Raise the Question: TOM PETTY


From an interview conducted by his publicist, Mitch Schneider, in 1993.

 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’

‘Greatest Hits’ Album (November 1993)

 1.“AMERICAN GIRL” (T. Petty); Producer: Denny Cordell (from TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS; 1976)

“Well it was kinda cold that night/

She stood alone on her balcony/

Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by/

Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach”

PETTY:  “I remember writing the song about hearing the cars roll by because I was living in an apartment in Encino (CA) by the freeway.  The sound was really annoying and we used to jokingly pretend it was the ocean.  That’s how that line worked itself in.  I’m not sure exactly who the song is about–I think I just pictured a character for whom something had gone wrong.  As a songwriter who was trying to write songs several years before this, I felt this one was a breakthrough for me–it gave me a theme–and I saw that I could write just a little bit wider than I had been…Mike Campbell and I were talking the other day about the recording session for the song.  Nobody ever said anything about the Byrds or even thought of them.  But even Roger McGuinn thought it was him when he heard the song and he quickly covered it.  Musically, I wanted to do a beat like Bo Diddley.  And the band’s version of Bo Diddley turned into the beat you hear in this song.”

 

2. “BREAKDOWN” (T. Petty); Producer: Denny Cordell (from TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS, 1976)

“It’s alright if you love me/

It’s alright if you don’t/

I’m not afraid of you running away/

Honey, I get the feeling you won’t”

PETTY:  “It’s a very cocky song, you know (laughs).  I wrote it on the piano at the Shelter studio in Hollywood while the band was taking a break. When they came back, they heard it and said, ‘Yeah, this is good, let’s cut it.’ And we did. It came in about seven minutes and at the end of the song Mike played that lick. Everyone left and went home happy, but I stayed there playing with the tape. Then Dwight Twilley wandered into the studio as was typical back then when people were in and out all night.  He heard the track and when it got to the end, he jumped up and said, ‘Great lick, that’s a great lick. You should move it up further.  You’re throwing it away.’  At that point, it was two or three in the morning, but I called the band up at home and they came back to the studio.  God knows what hour it was–we cut the song again with the new arrangement.  I also want to mention the contribution of Phil Seymour, who recently died.  On the next night, he happened into the studio and completely came up with that great arrangement for the background vocals.  He said, ‘Just give me two tracks and I’ll show you this idea,’ and I wound up getting more ideas.  I’m sure that’s why this song went over the top and is still a very good sounding record after all this time.  Thanks, Phil.”

 

3. “LISTEN TO HER HEART” (T. Petty); Producer: Denny Cordell, Noah Shark, Tom Petty (from YOU’RE GONNA GET IT, 1978)

“You think you’re gonna take her away/

With your money and your cocaine/

Keep thinkin’ that her mind is gonna change/

But I know everything is okay/

She’s gonna listen to her heart”

PETTY:  “While I was on the road, Jane (Petty’s wife) told me this story about how she went with our producer Denny Cordell to Ike Turner’s house one night and was cornered by Ike in a scary circumstance.  That is the little germ of an idea that started the song–we played it a lot onstage during our first tour before we even cut it–and I have Ike to thank for that.  At the time, there was some controversy about the song.  It was suggested that we change the word ‘cocaine’ to ‘champagne.’  That bothered me because it didn’t mean the same thing at all.  Cocaine is much more expensive than champagne and it didn’t put it in the proper light for me.  I thought since the song was putting the drug in a very negative context, there shouldn’t have been anything wrong with it, but I do think that some stations wouldn’t play it because of that.”

 

(INTERNATIONAL ONLY) “ANYTHING THAT’S ROCK & ROLL” (T. Petty); Producer: Denny Cordell (from TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS, 1976)

“And I didn’t go to bed/

Didn’t go to work/

I picked up the telephone/

Told the boss he was a jerk”

PETTY:  “It’s a real juvenile rocker (laughs).  We just wanted to do a Chuck Berry kind of number.  And I really like it, as silly a song as it is.  It was our first hit in England too.  I remember when we were told we had a big hit over there and that we should come over.  We got off the plane and there were all sorts of press and photographers and we were on the covers of the magazine and doing television shows and touring.  It was fantastic.  It blew our minds.  It was actually such a successful tour that we went from opening (for Nils Lofgren) to going back to headline the same venues by the end of the tour.  Then, before we knew it, we were back in L.A., playing the Whisky where there was nothing going on.  It was an adrenaline rush and then a huge dose of reality when we got back to America.”

 

4. “I NEED TO KNOW” (T. Petty); Producer: Denny Cordell, Noah Shark, Tom Petty (from YOU’RE GONNA GET IT, 1978)

“All of a sudden it’s me on the outside”

PETTY:  “Alienation!  (laughs).  Looking back, my thoughts from this period were very blunt, just little bursts of adrenalin.  At the time, we were getting described as ‘urgent.’  I must have felt that way.  But to me it wasn’t obvious.  You don’t write the song and say, ‘That’s urgent.’  We just wanted to make rock & roll records and ones that didn’t embarrass us.  The song was actually inspired by Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of a Thousand Dances.’  It’s almost the same riff, but with a different beat.  I wanted a track like Wilson Pickett.  Of course, it came out sounding nothing like Wilson Pickett, but it’s a pretty good song.”

 

5. “REFUGEE” (T. Petty, M. Campbell); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from DAMN THE TORPEDOES, 1979)

“It doesn’t really matter to me, baby/

Everybody’s had to fight to be free”

PETTY:  “Yeah, it was a real put-down.  It was like, ‘Don’t bother me, I’ve got my own problems.’  Sometimes it’s hard for me to sing it now, because I’m not that mad.  It’s an angry, sarcastic song.  I’m surprised it was as popular as it was…All I can really remember about writing it is that it didn’t take very long.  Mike gave me a tape of some music he had recorded on his multi-track recorder at home.  I kept it and later put it on and walked around my room.  In what seems like ten or fifteen minutes, the song burst out.  I played it to Mike and he got visibly excited, crazy. I also remember when I met Jimmy Iovine (the producer) in the studio and played him the song.  He just started hittin’ his head, you know, with his palm and walking around going, ‘Wow, wow, wow!’  That was the easy part. But making the record was probably the toughest thing we ever had to do in the studio. We couldn’t seem to get it to the point where we liked it.  We kept coming back to it during the recording of the album.  I think we did over 100 takes before we finally landed on the one that made it on the album.”

 

6. “DON’T DO ME LIKE THAT” (T. Petty); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from DAMN THE TORPEDOES, 1979)

“Someday I might need you, baby/

Don’t do me like that”

PETTY:  “Jimmy (Iovine) is a thorough type of guy.  He went through all my old songs and suggested we record this one from the Mudcrutch album (Petty’s early band which included future Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench).  Initially, we didn’t want to do it because we wanted no ties to the past.  But we cut it in one night: we recorded a few takes, played it back a couple of times, then put it away. When the album was finished, our assistant engineer said, ‘I really hate to speak up, but you should get this tape out and do it again.’  We thought it sounded pretty good and it turned out to be the first hit of the album.  It’s based on something my dad used to say, ‘Don’t do me like that.’  My father never asked for royalties, but he was pleased that I used his saying.  He has given me a dozen since, but none of them are as good.”

 

7. “EVEN THE LOSERS” (T. Petty); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from DAMN THE TORPEDOES, 1979)

“Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes/

Even the losers keep a little bit of pride”

PETTY:  “I think it means something to people, you know.  I think it’s a very good line.  I was very pleased when I came up with the chorus, especially because when I went into the studio I didn’t have it.  I really didn’t.  I had all of the song except the chorus.  I had the chorus music, I had the melody, but I didn’t know what words would fit there.  It was the strangest thing–we were rehearsing it on the floor of the studio and it just came out of me.  I think in a way the line to the song is so much about me and it always had the feel that maybe it’s about the last years I was in Florida before I came here.  But the title made it much more of an anthem that so many people could identify with for different reasons.  It’s great when you can write something that uplifts people as long as you’re not doing it in a deliberate fashion or like a greeting card.  The song was never released as a single but it was on the radio a lot.  At every show, they yell for it.”

 

8. “HERE COMES MY GIRL” (T. Petty, M. Campbell); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from DAMN THE TORPEDOES, 1979)

“You know sometimes I don’t know why/

But this old town seems so hopeless/

I ain’t really sure, but it seems I remember/

The good times were just a little bit more in focus”

PETTY:  “During this time, we were under lots of pressure.  People were suing us for all kinds of stuff.  I guess the song is about taking comfort where you can find it–life’s tough, but here comes my girl.  People tell me it’s kind of become a popular wedding song–I’m happy it’s found its place…The narration in the song was inspired by stuff we heard Blondie do when we toured with them, the chorus is definitely inspired by the Byrds, and the drum beat is pretty identical to ‘Walk This Way’ by Aerosmith…we thought that it was a great beat.”

 

9. “THE WAITING” (T. Petty); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from HARD PROMISES, 1981)

“You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/

The waiting is the hardest part”

PETTY:  “I have to thank Roger McGuinn for inspiring me with that line.  Back in 1978, I went out to a club in Huntington Beach to see the Byrds with McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark.  From my conversation with Roger backstage–he would later remind me of this–I actually took two different images.  There was one about how he was living in Century City at the time, which to me was just mind-boggling because I hated Century City.  I was being sued at the time and I had to go there all the time.  I just thought, ‘it’s this corporate-awful place.’  That inspired one song (‘Century City’). And Roger also said to me something about–I don’t know what context it came up in–the waiting is the hardest part.  And I thought, ‘whoa, what a line!’  It’s a really good line and very true.  I mean, I knew what it was like to be at gigs where you’d be there just milling around all afternoon and the hardest part of all is just waiting to get on. For the song, I just tried to get it in one general context…Before we recorded the album, I remember I had gotten my new Rickenbacker twelve-string that was much better than the one I had before.  It’s featured prominently on the album.  And Mike played some very good stuff on it…This is not my favorite single, as far as the performance style goes.  We probably could’ve played it better than we did. Though it’s not bad, we did the job, but I think the song is better than the record.”

 

10. “YOU GOT LUCKY” (T. Petty, M. Campbell); Producer: Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine (from LONG AFTER DARK, 1982)

“You got lucky babe, when I found you”

PETTY:  “The sheer gall of the song–it’s sarcasm–is unforgivable (laughs)!  I wrote it in a way that you couldn’t possibly believe the sentiment of the person singing it.  You could see they were actually hurt so badly that they were reacting in an extremely ridiculous way.  It was a last gasp defense…I got the idea for it from a song from Elvis’ Kid Galahad movie called ‘I Got Lucky.’  I always thought it was such a dumb song and it would be really funny to turn it around and sing, ‘You got lucky when I found you.’…This was the first song on which Benmont (Tench) ever used a synth.  Honestly, this album was the first time I started to feel a little restless musically.  I thought we were doing something good, but we weren’t really doing anything we hadn’t done before.  I think bringing the synth in was part of just trying to shock us into moving on because you have to be careful you don’t make the same records again and again.  I felt like we had to try to find some other turf.”

 

11. “DON’T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE” (T. Petty, David A. Stewart); Producer: Tom Petty, David A. Stewart, Jimmy Iovine (from SOUTHERN ACCENTS, 1985)

“Whatever you’re looking for/

Hey, don’t come around here no more”

PETTY:  “When I heard it on the playback of this greatest hits album, I was really moved by it because it was from a very down point in my life.  It’s funny how you write something when you don’t necessarily think it’s about you and then maybe ten years later when you hear it, you’re positive it was about you.  I was going through a rough time in my personal life and this song is so spooky.  Dave Stewart and I worked on the single for a solid straight month and it was a big job with lots of people involved: girl singers, a cello player, and other stuff.  The Heartbreakers were horrified at first.  They just thought that I had lost my mind.  It was a very unusual single, but I think it’s one of my top two favorite singles we ever made.  By this point, the musical chains were off and Dave was a big part of that.  Music was changing again, and the Eurythmics were part of this whole other onslaught of British bands.  Very few of them were good, but I thought–and still feel this way–Dave was just an incredibly talented songwriter.  I made a point to actually seek him out.  And we had such a wild time doing the song at my house.  We had a cello player come over who had never played without musical charts.  When he got to the house, he said to Dave and I, ‘Where’s the music?’  He also came on a day when Dave and I had been to Nudie’s.  We had on cowboy hats and boots, and in walks this guy from the L.A. Philharmonic asking for charts and we said, ‘Well, we don’t really have any music.’  He said, ‘Well, I’ve never played without music.’  At this point, Dave says, ‘Burt, you’re gonna have a good time tonight.’  We told this guy to just play whatever came to his mind and by the end of the night, Burt was wearing a cowboy hat and having a great time.”

 

12. “I WON’T BACK DOWN” (T. Petty, Jeff Lynne); Producer: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from FULL MOON FEVER, 1989)

“You can stand me up at the gates of hell/

But I won’t back down”

PETTY:  “I think this was probably inspired by the fire–when my house was burned down by an arsonist.  I was at a point in my life where I was just really getting my shit together, as they say, and then this happened.  It was a very traumatic experience to just lose everything.  The only choice I had was to make it through and be as stubborn as this song is.  That was probably my subconscious thought behind writing it.  It’s interesting–I get a lot of letters from people who’ll tell me how I helped them through a crisis with this song.  I’m most proud of it for that reason.  And I was very moved when I heard about the pro-choice doctor who was recently killed.  Before his death, he had been at a rally, standing up on his car playing the song–he adopted it as his theme because he was being harassed–through the car speakers.  He was soon murdered and then they played this song for him at a gathering…This is probably my favorite single I was ever involved in.  It’s rare that you can get on tape everything the way you pictured it in your mind.  The single sounded exactly like I thought it should, though I had a lot of help from a lot of really good people.”

 

13. “RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM” (T. Petty, J. Lynne, M. Campbell); Producer: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from FULL MOON FEVER, 1989)

“There’s something good waitin’ down this road/

I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine”

PETTY:  “I think FULL MOON FEVER in general caught me in a very optimistic and hopeful mood.  It didn’t feel like I had to be serious. I just wanted to amuse myself and have some fun.  It was great working with Jeff Lynne, the most talented musician I ever met and an incredible producer, very underrated in the grand scheme of things.  I had to give him credit for helping me because everything was realized so quickly that it made recording the album twice as much fun. There was no ‘work’ involved or headaches with the LP.  Nothing was difficult–it was all recorded in a garage and a bedroom.  The song also has one of the last great guitar riffs. I think it’s a priceless riff by Mike and I wanted to write a song around it. I kept thinking this should be a driving kind of song.  Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever written too many songs about cars or driving, but I got into the idea and I also have a little verse in there for Del Shannon. I pictured the character in the song singing in his car to ‘Runaway’ (Shannon’s classic hit), which sort of also set the tone for escaping and running away; Del’s hit was probably one of the first great ‘I’m running away from it all’ kind of songs. Del was going through a little bit of a down period and I thought it would cheer him up. So I put that in there and the rest of the song came pretty easily after that.  I heard it on the radio recently. It sounded pretty good. At the end, the DJ said this song would be one of the major defenses in favor of speeding. It does make you want to drive real fast.”

 

14. “FREE FALLIN’” (T. Petty, J. Lynne); Producer: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from FULL MOON FEVER, 1989)

“I wanna free fall out into nothin’/

Gonna leave this world for awhile”

PETTY:  “This was written stream-of-consciousness in minutes, maybe the quickest song I ever wrote. I think I was writing the entire lyric to amuse Jeff–whose great contribution was the title–because he was sitting at my side. I would sing, ‘She’s a good girl, loves her mama,’ just trying to make him smile and he kept nodding for me to keep going–he had a cassette running and that was it. The next day, we barreled over to Mike’s house where we laid the song down right away. That was where I made my decision to make a solo album because I didn’t want to call in the band to recut the song. I was too pleased with what I had done and I was enjoying the freedom of no politics in the studio. It was a refreshing change.”

 

15. “LEARNING TO FLY” (T. Petty, J. Lynne); Producer: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN, 1991)

“Well the good ol’ days, may not return/

And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn/

I’m learning to fly/

But I ain’t got wings”

PETTY:  “I really loved that song and still do.  I think I was coming to grips with the view that you can be optimistic, hopeful and as good a person as you want to be, but it’s not going to make life simple for you.  Nothing will.  You can have all the success you want and it’s not going to make your life–really your personal life–much easier than anyone else’s.  The song was also influenced by the Gulf War.  It was written during the time the war was breaking out, everything was very grey, and there were burning oceans and oil fires. I was disappointed by the war and the attitude of the American people.  I certainly didn’t blame the soldiers for going there, but I felt that few people wanted to challenge the Bush administration on its lies. It was a bad time and I really think it influenced the whole tone of the album.”

 

16. “INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN” (T. Petty, J. Lynne); Producer: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN, 1991)

“His leather jacket had chains that would jingle/

They both met movie stars, partied and mingled”

PETTY:  “Yeah, I was stretching it a bit there (laughs), but it was just so funny when I thought of the rhyme, I had to use it.  The song is a classic music business story and a comment on how these days, artists–especially new artists–are so much at the mercy of this big business deal where if you suddenly don’t come up with something like your last one or whatever, you’re just immediately out of the game and they’ll bring somebody else in who can play ball.  The song was just a little story–almost like a screenplay, really–and I tried to write it cinematically.  When the video was shot in Hollywood, it was very hard to tell where the set ended–the line was blurred between the extras and the real people on the streets.”

 

17. “MARY JANE’S LAST DANCE” (T. Petty); Producer: Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from GREATEST HITS, 1993)

“There’s pigeons down on Market Square/

She’s standing in her underwear/

Lookin’ down from a hotel room/

Nightfall will be coming soon”

PETTY:  “I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this song is about.  I think it’s kind of at the end of something; it’s about someone whose little world is gone and they’re trying to make the best of it.  I’m not sure what it means and it will be some time before I identify it…For this, we put away the acoustic guitars that FULL MOON FEVER and INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN were based on.  I was very hung up on acoustic guitars and the textures they could create.  But I thought I better challenge myself a bit and do a record without Jeff Lynne because I’ll start to lean on him.  It was certainly no reflection on him because he’s one of my favorite people. So Mike suggested Rick Rubin, whom he had just met.  I think he was impressed with Rick’s instincts and enthusiasm.  And that was really what we needed: someone who just keeps us enthused about what we’re doing, because the Heartbreakers themselves know each other so well that it’s easy for us to get discouraged or depressed.  We’re also the five most impatient people I’ve ever met and we get bored so fast that we should probably seek therapy.  We thought we should go into the studio and perform the songs live, something we haven’t done in a long time.  Jeff Lynne’s recording approach is like that of a painter: there are a lot of overdubs and each color is added very carefully.  Rick comes from the filmic approach.  It’s like he says, ‘I’m going to roll the camera, light it just right and we’re gonna grab it.’ I knew that would inspire the band.  We went in to cut two songs and wound up playing as many as 30 new ones in the session.”

 

18. “SOMETHING IN THE AIR” (John Keene); Producer: Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell (from GREATEST HITS, 1993)

“Call out the instigator/

Because there’s something in the air/

We got to get it together sooner or later/

Because the revolution’s here”

PETTY:  “We played this Thunderclap Newman song from 1969 on the road a couple of tours back.  We all loved the song.  I was afraid that it wouldn’t make its way onto the album because we’ve always been so hard on covers–they just never seem to get priority over the original material.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to put this on an album.  I think it’s a good song and it’s still timely today.  When we recorded it, we purposefully didn’t listen to the original version–we didn’t want to be too exposed to it.  Also, this is the first time that Howie (Epstein) and I sang lead together through the whole song…Yeah, I think we still need to keep calling out the instigators.”

 

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