JAM Magazine Main Features

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

A Refugee Comes of Age

Destiny and fate are perhaps two of the most intriguing, as well as frightening words in the English language. In one way or another, they guide our every move, our every action, whether you like it or not.

Destiny and fate go beyond reasoning. You don't question it because there are no answers. You just have to learn to accept it. Tom Petty has.

In four years, Petty has seen himself and the Heartbreakers battle what seemed overwhelming odds and sometimes hopeless defeat, internally and externally, to come out winners in the game of rock ‘n roll.

Petty, who plays guitar, keyboards, and sings lead vocals, is from Gainesville, Florida, as are the rest of the Heartbreakers. Mike Campbell, slide, 6 and 12 string guitars; Ron Blair, electric bass; Benmont Tench, piano, organ, harmonium and backing vocals; and Stan Lynch, drums and backing vocals.

Unusual circumstances have come in and out of Petty's life since he made the decision to move to LA. The forming of the Heartbreakers was one of them.

Petty left school at age 17 and toured the local bar circuit with a group, Mudcrutch, which also included Campbell and Tench. After a while, as the local scene began to bog down, Petty took off for Los Angeles in an attempt to get a record deal for Mudcrutch.

"Everybody started to leave because there really wasn't anywhere to record. In fact, I guess Macon, Georgia was the closest place, which was still pretty far away.

"That was Allman Brothers style of music and we didn't fit into that. So, we said, 'Let's go to California.' We figured it would be better to starve in the sunshine than to go to New York and starve in the snow."

So off to California Petty went. His first day there, he began making phone calls from a pay phone in Hollywood. By the end of the day, he had collected offers from Capital, MGM, and London. When Petty returned to Gainesville the following week, he had collected seven offers.

The day before the group was to move to L.A., the phone rang with yet another deal. It was Shelter Records president Denny Cordell. He had heard the tape that Petty left in his office, and asked if the band would stop by his studio in Tulsa on their way out West.

The band stopped in Tulsa and ended up signing with Shelter Records, which at the time was co-owned by Leon Russell. That deal would come back to haunt Petty in the future.

Cordell sponsored Mudcrutch's move to L.A., but after the band arrived in town, things began to happen.

"We did the L.A. freak out," recalled Tench. "We fought over songs, over having been together too long, and we broke up.”

Petty and Campbell stayed together to try and salvage the Shelter contract. He even attempted a solo album using studio musicians, but for Petty, that was not what he wanted.

"I was hanging out at Leon Russell's getting desperate," says Petty. "I didn't know how to get a band."

Petty's answer came one afternoon when for some reason, he decided to drop in on Tench during one of his demo sessions, on his way home from Malibu.

"I walked in." remembered Petty, "and I knew everybody in the room. But, I had never seen them in that combination. We played together the first day, and the next, I called them all and asked them if they wanted to start the band.”

"It must have been meant to be. We decided to be a real band halfway through the recording sessions for the first time. It took a while to convince me, but I loved the band so much, it would have been crazy not to play live. What you hear on the first album is the band forming. We did 15 songs in 15 days."

The first song was simply titled, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It had moderate success in the U.S., but when it broke in England, the album took the country by storm. The groups second lp, Your Gonna Gel It, spawned the band’s first hit single in this country, "Breakdown," and brought Petty and the Heartbreakers to the attention of the American public.

That album went gold, but later the group would find themselves embroiled in a bitter court battle that would last the entire summer of '79.

Petty is forbidden to comment on the case legally, but from outside accounts of the case, it appears that Petty's legal problems centered around the fact that when MCA bought ABC Records, Petty and his management contended that he should have been released from his contract to become a free agent able to negotiate a contract with another label.

MCA disagreed. Apparently one of the reasons that MCA bought ABC was to land the contracts of Petty, Jimmy Buffett, and Steely Dan. When word got out that Petty was battling MCA in the courts over the contract, numerous other labels entered the scene and made lucrative offers to Petty and the Heartbreakers. Some even offered to cover the legal costs.

While Petty was challenging the validity of MCA's claim that his contract was transferrable, he was also trying to get out of his long term production deal with Shelter Records, a subsidiary of ABC.

This suit continued throughout the summer with the most dramatic move coming when Petty's lawyers decided to file for bankruptcy. Legal bankruptcy is used as a protective measure to prevent legal complications by potential creditors. Many people misconstrued that move as meaning Petty was completely destroyed financially by his contracts.

"I read a report somewhere," Petty recalled, "that I only had $12 in the bank. It never got quite that low."

Finally, an agreement was reached with MCA towards the end of the summer in which Petty would record for MCA's new label, Backstreet, and also be free of his obligations to Shelter. The deal also provided the group with a substantial amount of cash, allowed Petty control over his publishing, and increased the band's royalty points.

"We're in the best shape financially, we've ever been in," commented Petty. "The point to the matter was, MCA was in a position where they didn't own the band. The offers from everyone else were pretty staggering, and we thought, well, you guys have got to pay the going rate of what we can get from anywhere else,'

"Eventually they did, and they paid half-million dollars in court costs on top of it. We had to show them that we were serious and that we would just sit for a year rather than do it their way."

The lengthy court battle was bitter, but it's behind Petty and the Heartbreakers now.

"It was hard on everyone," replied Petty. "But, it's settled now and I think everyone is pretty happy about the way things turned out. We might have lost a little momentum in it all, but I had to trust that the kids would still be there when it was over, I always thought they'd understand that this wasn't a money trip, it was a survival trip.”

"Something like this builds you up in a way, because you don't realize how much you love something until you're not allowed to do that thing anymore. You realize that you take things for granted. I wanted to play music, yet I was going to court every day. I was up there on the stand like it was Perry Mason or something."

Critics have expected big things from Petty and the Heartbreakers from the beginning. Damn The Torpedoes seems to be that album everyone waited for, and from the initial public response, it should propel the group into that coveted superstar status.

There are currently three cuts off of the album, "Don't Do Me Like That," "Here Comes My Girl," and "Refugee," that are sweeping the charts around the country.

You could probably find a lot of things that could be interpreted as references to the legal thing," says Petty, "and I suppose a lot of them would be right. But, I hope that people don't sit down with the record and look for it. I've tried not to limit the songs to those kind of interpretations.

"I'm not sure. I think that most of the songs realty stand up well to heavy analysis. Most of my songs are just about girls—that's a good subject. I certainly don't consider myself a poet or anything. I know a lot of people, particularly the press, sometimes focus on me exclusively. But, I don't think you can really listen to this record without noticing the band. And that's great.

"I think everyone's playing the best they ever have. Part of that is that we've kept growing as a band through all of this. Also, I guess all the legal stuff sort of put an edge on the music which it might not have had otherwise."

To listen to Petty talk about his younger days as a musician, you tend to wonder how he or any of the Heartbreakers ever had a chance to evolve musically, especially playing the grueling Southern bar circuit.

"We'd play six to eight sets a night, six or seven nights a week," responded Petty "It would depend on the county you were in as to just how late the night would go. Sometimes you'd go down a couple of blocks to the bottle club where you brought your own bottle. That could stay open till dawn, so you'd just start all over again.”

"In most bars, nobody wanted to hear original material. They wanted to hear the hits of the day more than here something you wrote. They wanted to get off on their favorite songs. We played mostly R&B music. You know. Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett. And we would always do the Stones and that kind of thing.”

"The bar circuit in the South is kind of rough. We even used to play topless bars a lot. I don't regret the experience. I think that it's really good for you in a way because you learn to play, that's for sure. It's play or else.”

Most musicians will tell you that they have played some places they wished they hadn't. Petty's no exception. There's a movie that Petty would also like to add to that list. It was called FM, a film about radio rock.

"I thought the title was SM," laughed Petty, "which meant an entirely different thing. Then, it turned out to be this kind of beach party thing. I didn't dig it too much. When people ask me if I was in the movie, I always say, don't know what you are talking about. That wasn't me."

What is Petty, is the Heartbreakers. Money or the courts can't change that.

"I ain't gonna go out and buy a big house and fancy cars," he says. "I still drive my Camaro. I'm just glad that people like it and that we can take our music on the road again.”

"We thrive on the road. That's our lifestyle. Sitting around L.A. for a year is not my idea of excitement. You've got to get out there and see the people, keep in touch with them.”

"This band is the thing. It's the only thing that matters. Lawsuits don't matter. We want to play rock and roll. What can I say, we are back on the Heartbreaker trail.”