I showed up in Malibu for my interview with Tom Petty, walked into the room and caught him making out with his second wife, Dana (pictured with Tom in 2007). I should have said, “Get a motel room!” But that’s where we were, at the Malibu Inn Hotel.
It was September 2002, and Petty had just released a new album, The Last DJ, the follow-up to 1999’s Echo. I guess the hotel was a convenient location for him, though I would have preferred to do the interview at his place nearby. Here are some edited highlights.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE YOUR MINDSET FOR THIS ALBUM TO YOUR PREVIOUS ONE, ECHO?
Oh, there’s no comparison. I really enjoyed this record. I think I was very up for it and really on top of it, whereas I think Echo was probably the most scattered I’ve ever been. I was going through a divorce when I made that and my life was just topsy-turvy. At times I didn’t really feel like I was there during Echo! This felt more like I was back to normal.
ECHO WAS YOUR BLOOD ON THE TRACKS?
Kinda, yeah. I haven’t listened to Echo since I cut it. I never played it. I looked at the cover the other day and there was a song or two I didn’t recognize, I don’t even remember writing. It was a very hard time when I did that record. It was the only record I did kinda under the gun in my life where there was this huge tour booked and I had to finish the record. And I don’t think I’m gonna put myself in that position again because I feel that I really had to compromise a lot just to get it done and out. It was a crazy time. Divorces are really furious things to go through, really draining. So to try to make a record and get my life together at the same time was really rough.
IS THAT WHY ECHO’S SALES WERE DISAPPOINTING?
I would imagine so. It didn’t do terribly bad but it didn’t do terribly well. I think there are a couple of factors. One, it’s a very dark record. I didn’t do anything to promote it. I didn’t do any promotion. I didn’t make a video. I didn’t do nothing. I think that probably played into it. Plus, I don’t know how good it is. I know it’s not as good as this one, but I haven’t listened to it. I really didn’t like it when I finished it. And then I went on tour and didn’t play it. I think there’s a couple of songs that are on it that are good. I’d have to hear it again. Maybe I’d be surprised. I remember there’s a song called “One More Day, One More Night,” which I thought was a good song. But I don’t think it got my full attention. I think I work best when I’m happy, when I feel good. Even if you’re writing a sad song. When you’re sad or when you’re really depressed you don’t want to pick up the guitar and write. It’s only later in retrospect usually when you feel good you write. It is for me anyway.
THERE SEEM TO BE A LOT OF “ANGRY” SONGS ON THIS RECORD
I saw this album as kind of a loose story. When I wrote it I tried to create characters in my head. The music business stuff is something I knew well, so I used it. But I really just saw it as a metaphor for corporate life in America. It could have been any business really. I don’t really have a huge bone to pick with the music industry, because it’s too easy a target. You couldn’t really focus on it for a whole album. It’s too easy. It was something I knew. So I saw it as like, “I’ve got the DJ’s point of view, I’ve got the fading rock star’s point of view, the sort of sell-out guy.” … (The music business is) fish in a barrel. It’s always been kinda corrupt. But it is a great metaphor. The entertainment business in general is so lacking in truth today, lacking any element of truth that it’s starting to affect us all in the human race.
YOU’VE TAKEN MANY PRINCIPLED STANDS THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER, BUT HAVE YOU EVER FELT YOURSELF BEING SUCKED TOWARDS THE VORTEX?
All the time. It’s something you’ve gotta really watch out for in this business, because by nature I’m just a guitar player. I’m not a business person, though I’ve become quite educated in it over the years, but it’s an education I didn’t really want. I’m constantly trying to stay on top of things and keep our trip as honest as I can. It’s hard when you get to this mega state of things where it’s really big and there’s a lot going on. But I do my best. I do all I can do to keep this as pure as I can. It’s not always easy. You definitely make mistakes and you learn from them, hopefully.
CREATIVELY, HAVE YOU EVER FELT YOU LOST YOUR THREAD OR RISKED LOSING IT?
I’ve always felt fairly confident about that. I think Echo was a good example of where I don’t know if I felt like I was losing the thread, but it was the first time in my life where I had to do an album and I didn’t feel that I had the time or the right mindset to be doing that, and I think that will always bug me. Because like I said, I never played the record because I was really pissed because I had to finish it and come right out on the road. I was in a state of mind where I couldn’t really go through a lot of interviews or promotion. I couldn’t get up for it.
WERE YOU CLINICALLY DEPRESSED?
I think so. I was having a hard time, a very hard time.
DIVORCE IS THE MOST TRAUMATIC THING YOU CAN GO THROUGH IN YOUR LIFE
It’s really bad.
YOU AND YOUR WIFE HAD HAD SOME BUMPY TIMES FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS, RIGHT?
Yeah, it’d been tough. That’s the only time where I felt like I was just out to lunch a little bit, musically speaking. I still tried to make it a worthwhile record, and it may be. I don’t know. There are some people that really like Echo. I one day will play it. We’ll see!
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF (1987’S) LET ME UP (I’VE HAD ENOUGH)? IS THAT A LOST CLASSIC?
There’s some good stuff on Let Me Up. I’m really pleased to see over the years it sold quite well, y’know? Because at the time it let me down a bit, I thought. Even though it had a hit single (the title track) and everything, I thought it would do better. But over the years, it’s actually sold pretty well. It’s a good record, I think it’s a little schizophrenic in that if you listen to that record you hear stuff like Mike’s stuff is very polished and more poppy kinda stuff and then my stuff is very ragged. It’s very ragged rock. So maybe it’s a little schizophrenic when it goes from that to this but it’s a good record, I thought.
HAS THERE BEEN MUCH NEGATIVE REACTION TO (THE NEW SINGLE) “THE LAST DJ”?
Very little. There were a couple of places that said they wouldn’t play it because it was anti-radio, which it certainly isn’t. It’s very pro-radio. I think since — I know — one of those stations has started to play it. It actually kinda really interested me that someone would see themselves in it to that extent that they wouldn’t play it. But I’m not attacking them. I’m not attacking rock radio per se. Radio is at its best an art form, and that’s a vanishing thing. But the song is really about a lot of personal freedoms going away. When you call to buy an airline ticket you get referred to four answering machines, and it’s common to hear people say, “Oh, thank God I got a person on the phone.” It’s the disappearing human voice. “Last DJ” I wrote two years ago.
Prescient, yeah, that’s a good one. As far as entertainment’s concerned there’s not much truth. I don’t think that the audience itself is really represented. The audience obviously can only pick from what’s offered. But I think there’s so much more to offer them. The TV industry — I think that TV in America has become downright dangerous. I think it’s bad for your health. This goes into this whole theory that seems to be common today with everyone is, “How can we make the most money possible?” Not, “How do we turn a healthy profit?” I think the computer and things like that have made it really possible to find every penny in any venture and they go after it. And they don’t really care about the person that’s buying the product. They don’t care if they’re receiving a good product. They just don’t care about us. I think that it’s actually harming the society.
And it’s not just TV, it’s everywhere. The fashion industry — what they’re doing to dress up 8-year-old girls to look sexy in ads, could that possibly play into the proliferation of child molestation? Well, maybe. That may just play into that. That someone doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m not going to do that” fascinates me. And it’s all because we’re working in a store where none of us know who the boss is, or care. I think we’re losing a human element of somebody who’s stepping up and going, “Hey! We’re not doing that. I don’t care about the money!”… We’re all working for the man these days, aren’t we? It’s a very uncomfortable feeling.
YOU SEEM LIKE A MELLOW GUY, WITH ANGRY THOUGHTS
I can get as angry as the next guy. There’s not really much percentage in going around pissed off. It’s not going to serve me or anyone else, really. I think the key here is education!
WHEN WE TALKED ABOUT CLINICAL DEPRESSION BEFORE, DID YOU ACTUALLY RECEIVE THERAPY?
If you must know, yeah. I did, a lot.
ARE YOU STILL DOING THAT?
Yeah (very faintly)
IS IT COUPLES THERAPY OR JUST YOU?
Just me. I became clinically depressed. It’s a horrible disease, really, really horrible. I’m about six years of therapy along! I’m doing a lot better.
ARE YOU TAKING PAXIL OR ANY OTHER DRUGS?
I did for a long time, but now I don’t…. It must have taken me about four or five different drugs before I found one that didn’t have any side effects, and that I could function. Because a lot of them made me really drowsy. Fortunately I didn’t have any of that (sexual impairment), but I’ve heard about that with people who have.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE ISSUES?
Therapy always goes back and you work your way through. You look back at your whole life really. And I’ve had an unusual life, y’know? I’ve really had an unusual life. I started doing this when I was really young. I think it did me some good in the end. The clinical depression part, it’s a funny disease because it takes you a long time to really come to terms with the fact that you’re sick, that you’re medically sick, you’re not just suddenly going out of your mind. They can do a lot for you these days… I think there’s a lot of Prozac jokes. I don’t think it’s good that people just go to their regular doctor who prescribes them pills with no therapy. It’s much more involved than that.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2002, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING