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Behind the Curtain: On Tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Written by: Jeff Slate

© Andy Tennille, 2014

© Andy Tennille, 2014

“We’ve gotta thank our audience,” Tom Petty told the crowd in Boise, Idaho on August 5, 2014. “We’ve had quite a long career as far as rock’n’roll bands go. Throughout that long career, and many records, we’ve never been able to get past number two on the charts. So I want to thank you because Hypnotic Eye is now our first #1!”

As remarkable as it may seem, in a career that has soundtracked the lives of seemingly half the planet, with albums like Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, not to mention his membership in the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty had never hit the top of the album charts before his latest album did the trick in August.

“Tom’s in a really good place, he likes having a hit record,” Petty’s lead guitarist and “co-captain”, as Petty calls Mike Campbell, confirmed the legendary rocker’s pleasure at achieving his first chart topper. “He’s in a really good mood! That’s a joke, but it’s true.”

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“He was almost giddy,” Robert Scovill, Petty’s front of house chief for nearly 20 years told me over dinner backstage at Madison Square Garden a few weeks later. “It’s hard to believe he’d never had a #1, and he was clearly really excited about it. It was great for everyone, but it was especially nice to see Tom so happy.”

Many first generation fans will share the joy of the Heartbreakers’ achievement. For those of us who have had first-hand dealings with the band, no matter how small, the phrase “it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys” leaps to mind.

My first brush with Petty was in 1991, at his concert in Mansfield, Massachusetts. I’d somehow purloined a photo pass and easily wandered around backstage before the show, while the Georgia Satellites rocked the house. I talked to the late Howie Epstein, then the Heartbreakers’ bassist, and saw Petty from a distance. Already a legend and a Wilbury, he looked every bit the rock star he was while at the same time completely approachable. A student of the Joe Strummer aesthetic, I was suitably impressed.

But really, I first met Tom Petty almost 5 years ago, at a New York City listening party for his Mojo album. The party was at Germano Studios, then a pretty new space opened by Troy Germano, whose dad had owned and operated New York’s legendary Hit Factory.

There weren’t many people there – maybe 20 settled into the live room of the main studio – but I had been invited by Petty’s co-producer Ryan Ulyate and ran into some friends early in the evening who knew Petty and various Heartbreakers well, so I spent the cocktail hour chatting in the control room. Everyone was in a great mood and excited to hear Ulyate’s surround mix of Mojo.

It turned out that I shared some mutual friends with Benmont Tench, so we hit it off right away. We talked about the sad state of the music business and our shared love for Bob Dylan minutia, as well as some of the great new records of the moment.

“Tom was listening to a lot of old blues records and Mike (Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ guitarist) was listening to a lot of Zeppelin,” Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench said the inspiration behind the Mojo sessions.

Scott Thurston was also warm and great to talk to. I had recently worked with Steve McKay of the Stooges, whom Thurston had a long history with, and we traded war stories and laughed loads until the time for the first playback was drawing near.

Mojo sounded great, especially in surround on Germano’s top-shelf system. The mood loosened considerably at that point, as the first batch of guests filed out and a few new ones took their places. I started to say my goodbyes to all the Heartbreakers as well as Petty’s manager, Tony DiMiriades, and the folks from his Los Angeles office, but no one would hear of it.

I grabbed some more snacks and continued chatting away with everyone.

Suddenly, Petty and his wife, Dana, were standing just behind me. Petty looked to be in great shape. He was sporting a beard and dark shades, his white shirt covered by a brown vest and black suit jacket. He wore a necklace of beads over another with a small silver cross, and had red Converse sneakers on.

He looked exactly as you would image him to and, best of all, was warm and friendly and seemed genuinely excited to be there and hear Ulyate’s surround work.

“I haven’t heard it in surround yet,” he said. To me, I think, and that was enough.

As Ulyate prepared the playback everyone settled in to chairs in both the live room and control room. I was invited to find a chair in the control room but the only seat was in the front row, next to Petty. I hesitated, but bassist Ron Blair smiled and nodded toward the chair. I’m not sure if no one wanted to sit next to “the boss”, if the Petty camp were testing my mettle or if the quasi invitation was sincere, but I plunked myself down to Petty, who swiveled around and nodded to me.

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7 Responses to Behind the Curtain: On Tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

  1. Sean Bresnan Reply

    December 10, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Cool article Jeff, I too have spent some time with the band and management. Check out my site at http://tompetty.rocks. Maybe we could exchange links.

  2. Barbara Reply

    December 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    This Rocks! Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Sybille Nova Reply

    December 11, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Tom is one of the real mojo men…..from the lowest to the highest chakra of the mojo (=kundalini..serpent power).”Hypnotic eye” sounds kind of beaten up under the storm of sobriety,crack and whore addicts and a musicscene that’s getting more shallow by the day.How can you remain your magic, troubadour,celtic or Essene mojo self, if they tie you down in their disinfo world, their junkfood, prescription drugs and sickening sexuality all around.
    Tom is an incredibly sensitive man and a truly prophetic, visionary magic musician.His guitar is eternal.

  4. Chris Reply

    December 12, 2014 at 5:50 am

    Wonderful article with some fresh insights! Great job Jeff. Thank you for sharing with us.

  5. Dave Grunklee Reply

    December 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Wow Jeff, such a fabulous read!! To be in your shoes!! Super pumped to hear of an expanded Wildflowers!!

  6. Elizabeth Bergt Reply

    January 14, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    What a great read. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. It’s great to know the band I love so much is truly those down to earth guys I think they are. I was able to go to Robert’s virtual sound check night two in LA. What a talented guy, and so sweet to answer the obvious fan’s questions right along with the professional’s. This was a fantastic album and tour. I’m looking forward to many more!

  7. Bob Keppler Reply

    October 20, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Fantastic article, Jeff. The first time I heard Mojo, I had the same thought about seeing the album live. The only thing better would be to see them play ot in the clubhouse…

    I agree with Mike,the Chicago show was stellar. I was blesses with second row, center seats and was treated to the best show of my life!

    Thank you for sharing your fascinating experiences with the band!

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