(Check out Part One for 1976-1984: Tumult and Victory and 1985-1993: The MTV Era)
1994-Present: Bearded, Rich, and Cranky
In 1994, Tom Petty made a couple of significant changes. First, he broke up with longtime drummer Stan Lynch, who was a solid musician (he wrote and produced songs for Don Henley and toured with the Eagles) but contantly clashed with Petty and the other Heartbreakers. Second, he decided to cut another solo album, this time with Rick Rubin.
You’d think the legendary producer best known for hip hop and heavy metal would bring something new and different to Petty’s music, and you’d be right. But not in the way you expect. Wildflowers might be Tom’s chill-est record, a document mostly of a man with a guitar.
Strangely, some of Petty’s best work has come from a position of comfort. Working as a solo artist, for example, means fewer arguments with bandmates, since there are none. And Wildflowers followed the mega-success of the Heartbreakers’ first Greatest Hits record, which sold more than 12 million copies and featured the new single “Last Dance with Mary Jane” (Kim Basinger was in the video). The point being, between that, Full Moon Fever, and the Traveling Wilburys, Tom was rich as fuck at this point.
His personal life was spiraling out of control, however. His marriage finally fell apart, after years of dealing with a wife who regularly threatened to kill herself if she didn’t get her way, and of his wife dealing with a rock star who was away on tour six months out of every year. (Petty and his daughter both believe his wife suffered from an unspecified mental illness.) By 1996, they had divorced, and Tom spent that year, with the Heartbreakers, pursuing a few more projects to go in the mid-life crisis bin: recording the somber soundtrack for the Edward Burns movie She’s the One; cutting three tracks for the Carl Perkins tribute album Go Cat Go; and playing as the backup band on Johnny Cash’s Unchained.
This is also the same time Petty decided he was going to be an actor. OK, not really, but he did start showing up on screen without a guitar, like in 1997’s dystopic government-service epic The Postman:
… as an exaggerated version of himself on The Larry Sanders Show …
… and eventually settling into a recurring role on King of the Hill.
1999’s Echo and 2002’s The Last DJ contain some of Petty’s darkest and most caustic songs, as he reflected on the end of his long, bitter marriage, and his growing distaste for the increasingly corporatized record industry. Echo is the closest thing he has to a break-up album, and word is the band barely touched those songs on tour that year. It’s also the last Tom Petty album I ever bought, ending my streak at five. It’s a tough record to listen to all the way through, and largely eschewed the radio-friendly, pop songwriting touches of previous Petty output.
The Last DJ, inspired by overrated L.A. radio veteran Jim Ladd, wears its opinions on its sleeve, at least for the first few tracks, which feature Petty’s least subtle lyrics ever: “Well the top brass don’t like him talking so much/And he won’t play what they say to play,” he sings on the title track. Then there’s the song “Joe” about a record company exec: “I’m the hand on the green-light switch/You get to be famous, I get to be rich.” Tell us how you really feel about the music business, Tom.
I find the songwriting on these two albums to be below Petty’s usual level, maybe because he was a junkie. Oh, you didn’t know that? It only became public knowledge after he admitted it in a biography released in 2015. Adorably, he resisted telling the truth at first, for fear of “setting a bad example for kids.” Turns out he got into heroin following the dissolution of his marriage, and was a functioning addict for about ten years.
It’s obviously a sad story, compounded by the fact that in 2003, Howie Epstein, the Heartbreakers’ bassist and a heroin addict as well, died of complications from drug abuse. The other band members had kicked him out a year prior, after attempts at rehab failed. Tom himself finally had to be admitted to a hospital for drug treatment and have daily visits from a doctor to monitor his blood, post-detox.
Petty tells some pretty depressing stories about his life in interviews: how his father beat him, his mother wasted away, his other relatives would shamelessly demand autographs and memorabilia when he came back to Florida for funerals. He spent most of his adult life trying to create a family and home away from the crummy one he’d been given, and consequently he stayed in his rotting first marriage long past the point of no return. The Heartbreakers were a surrogate family, too, and losing Lynch and Epstein took its toll.
Somewhere along the line, Petty announced he’d be retiring after his 2006 solo album Highway Companion. It seemed as good a time as any; most of his recent songs sounded like those end-of-career records you start to get from songwriters who make it this far: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. Petty was in his mid-fifties and starting to feel his age, I’m sure, and had just kicked his heroin habit and remarried. Plus, he had all that money lying around, his type of music wasn’t selling the way it used to, and he was getting into his SiriusXM radio show (still on the air today) and so on.
Most of the tracks on Highway Companion are legit road songs, perfect for blasting on the long drive from L.A. to Vegas, or along the vast stretches of freeway that slice across America like the seams of a faded crazy quilt. It’s as good a record to call your last as any.
And then … he didn’t retire. Instead, he got back together with Mudcrutch, his original band that sucked, and recorded some throwback jams in someone’s garage. I’m not a fan, really.
That didn’t stop him and the Heartbreakers from getting tapped for the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII. The Onion sent up the band’s selection thusly: Tom Petty To Play Some New Stuff He’s Been Working On At Super Bowl. In reality, and surprising nobody, they played “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
In 2010, Tom and the Heartbreakers released Mojo, which swings more blues-rock than anything they’ve done before. Petty told Rolling Stone he felt some of the tracks sounded like they could be from an Allman Brothers record, though other listeners compared them to J.J. Cale or Booker T and the MGs. But some songs are still unmistakably Tom. It was allegedly recorded live in studio, no overdubbing.
It was a sign of the times that 2014’s Hypnotic Eye debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The album moved 131,000 units, just over half of the most-downloaded single for the same week, Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang.” No one buys CDs any more.
Petty has a habit of including a few harder-edged tracks on his later albums that rely on vocal distortion and heavy guitar feedback, as if stomping on an effects pedal makes you a garage band. I understand the desire to evoke a certain musical aesthetic, but it does get old after a bit. There are plenty of tracks like that on this record, not all, thankfully.
That was the band’s last studio album. But Petty is getting money from a more recent song, Sam Smith’s 2014 hit “Stay With Me.” After previously ignoring the similarities between the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” and his song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and also after laughing off The Strokes’s use of the opening riff from his “American Girl” in their “Last Nite,” Petty apparently decided, when fans noted that “Stay With Me”‘s chorus uses the same musical motive as “I Won’t Back Down,” to … not back down. Sorry. Anyway, he settled with Smith’s people and is now credited as a co-writer, taking home 6.25 percent of Smith’s songwriter royalties.
I don’t know what the future holds for Tom, other than a tour this year that is unfortunately not including my home state. He’s 66, which is old enough to retire from most careers. But it also makes him younger than Elton John, Carlos Santana, Sammy Hagar, Brian Johnson, and every member of the Rolling Stones, all of whom either toured last year or are planning to do so this year. So basically, anything is possible.