Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers just wrapped up a series of 11 shows at the Beacon Theater in New York and the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles. Huge hits like “Free Fallin'” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” didn’t make a single appearance. Instead, the show was built around rarities like “Rebels,” “Wildflowers” and “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).” The change of pace clearly reinvigorated the group, and they played some of their best shows in recent memory. Midway through the New York run, Petty paused to talk with Rolling Stone about the tour.
I would imagine you’re having more fun at these shows than your usual arena shows .
Well, it’s different, you know? Something different is really good these days. It’s more intimate. There’s a really free selection of material going on, and the crowds are great, so it’s terrific fun.
On your last arena tour, did you get bored just doing the same hits every night?
Well, in all the tours, I always put in some new stuff and some stuff we haven’t done. But you can sort of get into a routine where you kind of really know the show really well. I don’t want to become a jukebox, but I do enjoy all the gigs. I can’t say I don’t enjoy them, but this is pretty exciting.
We’ve done this before at the Fillmore, and in Chicago some years back. It always breathes new life into things, and this is particularly good. We’re really enjoying it.
I want to talk to you about some of the songs you’re resurrecting for this tour. Let’s start with “Walls” from the She’s the One soundtrack. I love that song.
“Walls” came up in rehearsal one day. Our crew guys got us lists of all the albums. They keep records of everything we play, pretty much. The way we’ve done it is we’ve gone into rehearsal for, like, three weeks, which is long for us. We would just start to play and at the end of the night they would have lists of everything we played. And that would go on the next day. We’d be like, “What do you feel like doing today?” It would usually not be anything we played the day before. When we were done we had all these lists of things we played, and that’s basically what I’m using to select the songs.
I feel like “Walls” could have been a hit.
Well, it probably should’ve, yeah. It was a confused record because it was a soundtrack record. They wanted different arrangements and different versions of the songs. I don’t know that they ever figured out what was there.
Let’s move onto “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” from the first album.
That was a real flash from the past. We used to play that on the first tour we did where we were going around doing clubs. Then we first went over to England. That was a big party of a show, and for whatever reason, that song just got left behind real early. When we re-addressed that one we were like, “Wow, this is good.”
What made you decide to cover “Friend of the Devil” by the Dead?
Mike [Campbell] is a huge Grateful Dead fan. He started playing that one and taught it to the rest of us. That was back in the 1990s at the Fillmore. We put it out on the live anthology record a few years ago. I thought, “Yeah, that’s doable. That’s a really good song.”
Are you a big fan of the Grateful Dead?
Not like Mike is. I like some of the Dead, but I don’t know them like a hardcore fan would.
How about “Tweeter and the Monkey Man?” I never thought I’d hear that one live.
That was one [of the Traveling Wilburys] songs I had a hand in writing with Bob [Dylan]. We’ve just never done it. No one has ever done it. So I just thought, “This would be interesting to try.” We played it and it came off entirely different, but kind of cool. We’re really enjoying playing that one.
A lot of people thought you guys were mocking Bruce Springsteen, but I’ve always seen it as an homage to him.
Yeah, it was not meant to mock him at all. The song was supposed to. . . It started with Bob Dylan saying, “I want to write a song about a guy named Tweeter. And it needs somebody else.” I said, “The Monkey Man.” And he says, “Perfect, ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man.'” And he said, “Okay, I want to write the story and I want to set it in New Jersey.” I was like, “Okay, New Jersey.” And he was like, “Yeah, we could use references to Bruce Springsteen titles.”
He clearly meant it as praise. We weren’t trying to knock anybody, and there’s not much of it in there anyway. So we sat and wrote the song. The English guys [George Harrison and Jeff Lynne] left, actually. It was the only song that they were like, “This is just too American. We’re out on this one.” So the two of us just sat there for most of the afternoon, and then we edited it down the next day.
This live version you’re doing is really infused with a whole new energy.
It’s kind of taken on a life of its own with us. It’s a whole different way of getting it over. I’m really enjoying it. It’s a pretty durable song. You can do a lot with it.
How about “Billy the Kid” from Echo?
That’s always been one of my favorites songs. I just wanted to play it. I hope we play that one again.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to play Echo songs like “Room at the Top” again?
That’s one I haven’t wanted to do. I haven’t wanted to even hear it since I did it, and I don’t think I have. You never know. Sometimes you go back to something and it’s different than you thought it would be. But that’s one I didn’t try this time.
I feel like the whole Echo album has really grown in popularity since it came out. A cult following has grown around it.
Yeah. I recently had a fan stop me and tell me how much that record had helped her through a bad time. And she said, “I know you don’t like it.” And I was like, “It’s not that I don’t like it. It was just a really hard period in my life.” I haven’t heard it in so long, but the last time I heard it I thought, “God, there’s a lot more on here than I remembered.”
Do you think your next tour will be back doing the hits in arenas, or is this run changing the way you think about your shows?
Well, it’s hard to say. I think we’ll wind up back in the big rooms again. I think that this could influence things quite a lot. It’s just kind of a verification that the audience not only goes along with it, they like it.
When I go to see people, I always kind of hope they are going to play some kind of songs I know. So you’ve got to know your audience. It’s kind of something that is a blessing and a curse in a way. You’re obligated to play some of that stuff that people know, but I don’t think that’s all you have to do. I think there’s a way to fill everyone’e needs. So who knows? This may have a tremendous effect on us from here out.
Yeah. When you did “A Woman in Love” at the Beacon, the place went insane. It was like you were doing “Free Fallin'” or something.
Yeah. I know. It’s really strange. We did “Angel Dream” and it got this huge response the other night. It was very satisfying. We did a lot of songs, and I want to try and play more of them. It would be a little surprising to turn out back on this kind of thinking, I think.
Are you thinking about doing more runs at places like the Beacon in the future?
I haven’t got that far in my thinking yet. I’m still in the middle of this run. (laughs) I got six shows coming up in L.A. at an even smaller place. Then we go back to the big shows. I don’t know and it’s all speculation, but I would rather develop an audience around the quality of our work more than the popularity of our work.
I’m very grateful we’ve been able to play hours of hits. It’s a great thing, but not to the point where people think that’s the only songs you ever did.