petty pursues a dream
Tom Petty's memory is what passes for Proustian for a rock star. He can remember going to Johnny Cash's house in Nashville in the early Eighties with English songwriter Nick Lowe. It was a hot summer's day.
The plan, in so far as there was a plan, was that they were going to have a Sunday lunch with Johnny and his wife, June Carter. Both of Johnny and June, it transpired, were sick at the last minute and were in the hospital. Tom and Nick still had their Sunday meal at Chateau Cash.
"While we were seated at the table," Petty recalls, "one of the people working there came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Could you come into the next room. John wants to talk to you on the phone'. So I did.
"He said, 'Thanks for coming out, sorry I couldn't be there'. It was very strange. And as we were leaving," Petty continues, "June was on the phone, and as each person left the house, she said goodbye to them. Very unusual. They were that kind of people."
Lest we forget, in 1996, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers played with Cash on his second Rick Rubin- produced album, Unchained. Cash at that stage was living with a lot of physical suffering. "John had this incredible way of walking through extreme pain. He was on the road, and he called me from it. And he said, 'Well, I go on stage and nothing hurts'."
You get roughly the same impression about Tom Petty, the highway troubadour who has overcome much emotional pain in his life, but survived to tell the tale.
His 1999 song, Room at the Top, he once described as, "one of the most depressing songs in rock history", adding, "I was in a rough place when I did that record", perhaps meaning divorce (from his wife of 22 years, Jane Benyo) and other deep-seated personal difficulties.
"I had some long periods of severe depression," he told USA Today in 2006. "I took some hard knocks and retreated from the world and lived in this little cabin. I didn't see a lot of people. I wasn't happy, and I didn't want to lay that on everybody. Even when I was in public, I didn't want to be there, and that's a terrible feeling. It took me a while to want to come back." What saved Tom Petty's life -- other than music -- was his marriage in 2001 to Dana York.
Petty (who in 1988 became a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys, with his mates Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne) was believed to have been badly affected by the deaths of Harrison in 2001 and, in particular, Howie Epstein in 2003. Howie died from an overdose of heroin not long after being sacked from Petty's band, The Heartbreakers.
"We said, 'You're going to have to quit this. It's gonna get you. You just don't win with heroin. You die or you go to jail. There's no middle ground. There's no other options'," Petty said later. He wrote in an emotional piece for Rolling Stone "...there's a great sadness, because Howie was never not a Heartbreaker. He just got to where he couldn't do it anymore."
Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. He had "a rough childhood", describing his late father, Earl, as "abusive". They never reconciled. That inner agony might go some way to explain why Tom has a singing voice like a handful of southern gravel. That voice, however, is memorable on classic songs such as Refugee, Don't Come Around Here No More, Into the Great Wide Open, Running Down a Dream and Free Falling.
"He's had so many powerful hits, but he's never contrived hits to get in the charts," Paul Zollo, author of Conversations with Tom Petty, says. "His songs are about solid songwriting, craftsmanship, inventive lyrics and tremendous musicianship. It's never about trends and fitting into one time.
"He had an authentic rock 'n' roll dream and realised it without getting derailed in a way so many musicians were.
"More significantly, he had a burst of greatness in his 20s, but unlike so many others, he continued to create music with substance and meaning, and sustained that quality over decades. He's certainly in the pantheon." And in The Simpsons, too.
He appeared as a cartoon version of himself on an episode of the show, showing Homer how to write a song about a hot local babe who is anxious about budget problems in public schools.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play Dublin's O2 Arena on June 7 and Cork's Live At The Marquee on June 8
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