Tom Petty: The Fresh Air Interview Petty, who died Monday night, spoke with Terry Gross in 2006 about the seeds of his Hall Of Fame career: "We always wanted very much to create our own sound."

Tom Petty: The Fresh Air Interview

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before we get to today's interview, I want to say how profoundly saddened I am by this series of catastrophes - hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and now the mass shooting in Las Vegas. To everyone who is suffering, to everyone who has lost a loved one, or been injured, or lost their home or their job, to everyone who is still in shock from being a witness, we are thinking of you and hope you find whatever it is you need to carry on.

Today's show is about more sad news. Tom Petty, the songwriter, singer and guitarist who led the band the Heartbreakers, died yesterday after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 66. Just a week before his death, Petty had completed a national tour marking the 40th anniversary of the band's formation. He had told Rolling Stone he intended it to be his last national tour, but he would continue to keep playing.

We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him in 2006 when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were celebrating their 30th anniversary of their first recording. Their best-known songs include "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Listen To Her Heart," "Don't Do Me Like That," and "Runnin' Down A Dream." And this one, "Breakdown."


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) It's all right if you love me. It's all right if you don't. I'm not afraid of you running away, honey. I get the feeling you won't. You see, there is no sense in pretend. Your eyes give you away. Something inside you is feeling like I do. We've said all there is to say. Baby, break down, go ahead, give it to me. Break down, honey, take me through the night.

Baby, baby, break down. Break down

now, I'm standing here, can't you see? Break down, it's all right. It's all right. It's all right.

GROSS: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible. As a member of the band the Traveling Wilburys from 1988 to 1990, Petty performed with several of the people he most admired - Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison.

When I spoke with Petty in 2006, he'd just released a solo album of new songs called "Highway Companion." At the time, he was hosting his own show on the XM Satellite Radio network. I asked him what radio meant to him as a kid.


TOM PETTY: Everything. You know, I still see it as this really magical thing, and it was wonderful. I didn't have the money to have a vast record collection. So I learned everything, really, from the radio. And the - and in the - you know, and in the mid '60s, AM radio - pop radio - was just this incredible thing that played all kinds of music. You know, just - you could hear Frank Sinatra right into the Yardbirds, you know, to the Beatles into Dean Martin. It was just - it was this amazing thing.

And I miss it, in a way, because music has become so compartmentalized now. But in those days, it was all right in one spot. And that's - you know, we used to learn - you know, when I was 15 or 16, playing in groups, we used to sit in the car and try to write the lyrics down as the song was playing. And we'd assign each person a verse. You know, I'm going to do the first one, and you go for the second one. And then sometimes, you'd wait an hour for it to come on again, you know, so you could finish it up. But...

GROSS: What's a song you did that with?

PETTY: I'll tell you, the hardest one was "Get Off Of My Cloud" by the Stones. It had so many words.

GROSS: Oh, and fast, too (laughter), yeah.

PETTY: Oh, and yeah, and it took us a good three hours to get that one written down. But it was that kind of thing. It was a friend, you know? We - and it was something that was there. You didn't really think about it that much. But looking back on it, it was such a musical education.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your new CD, "Highway Companion." And this is a song called "Down South." Is there a story behind the song?

PETTY: Yeah, this was a - I had a - a long time ago, I had done a conceptual record about the South called "Southern Accents." And this one was inspired by a book by a fellow named Warren Zanes - had written this book about the South, and I read it, and I was really impressed by it. And then I started thinking, well, you know, what if I - you know, I haven't been back there in a long, long time. I lived there, you know, 35 years ago and grew up there. But I went - you know, just kind of went back in my mind, and a story started to kind of develop and appear.

And I'm not really sure who that character is, but I'm - I know part of it's me. And I wrote it - God, I wrote it kind of quickly. I wrote it - I wrote the lyrics out first before I did the music, which is unusual for me. And I - then I searched for a long time to find music that created the right tonal kind of thing with the lyric and the - and I - and had to find a melody that went with it. So it took a little while to pull the whole thing together, but it's one that I'm most pleased with from the record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it? This is "Down South" from Tom Petty's new CD, "Highway Companion."


PETTY: (Singing) Heading back down South, going to see my daddy's mistress, going to buy back her forgiveness, going to pay off every witness. One more time down South - and sell the family headstones, and drag a bag of dry bones and make good all my back loans. So if I come to your door, let me sleep on your floor. I'll give you all I have and a little more. Sleep late down South...

GROSS: That's "Down South" from Tom Petty's new CD, "Highway Companion." I want to ask you about a couple of lines in that song. You said you're not quite sure who the character is in it, but the song has, headed back down south, going to see my Daddy's mistress, going to buy back her forgiveness. Did you go back home to see your father's mistresses? Is that part of the character you?

PETTY: (Laughter) My father's had many mistresses. I never made a specific trip to meet them. But my dad was - he was hell on wheels, you know? He was quite a character. And he was one of those people that was - somehow remained likeable, though he was really a cad, you know? But...


PETTY: But I - you know, I don't really know where the - I guess the line just popped into my head, and it seemed a good way to start it.

GROSS: Now, something I want to mention about the track that we just heard - you know, it has that kind of jangly rhythm guitar.

PETTY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you play. How did you start playing in that style?

PETTY: I don't know. It just appeared. I think we were inspired a lot by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and his 12-string playing. And it was just something that came to me naturally, and I kind of took it from there, and I think we've developed it into our own thing. But I'm sure it comes back, you know, from the Byrds, from - you hear that sound in a lot of early '60s records. And the Beatles used it a lot. Dylan used it. And between myself and Mike Campbell, our guitarist, we've - we just make that sound when we play now. It - I'd - I'm not really as conscious of it as other people are, but it just kind of happens.

GROSS: You grew up in Gainesville, Fla. I know...

PETTY: Yeah.

GROSS: I think there's a branch of the University of Florida in Gainesville, right?

PETTY: It is there, the University of Florida, the whole thing.

GROSS: So were you in a college part of Gainesville, or were you in a different part of town?

PETTY: No, I was in the redneck, hillbilly part.


PETTY: I wasn't part of the academic circle, but it's an interesting place because you can meet almost any kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it's really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are - you know, they're farmers or, you know, tractor drivers or, you know, just all kind of game wardens. You name it, you know? So it's an interesting blend.

My family wasn't involved in the college, you know? They were more of a - just your white trash kind of, you know, family. And so I have that kind of background. But I always kind of aspired to be something else. And I made a lot of different friends over the years that were, you know, passing through.

GROSS: What did your parents do for a living?

PETTY: Well, my mother worked in the tax collector's office and - as a clerk. And my dad had a variety of jobs, you know, from - at one point, he owned the only grocery store in the black part of town, the only black grocery store that catered exclusively to black people. And so I used to go down there when I was quite young, and I was just put out in the back. And so it was unusual to me that I'd play all day with black kids and then they'd bring me back to our, you know, little suburb that we lived in and it was all white kids, you know? And then from there, he went - he did a whole line of different jobs of being an insurance salesman, a truck driver - all kinds of different things.

GROSS: Now, you had an uncle - I guess this is a famous story in your life because you got to meet Elvis Presley on a movie set when you were 11 through an uncle of yours who was doing something on the set, though I'm not sure what.

PETTY: Yeah, yeah. I had an uncle by marriage who was the kind of - he was very into film. He was the guy in town that developed all the film, and he had a movie camera. He used to film the college basketball practices and football practices. And when a movie came nearby, as a lot of them did around northern Florida, he would usually hire on to set and work in some capacity. And he was working on an Elvis Presley movie in 1961 I think. "Follow That Dream," it was called. And I was invited there by my aunt - drove me down to see Elvis. And I really didn't have much idea who Elvis was. I was only 11.

But we did indeed go there, and it was quite of a circus, you know - a lot of - as you'd expect, you know, mobs in the street. And he was just back from the Army and - but I didn't really talk with him. I mean, he just sort of nodded my way, you know? I was introduced by my uncle as, you know - this is - these are my nephew, and my two cousins were with me. And he just - I don't remember what he said really, but I was very impressed by it.

And when I went home, I kind of scoured the neighborhood and came up with some old Elvis records. And I started listening to them, and they really took me over it, you know? And these were all '50s records. And I had a friend whose older sister had gone to college and left this beautiful box of 45s of rock and roll, you know, from the '50s. And I loved it, you know? It just spoke to me.

GROSS: So how long did it take after that until you started to play something yourself?

PETTY: Well, the idea never dawned on me until I saw the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" like so many musicians did. When I saw it, you know, I didn't think you could just become a rock 'n' roll singer. I didn't see how it could happen, you know, because you needed to be in a movie and have the music appear on the beach and stuff.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PETTY: So I didn't see how one would get that together, you know? So when I saw the Beatles, it sort of hit me like a lightning bolt to the brain that, oh, I see, you know? You have your friends, and you all learn an instrument, and you're a self-contained unit. This is brilliant, you know? And this looks like a great, great job to me. And apparently it did to lots of people because very quickly after that, there were bands forming, you know, in garages all over town. And I was just one in, you know, thousands of little bands that started then and around '64, '65.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 2006 interview with Tom Petty. He died yesterday after suffering cardiac arrest. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering songwriter, singer, guitarist and bandleader Tom Petty. He died yesterday at the age of 66. Before we get back to my 2006 interview with him, let's hear his hit "American Girl" from his first album with the Heartbreakers.


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) Well, she was an American girl raised on promises. She couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else. After all, it was a great, big world with lots of places to run to. Yeah, and if she had to die trying, she had one little promise she was going to keep. Oh, yeah, all right, take it easy, baby. Make it last all night. She was an American girl. Well, it was kind of cold at night. She stood alone on...


GROSS: "American Girl" - my guest is Tom Petty. Now, earlier you were talking about how, you know, Roger McGuinn and The Byrds influenced you and influenced your guitar sound. He later recorded this song. What did it mean to you to years later, after having been influenced by him, to have him record your song?

PETTY: Oh, I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. And you know, I couldn't believe, you know - people said, you sound like The Byrds. Well, we couldn't believe that we would, you know - even had the talent to sound like The Byrds, you know? So we - I was very taken aback by it, and I was quickly invited over to meet Roger McGuinn. And I was very intimidated, but I went over and met him. And he told me that - he said, when I first heard this record, I thought it was - for a few minutes, I thought it was a Byrds outtake. And he invited us on tour with him. And we did go out on tour and became friends. We're still friends to this day, really.

GROSS: Did you become any more or less conscious or self-conscious about his influence on you when you were working and touring with him?

PETTY: Well we always wanted very much to create our own sound, you know? We knew that if we became just clones of something, it wasn't going to last long. And so you know, I just - I tried to take whatever influences I had and make them meld together into something that was, you know, our own sound. And we somehow did that. I don't know how.

But you know, if you listen to those records, you know, the early records we did - I mean, if you hear - I've heard that we'd sound like Bob Dylan or we sound like The Byrds. But I can't picture The Byrds doing Refugee or Bob Dylan doing that or, you know, or Break Down or things like that. I think we did find our own sound. But everyone in music certainly comes from, you know - they all are influenced by other artists.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2006 interview with Tom Petty. He died yesterday. We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


PETTY: (Singing) We've got something. We both know it. We don't talk too much about It - ain't no real big secret. All the same, somehow we get around it. Listen. It don't really matter to me, babe. You believe what you want to believe. You see, you don't have to live like refugee.

(Singing) Somewhere, somehow somebody must have kicked you around some. Tell me why you want to lay there and revel in your abandon. It don't make no difference to me, baby. Everybody's had to fight to be free. You see, you don't have to live like a refugee. No, baby, you don't have to live like a refugee.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering Tom Petty, who died of cardiac arrest yesterday shortly after completing a national tour. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2006.


GROSS: Let me play another song that was - it's a great song, and it was a very proper song of yours. Johnny Cash recorded the song late in his life. And the song is "I Won't Back Down," which you recorded in 1989. I know it's hard to talk about writing songs, but is there a story behind this one?

PETTY: I wrote this song with Jeff Lynne. We wrote it in the studio while we were mixing another song. And it came very quickly. And I was actually worried about it. I thought that it was maybe just too direct. You know, I thought, well, there isn't really anything to hide behind here, you know? It's very bold and very blunt. There's not a lot of metaphor or any - you know, anywhere to go. But I was encouraged by Jeff that, you know, no. It's really good. You should record this and go ahead with it. And it's turned out to be maybe, you know, the one song that's had the most influence on people that approach me on the street or talk to me in a restaurant or wherever I go or mail that I've gotten over the years. It's been really important to a lot of people in their lives. And I'm glad I wrote it. And I'm kind of proud of it these days. And I was very, very proud when Johnny Cash did it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. From 1989, this is Tom Petty.


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down. You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down. No, I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around. And I'll keep this world from dragging me down. Going to stand my ground and I won't back down. I won't back down. Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out. I won't back down. Hey, I will stand my ground and I won't back down. Well, I know what's right. I got just one life.

GROSS: That's Tom Petty recorded in 1989. He has a new CD that's called "Highway Companion."

You recorded that song just a couple of years after an arsonist burned down your house. The house was set on fire while you and your family were in it. Did your instincts kick in like they were supposed to when you realized that your house was on fire and that you and your wife and child had to get out of there?

PETTY: They kick in pretty fast when your house is on fire. Yeah, they kicked in really fast. And it was a pretty horrific thing to happen. And I did just survive with the - you know, the clothes on my back. But I - I don't know. Maybe, you know, that had something to do with the songs like "I Won't Back Down" and things because I felt really elated that they didn't get me, you know? Like, I kind of just - that was the thought that was going through my head, was, well, you bastard, you didn't get me. You know, I survived.

But it's very hard to even believe that someone wants to kill you, you know? It's a very hard thing to go through. And, you know, when the police and the arson people are telling me that, you know, someone did it, I'm just going, well, surely there's a mistake, you know? It must have been a bad wire, you know? And, you know, they were absolutely sure there was no mistake. So the interesting thing about that is how many people called and confessed the following day.

GROSS: (Laughter) You're kidding. Really?

PETTY: You know - yeah. They were confessing from all over America. And it was like, you know, people in New Jersey would call and confess. Then I realized just how bonkers people are, you know? And it's like there (laughter) are some people that are really bonkers. And you have to be careful. But, you know, that was - you know, I never really talked about that much because it stunned me so deeply. And I'm sure it had a great effect on the music I did because I came back with this very positive, happy kind of music that I didn't want to go into any dark corner or anything like that. I was just so glad to be alive and to have escaped something like that. And, you know, it was also really traumatic and terrible, but part of it made me really be extra glad to just be alive.

GROSS: Did you ever find out who the arsonist was?

PETTY: Oh, no. No, we never did. And they certainly tried for years, you know? But they never caught him.

GROSS: Did it make you more suspicious of fans, thinking that maybe it was one of your fans who had, you know, been mentally ill, who tried to kill you?

PETTY: Well, it makes you - unfortunately, it makes you a little wary of people, you know, in general that you don't know. And, you know, you do have to have security people and that kind of thing when you're going to be in a public situation. And, you know, that's unfortunate but, you know, that's just part of public life, I guess. You know, that, you know, there's always some - there's always the chance that someone's going to be a little shaky out there.

GROSS: Of everything that you lost in the fire, which was I guess virtually everything you owned, what do you miss the most? And what surprises you that you never really missed it?

PETTY: You know, I mostly missed photographs and, you know, all of the video I had of my children when they were young. Things like that I really missed. And to tell you the truth, there wasn't anything else I really cared about. You know, I didn't - it's funny. Like, you accumulate stuff so fast, too. You know, I went from - you know, it was quite a big house full of stuff and I went from that to just living in a hotel room with nothing. And, you know, in a year or two, you've accumulated so much junk you just go, oh, my God, I can't believe this. But, you know, you learn very quickly that nothing else really mattered much.

GROSS: I know you had another bad period in your life in the late '90s, a bad depression. You separated from your first wife. I read that you lived in a cabin for a while. I guess at some point...

PETTY: Yeah, that's depressing.

GROSS: That's depressing, right. Well, it sounded like it was a pretty - I don't know. It sounds like it was a pretty rundown cabin, but you could tell me about the cabin. But I guess, like, the elation of being alive only lasts so long.

PETTY: Well, you know, it's - being alive's, you know, it's a challenge, isn't it?

GROSS: Right.


PETTY: But, you know, I - yeah, I lived in a cabin. It was - it was really quite a nice place I lived in. You know, it was a beautiful, gorgeous kind of wooded area, but the cabin was a little rundown. And I think that's where that comes from. But I didn't mind at the time. You know, I just - I like the outdoors, and I like big trees. And I like - you know, so that's where I retreated to and...

GROSS: My impression was people were very worried about you at that time.

PETTY: Yeah. Yeah, I think they were. And I just kind of cut myself off for a long time at that point and didn't really talk to a lot of people and just dropped down for a while and went through a - you know, a really tough time. And I guess, you know, I'm OK now (laughter) you know? But it took me a while to come back. I think that I just went through some bad, bad stuff, and it finally just knocked me down and I retreated. And I think I was kind of - you know, my wife, Dana, really I think - you know, she wasn't my wife then, but she was a very strong person. And I met her, and she worked really hard at just bringing me back to life. And I thank her for it. And then years later, we married, and I'm OK now. Thank you.

GROSS: Did you work at all during this period?

PETTY: Yeah. Yeah, I worked occasionally. Not at my best, I don't think, but I did work. And - but I think I was just walking around in a daze most of the time. I did - I didn't really have a sense of direction.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 2006 interview with Tom Petty. He died yesterday after suffering cardiac arrest. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader Tom Petty. He died yesterday. I spoke with him in 2006.


GROSS: I want to play another record here, and this is one of Johnny Cash's albums. On the album "Unchained," which was one of the albums he made later in his life in that...

PETTY: Yeah, we backed him on that.

GROSS: ....Series of American recordings. Yeah, you and the Heartbreakers backed him up on this. And how - I guess how did - how - of all the bands in the world (laughter), how did you get to play with him?

PETTY: Well, we had been friends a long time, I think 20 years, when we did "Unchained". I mean...

GROSS: You and Johnny Cash had been friends?

PETTY: Yeah. Yeah, we became friends back in the early '80s. And John had made this - he was, you know, he was breaking out of a thing, too, where he had kind of been disappointed in what he was doing in the Nashville world, you know? And he made this acoustic album that was really brilliant. It was his first American record. And then I guess the plan for the next one was to make a - you know, a band record with a band. And he came to me, him and Rick Rubin, actually, at the time - the time we were talking about when I was going to a pretty tough period.

And they called me one day, both of them on the phone, and said, hey, why don't you come play bass on this record we're going to do? And I thought, that's great, you know? And so they got me out of the house. And then it grew from me playing the bass on the record to, hey, how about the Heartbreakers playing on the record? And it was a wonderful time. You know, we all went down and made a whole album with Johnny Cash. And it's - I think it's some of the best playing the Heartbreakers ever did. You know, it's - it was - it turned out just great. I love that album to this day.

GROSS: Well, here's a track from it. This is "Sea Of Heartbreak," Johnny Cash, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers playing.


JOHNNY CASH: One, two. One, two, three, four. (Singing) The lights in the harbor don't shine for me. I'm like a lost ship adrift on the sea, the sea of heartbreak. Lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress so divine, how I wish you were mine again, my dear. I'm on this sea of tears, sea of heartbreak. Oh, how did I lose you? Oh, where did I fail? Why did you leave me always to sail this sea of heartbreak? Lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress so divine, how I wish you were mine again, my dear. I'm on this sea of tears, sea of heartbreak.

GROSS: I think that when you're young and you fall in love with a song, it has this incredible impact on you. And the song just kind of stays in your mind for the rest of your life. And every time you hear it, you think about what that song meant to you and how your feelings about the song has evolved over the years. And you have, like, a bunch of songs that have that kind of place in people's minds. And I wonder if you think about that a lot - if you think about that special place that great songs have in the lives of young people and teenagers when they first hear them over and over.

PETTY: I know the songs mean a lot to people, and it means a lot to me, you know? We just played this Bonnaroo festival up in - well, it's in Tennessee. And you know, there were 80,000 people there. And they were singing, you know, "I Won't Back Down" so loud that it nearly drowned us out, you know? And I - you know, I was thinking at the time, you know, God, this is just so wonderful that this has reached people on this level, you know, and that people know the words to these things. And it means something to them.

So I don't want to sell them out if I don't have to (laughter). And I know that a lot of music has meant - you know, has been important to me. You know, the rock 'n' roll stuff is more than just something that you can manipulate into advertising or whatever they do with them. It means more than that to me. Right or wrong, that's what it - you know, that's the way I am.

GROSS: Well, Tom Petty, thank you so much, and congratulations on the new CD and on, you know, 30 years with the Heartbreakers. That's kind of incredible.

PETTY: OK, well, thank you for...

GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.

PETTY: Thanks for having me. It was nice to be here.

GROSS: My interview with Tom Petty was recorded in 2006. He died yesterday after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 66.


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) I was talking with a friend of mine, said a woman had hurt his pride - told him that she loved him so and turned around and let him go. Then he said, you better watch your step, or you're going to get hurt yourself. Someone's going to tell you lies, cut you down to size. Don't do me like that. Don't do me like that. What if I love you, baby? Don't do me like that. Don't do me like that. Don't do me like that. Someday I might need you, baby. Don't do me like that.

(Singing) Listen, honey. Can you see? Baby, you would bury me if you were in the public eye giving someone else a try. And you know you better watch your step, or you're going to get hurt yourself. Someone's going to tell you lies, cut you down to size. Don't do me like that. Don't do me like that. What if I love you, baby? Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't do me like that. Don't do me like that. What if I need you, baby? Don't do me like that.

(Singing) Because somewhere deep down inside, someone is saying love doesn't last that long, I got this feeling inside night and day, and now I can't take it no more. Listen, honey. Can you see? Baby, you would bury me if you were in the public eye giving someone else a try. And you know you better watch your step, or you're going to get hurt yourself.

GROSS: We're going to take a short break, and then Milo Miles will review a new collection called "Afrobeats Hot Hits: The New Sound Of Urban Africa." This is FRESH AIR.


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