowering love for humanity all around me. I just wanted to hug total strangers and tell them, ‘Thank you.’ You know how people can stop you on the street and say, ‘Love your record, man.’ You can hear so much of that But around that time it meant so much to me. I found myself saying, ‘You do? Sit down and tell me about it. What exactly did you like?’ “
MTV’s exposure of the Full Moon Fever videos helped introduce Petty to a new generation of fans. “We were beginning to see the same faces for a while there,” says Petty. “It was incredible to find so many young people who didn’t know anything about us, or me, who were discovering the whole trip because they liked ‘Free Fallin’ ‘ or ‘I Won’t Back Down.’ I think I laughed for an entire year.”