Before Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' first UK gigs in 13 years, the evergreen rocker is still grateful to the British fans who kickstarted his career. Neil McCormick meets him.
Tom Petty sits in the cool quiet of a recording studio at his Malibu beach front house, hunched over a black coffee and drawing on the first in a long chain of cigarettes. His skin has the ashen pall of a serious smoker, his greying beard, long, thin blond hair and faded T-shirt and sneakers lending him a scraggly appearance at odds with the luxuriousness of the setting.
On the other side of the French windows, there is sunshine, palm trees and the endless blue of the ocean, a vista that resonates with old-fashioned notions of rock-and-roll dreams fulfilled. "My cousin came over and she said, 'Did you ever think you'd have a house like this?'?" recalls Petty. "I said, 'I didn't know anyone had a house like this'." He laughs lightly to himself. "I didn't get into music for those reasons. I saw this as taking the road that wouldn't be profitable. If it hadn't worked out, I'm sure I'd still be playing at weekends, holding down a regular job.
"A reliable car, a place to live and a job playing music, that was my goal, it was my entire dream. The rest of it just came in increments. Things started to move really fast and didn't seem to stop for the longest time. Suddenly, you look around, and all this great stuff has happened. I was just trying to get to the next gig, or the next record. It's kind of still the same." He laughs again, with gentle incredulity. "All in all, I'm as happy as a 61-year-old rock star can be."
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers arrived in the UK this week for their first British gigs in 13 years. "I'm excited," he says, before recalling his first gig in Britain back in 1976, opening for Nils Lofgren. "The audience just jumped up and charged the stage and were boogieing their brains out. It was such a rush. Wow, we had never seen anything like that, man."
Petty had been on the fringes of the United States rock scene for a long time but it was in the UK that his lean, classic American song writing first found an audience. "Rock was kind of reinventing itself and we were right in the middle of it. Our sensibilities aligned with punk, we had the same picture, that rock had become stale and overblown. We wanted to play three-chord songs. God, I had fun on that tour. I'm forever grateful, because it was off our success in England that we got a buzz going back home."
Over the ensuing 36 years, the Heartbreakers have established themselves as one of the all-time great American rock bands, driving Petty's smart, understated songs with sleek energy and consummate musicianship. Songs like American Girl, Need to Know, Refugee, Don't Come Around Here no More, Free Fallin' and Won't Back Down have become part of the classic rock canon and though hit singles may have dried up in the 21st century, they still make fantastic music and remain one of the US's most enduringly popular live attractions.
Much in demand by other musicians, Petty has performed with a host of legendary figures from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash, and could be spotted alongside Bruce Springsteen at this year's Grammy Awards ceremony, gleefully firing off lead solos as part of Paul McCartney's all-star ensemble. What shines through everything Petty does is a fan's enthusiasm and reverence.
"Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things. It's been so good to me that I want to be good to it. I want to make music that's worth making."
When Petty was 10 years old, he met Elvis Presley on a film set in Florida where his uncle was working. "I remember it really clearly. Elvis came in a line of white Cadillacs, like a reverse funeral, and each guy that got out was wearing a kind of mohair suit with a pompadour, and I thought each one was Elvis. And then suddenly he steps out and you go, 'Oh, I see!' There's quite a difference. He just looked radiant, like nothing I'd ever seen in my life, and he came walking right up to where we were, and I was just stunned. The place was an insane scene of hundreds of people mobbing the set, and pushing against this chain-link fence, and girls screaming, and he seemed not to think much about it. He walked over, and I don't remember what he said but he gave us a smile. And that was all it took for me."
Music soon became Petty's obsession. "I lived in a sort of a troubled household," he says, "and this was a really safe place for me." He gave his slingshot to a kid from the same Gainesville, Florida, neighbourhood in exchange for a box of records. "It was pure gold, all the Elvis 45s, the Reprise singles, Little Richard on Specialty, a really nice chunk of the Fifties. I lived with those records, they were my friends."
But it was the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that awakened the notion that he might actually be able to play music. "It was like the whole world changed overnight. When I saw them, it hit me, 'Oh, this can be done. It looks like these guys are really good friends, and they're young, they're a self-contained unit, they don't need orchestras or movies, they look like regular guys. And that wasn't just me. You talk to any American musician my age, that was the night that made up their mind."
In 1988, Petty found himself collaborating with George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys, a band with a line-up that sounds like some kind of fan's wildest wish list, including Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne of ELO.
"I couldn't have dreamed that one up. It was so crazy. George was so good in the studio, he really knew how to make a record. It was kind of like a production line. George has some chords, let's play those and find a melody. We need some words, quick, grab a title, call out a lyric, and everyone would go, 'No!', and then you'd find a line you like, and everyone would go 'Yeah, that's not bad, let's get that down'. What I really loved was the power of the vocals. When we sang harmonies it was just chilling. And I just liked the way those guys carried themselves. They were the real thing and didn't give a damn about anything but music.
"Some really good friendships were made there, it wasn't all in the sessions, it might move to my house and we'd be up until late just singing and playing. They liked to drink beer. I wish we had played live. George would talk about it all of the time. But the next day the spirit would have worn off. It became too real. I think if George had lived we would have played some shows."
Petty becomes a little moist-eyed talking about Harrison. "You get into your late fifties, people start falling like flies all around you. I don't take life for granted any more. I'm really glad to be here. When you get older, your health becomes important to you, things start breaking down, you've always got a different ache or pain. But in a lot of ways, I don't feel that different, especially playing music. Stage age, they call it. Something does lift, a great rush of adrenalin comes in and you may as well be 20. You feel the same. What you don't wanna do is make an ass of yourself. There's certain things that don't become an older man."
Like many older rock musicians, Petty frets about the direction of popular music. "In my day there was a sense of honour involved, you didn't want to be a sort of sold-out, cashed-in character. I think that's disappearing a little bit. There's a holiness to the thing, for me. I would never put my songs in a commercial. You see rock guys coming on and selling aspirin on television, and I think: 'You're not for real man, there's something unplugged here. You are not giving your audience the truth'. It's what rock-and-roll is: truth and freedom and something you can count on that isn't going to lie to you."
At 61, Petty says his approach to music remains the same as it has always been. "I don't write as many love songs as I used to, so my wife tells me. I'm just trying to make good rock-and-roll records, it's not really much more than that. We're a bad ass little guitar band, really powerful, and that's all I ever wanted. I had no idea it would go on for this long. But if I don't do it, I think I'd probably get sick or something.
"It's clear and evident to me that this is my part in the scheme of things and so I do it, and hopefully I can still do it well."
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are performing at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on Monday (last night) and Wednesday, before headlining the Isle of Wight festival on Friday (tompetty.com/tour).