Tom Petty: Chair man of the bored

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Tom Petty: Chair man of the bored

They say you should never meet your heroes and so it has been for me and Tom Petty. In more recent years I did a numbingly boring phone interview with a man I took to be a numbskull and prior to that I had endured a dreadful concert when he and Dylan went out on the road, were clearly out of it and were rehearsing in public. Whadda shit.

But that doesn't count as "meeting" your hero -- although I did have that experience too. And Tom had been a bit of a hero.

I loved those early albums with the Heartbreakers and only really went off him when he became prematurely geriatric with the Traveling Wilburys and turned from an electric rock guitarist into a plodding acoustic strummer. I couldn't have hated his solo songs like Free Falling (a real Neil Young whinge) more. His 2010 Live Anthology redeems a lot though, and reminds me that his home (unless he's stoned with Dylan) is the stage and not in an interview situation.

But I met him back when he was young and strong and hot -- and well, frankly stoned beyond consciousness.

He and the band turned up on the back of their second album You're Gonna Get It which was fine but didn't really build on or confirm the bristling promise and energy of their debut album. Some said it was his cocaine album.

Along with three other journalists I was scheduled for a sit-down with Tom one afternoon at hotel on Symonds St, the same hotel where a few years later I was almost knocked over by Billy Idol as he rushed to a car to escape the sole fan who had been waiting at the door. Billy was a sad sight.

But Tom was sadder.

He was ushered into a corner of the lobby bar where we had been asked to wait and which was notably darker than the rest of the room. Tom came towards us unsteadily, his shades firmely in place and a PR minder at his side ready to catch him should he stumble. Which he looked very likely to do.

He fell into the chair, flashed that famous toothy and goofy grin and then proceeded to get on a gravity defying lean. The PR person hauled him upright and he mumbled something about another chair. Another was brought, this one with arms so Tom could wedge himself upright.

What followed was a short, unhelpful and embarrassing interview session punctuated by long periods of silence. About five minutes in the PR person said, "Well I guess you've all got what you need" and Tom was hauled upright and led to the elevator.

I had been told earlier he would be doing a television interview immediately after us and so that night, maybe the following, I turned on to watch whatever that sorry spectacle might be.

And there was Tom, as alert as a bunny and cracking jokes, good natured and quick witted. I turned to whoever I was with and who knew about my pathetic and unpublishable experience and said the obvious, "I want what he was given in the lift". 

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Relic - Feb 9, 2010

Rockers-ungrateful buggers. One music paper reported Shane MacGowan (in Popes days) being booked into a modest hotel for one night by his then record company for promotional interviews. Days later an unrelated writer encountered him still booked in and still enthusiastically adding to the horrendous drinks tab. The weird, the wacko, the mildly and truly obnoxious are well represented among musicians, as the Back Pages here attest.

One time rock journo truism “it’s what’s in the grooves…” remains my line of enquiry and it sometimes pays off. Fer instance, among Queen St locals of the late 70s Graham Brazier was derided as a majorly out of it guy, a faux outlaw often living with his mum at her ‘bookshop’ at a time when cops regularly inspected second hand shops register of pawned items. Blue Tattoo, East of Eden and the earlier dittys still sound pretty good to me. Brian Wilson, avoid avoid as everyone bar his personality cult band probably does; take a listen to the forgotten “Love You” album, and while you’re at it pen “Surfs Up 2” if you have some spare time this weekend.

Does talent preclude human decency, small talk, or even plain old product flogging? Nah it’s probably just the addictions and personality disorders. Pettys main failing for me is his high count of first person and other relationship songs that have become translucent over the years. Despite being a southern boy he has barely written one song (Southern Accents?) that compares with what the Canadians (and Levon) from The Band and a 100 subsequent whispery alt. count. groups have produced about the South.

A career stoner and heavier dabbler, but, just occasionally when the band chimes in with that rolling guitar sound I get it. All the greats have a certain sound, which the Heartbreakers, sackings and death notwithstanding do have, Petty just never wrote many great songs and maybe did become old while still youngish as GR alludes to. He squeezed out at least a handful of button pushing singles among all the mid tempo rockers that were authentic to some desert fried world view such as “A Room at the Top”.

I recently viewed the 4 hour Peter Bogdanovich film “Running Down a Dream” a TP & Heartbreakers career spanning effort. Nice pack. The blurb claims they never produced the same record twice. They sure kept a few graphic artists busy over the years. Included is a bonus CD, last track is a first take 06 rehearsal of Hank Williams “Lost Highway”, nice version, first time ever sung by Tom apparently, wrote the lyrics down in the car on the way over etc. real, poignant almost, until you hear Toms air-conditioned dry voice immediately after, and struggle for meaning, has he sincerely equated the song with his life or is he way loaded man?

Who cares perhaps, I often slap on the Grateful Dead cover of “One Toke Over the Line” and cheer up immediately.

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