Flashback interview: Tom Petty on divorce, sexual harassment, Carl Wilson, and Trent Reznor

Tom Petty in 1999. (Photo: AP)

The Tom Petty that fans imagine — a man of sincere ambition but modest demeanor — was just the man I met when I interviewed him for the first time at length, nearly two decades ago, for the New York Daily News. That day, he ambled into the room like a cowboy who just spent too much time on his horse. He moved slowly, measuring each gesture while mirroring those movements in spare and deliberate speech. Petty’s hair wasn’t combed, his shirttail was untucked, and his jeans fit loosely. It was just the rumpled, everyday image you’d expect from one of rock’s most low-key but steady hitmakers. Yet, in both his tone and music, an intensity lurked below the surface.

Glimpses of it arose as soon as Petty began discussing the dramatic changes in his life and work that paved the way for the album we were there to discuss that day, 199’s Echo. It was an uncommonly personal album, reflecting his divorce from his wife of 20 years, Janey Petty, a woman to whom he bore a physically resemblance, who was also the mother of his two daughters. “It was a really hard thing,” Petty said that day. “I had to put my life back together.”

Even so, he didn’t want to create a “divorce album.”

“I waited a year before I started writing,” Petty said. “I was still working a lot of the disappointment out. But I didn’t want to concentrate on that. I wanted to write about getting on with my life.”

This explains why the album mixed melancholy with a defiance. “The defiance is the part of me that’s trying to keep from sinking into oblivion,” Petty revealed.

He risked falling further by leaving his work schedule open right after the marital split. Petty spent an unusual amount of time at his home in Malibu during that era. “I took a year off for the first time since my 20s,” he explained. “I was worn out. I had done so much in the five years before. I’d put out so many records and toured 10 months behind Wildflowers [Petty’s previous official album]. Also, I thought it wouldn’t hurt us to vanish for a while. [But] it was a challenge how to fill my days? I reflected on how orderly my life had been. You know every day where you’re going to be at 4 o’clock? Suddenly, that’s gone.”

During that time, Petty said he “started writing the album without even realizing I’d written much. I’d sit and write and put stuff on tape, but I’d always think, ‘That’s not really a song.’”

His band didn’t see it that way. When Petty took his writing to the Heartbreakers, they loved it and started to cut the songs fast, discouraging Petty from any second thoughts. He came to see the wisdom in that. “If I thought too much about what I was writing, I would just think, ‘Ooh, I’m not going near that.’ It’s more revealing this way.”

To drive the point home, Petty wrote nearly every song in the first person. In the past, he more often acted as the narrator of other people’s lives. To bold-face the album’s personal nature, Petty even titled one song “This One’s for Me.”

“Pretty direct, isn’t it?’ he joked.

The result brought out a new sense of consequence in Petty’s singing, especially in the opening track, “Room at the Top.” He was trying to ape the singing style of his friend, the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson, who had just died. “It was my hopeless attempt to sound like Carl,” Petty confessed. “I’m just pleased that more voices keep showing up [in me], because if you’ve got to sing a whole album, it’s good to have different sounds on it.”

It was an interesting observation, considering how much of Petty’s career hinged on consistency. In his songwriting, Petty often dealt with the connection between freedom and emptiness, a balance evident in songs like “Free Fallin’” and “Into the Great Wide Open.” He gave those themes a different spin on a song for Echo titled “Free Girl Now.” The song, which addressed sexual harassment, was written for the girlfriend he met just after his divorce.

“She had a boss who couldn’t keep his hands off her,” Petty said. “I had heard about this sort of thing, but had never experienced it firsthand. She didn’t have the power to fight. I finally said to her, ‘You should quit.’ One day, she did.”

Petty often favored women’s stories, going back to 1976’s early single, “American Girl.” “Female characters are fascinating to me,” the singer told me. “My dad wasn’t around a lot when I was growing up. I was raised by my grandmother and I had a lot of women around me. So I’ve always been sympathetic to them. I never saw it in a macho sense. Now I’m proud, when I look back over the last 20 years, that I never did take that stance.”

It’s not the only thing Petty had to be proud about. He and his Heartbreakers stormed out of Gainesville, Fla., in 1976 with a sound that instantly stood out by finding their own way to extend the cream of ‘60s classic rock. With the band’s jangly guitars, matched to Petty’s nasal vocals and honed folk-rock melodies, they melded Dylan, the Byrds, and the Buffalo Springfield into a classic American sound. It wasn’t an entirely original or pioneering approach, but it synthesized what went before with heart, craft and style.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at first Petty’s label tried to lump the band in with the emerging new wave and punk scene. “We were happy being on that side of the fence rather than the other,” Petty stated. “We were actually friendly with a lot of those punk groups, but we didn’t look like them at all. I remember thinking it’s better we don’t. It would be false. Let’s just be who we are.”

They became major stars by their third album, 1979‘s Damn the Torpedoes. Over the years, the band continued having hits to the point where Petty became one of the few mature stars who could claim more celebrated songs from the second decade of his career than from his first. “Some [concerts] we don’t have to go back further than 1988 or ’89,” he boasted.

Hiring pop-oriented producers like Jeff Lynne helped. So did Petty’s clever use of video. While many stars of his generation were wary of the emerging medium, Petty embraced it, finding a way to carve out a visual persona for himself. In 1994, MTV gave him its Video Vanguard Award. “Some of my peers were very intimidated by [the video medium]. I thought, let’s just dive in. We had the first narrative video, [for ‘You Got Lucky’] in the early ‘80s. We were just tired of doing those damn lip-syncs.”

Not every Petty move connected over the years. His album before Echo, the soundtrack to She’s the One, sold 490,000 copies — a significant number these days, but a commercial disappointment at the time. “It was marketed as a soundtrack and put in [those kinds of] bins,” he said. “And I didn’t promote it. I think it’s a good record, but I don’t look at it as one of our normal albums.”

It wasn’t even supposed to be a full CD. When director Ed Burns asked him to do a song for his new flick, titled She’s the One, Petty came back with three. Then he balked at the idea of mixing in his numbers with a loosely connected run of other performers material. “I can’t stand those [multi-artist] soundtrack albums,” he said. So he pulled stuff out of the can left over from Wildflowers and cobbled the album together.

Not that such setbacks put a dent in Petty’s sterling reputation. In his career, he often found himself in the starry company of top-tier artists a decade older than him, like the Stones, Bob Dylan, or George Harrison. (The latter two having joined him in supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.) “Since they’re my friends, I don’t even think about their music much,” Petty shrugged. “But if I sit back and look at all they’ve done and how damn good at it they are, then I’m a fan. And I want to remain a fan.”

Petty was just as resolute about maintaining his band’s essential sound. Over all his releases, he emerged as rock’s Mr. Reliable, never indulging in anything remotely trendy. “I do enjoy all kind of music,” he said. “I’m a big fan of Trent Reznor. And I listen to some rap. But we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re stuck in that. We try to make it as contemporary as possible. But I don’t want to try to be somebody else.”

At the time, he did worry, however, about the future of rock itself — something that now seems a far more vexing issue. “It’s not as good as it used to be,” he said of rock in the ‘90s. “I don’t know if it’s going to endure in the position it has been in. And maybe it shouldn’t.” Still, he retained his faith in his own legacy. “I have a damn good rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said. “And I want people to hear it.”