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"Conversations with Tom Petty" review, Tom Petty book review
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Conversations with Tom Petty (2005)

By: Paul Zollo
Category: Music

ALSO: Don't miss John's Tom Petty Deep Cuts, his list of Essential Tom Petty, and our Petty entertainer page. Then, head on over to ESD Music and let your voice be heard.

Paul Zollo, senior editor of American Songwriter and a musician himself, suggested to Tom Petty that they should publish a book covering Petty’s life and music. Responding to complaints from his fans about the lack of a single source that went into great depth and detail about his work, Petty agreed to sit down for several interviews with Zollo during 2004 and 2005. The culmination of this work, the 330-page "Conversations with Tom Petty," is in stores now, and Pettyheads will not be disappointed.

The book is in transcribed interview format and is wisely separated into two sections. In the first, Zollo asks Petty questions about his childhood, how he learned to play guitar, the several bands he was in before forming the Heartbreakers, and how the group got their first record deal after moving to California. Petty goes on to describe his personal life during his time with the Heartbreakers and how the solo records Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers came about. Petty is quite forthcoming throughout this section and even goes into detail about the more painful parts of his life – mainly his divorce, his strained relationship with drummer Stan Lynch, the arson fire at his Los Angeles house, and the death of bassist Howie Epstein.

In the following excerpt, Petty talks about a battle with his record company:

In 1981, MCA wanted to raise the price of your fourth album,
Hard Promises, to $9.98 and you wanted to keep it at $8.98. Was that a struggle for you?

That was quite a struggle…I could see then that you can’t price this music out of the reach of the common person. That’s who your audience is. I really didn’t want it hung on me.

How it started is that I knew this was going to happen, that [MCA] was going to raise their prices across the board. But the way they were going to do it was with me first. Because they knew that I had a really anticipated record and they were going to lay it on me to be the first $9.98 album. And I said ‘Oh, no you don’t. You’re not laying that on me.’ So that’s when I stood up and said, publicly, ‘I’m not going to do it.’

And the strange thing is, I not only got away with it somehow, but it really did hold prices down for years…Mick Jagger told me, at the time, that it held down the price of their record. And he said that they actually threw [a
Rolling Stone magazine with Petty on the cover tearing a dollar bill in half] down on the table in the meeting. And they said, ‘No way we can do it. No way we can bring the price up.’

Later, Petty discusses the record company’s absurd reaction when he first gave them Full Moon Fever:

Is it true that MCA didn’t like the album at first?
I brought the record in, and they didn’t like it. Which had never happened to me. I was stunned. They didn’t like it.

What was their problem with it?
They didn’t hear a single!

With “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”?
And “I Won’t Back Down.” But they didn’t hear a single. So this is what you’re up against in the music business.

In the second section, Zollo asks specific questions about music. He goes chronologically, and brings up just about every song in Petty’s catalog. The responses range from a single sentence to two pages. Though it is certainly interesting to hear about Petty’s personal life, this is the most fascinating part of the book. It gives the fan an inside look at Petty’s songwriting – how specific riffs and melodies were born, why a certain song was written, and what it’s like to co-write with the likes of Mike Campbell, Jeff Lynne or even the Traveling Wilburys.

In this excerpt, Petty discusses the recording of “Even The Losers”:

You said with “Even The Losers” that you had the song, but no words for the chorus?

That’s the weirdest one ever. I still have a hard time believing that happened, but it did. I had everything but the chorus. I had the tune for the chorus. And I had the chords. And I was bold enough to say, ‘Let’s cut the thing.’ But I had no idea what I was going to sing when I got to that point. And boom, divine intervention, it just came out. “Even the losers get lucky some time.” The whole thing. I don’t know if I even told [the band]…But I was kind of wondering what I was gonna sing when that came. I was really happy. I’m not even going to question where that came from. [Laughs]

Later, he discusses the methods used for the mixing of Wildflowers:

We’d do the first mix, we’d take it out on a cassette and play it in the car. And listen to it in the car, and then go back into the studio. And we got so attached to this one car, [Laughs] this one rental car, that there was this panic one day when we couldn’t get it. [Laughs] Somebody had turned it in. We had to go find the right car, because we were used to that cassette player. That’s how neurotic we got about it.

[Roger] McGuinn even came down once and he built a radio, where he could broadcast from the studio. And he actually broadcast it from the studio to the radio in the parking lot, and we’d listen to it on the radio. We were nuts. [Laughs] Really nuts. We wanted it to sound really good on car radios.

Would you hear things on the car radio that would cause you to change the mix?

Oh yeah. We’d listen in the car and go, ‘The bass drum’s not loud enough,’ or this or that. And we’d go back in and make the adjustment.

As Petty writes in the foreword, "Conversations with Tom Petty" “is not an autobiography” but it is certainly the “most in-depth biography” of the Heartbreakers that’s ever been written. Petty is honest and witty throughout, and just about any fan – from the most casual to the biggest die-hard – will find it an enjoyable read.

~John Paulsen






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