Nearly a year on from his death, Tom Petty’s fans could use a heartwarmer. They’re getting one in the form of “An American Treasure,” a forthcoming 60-track boxed set of mostly previously unreleased studio and live material. A few dozen invited guests got a sneak preview this week of some of the Petty songs that have never been issued before in any form, as Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell and producer/engineer Ryan Ulyate held court and answered questions between playbacks at the Village recording studio in West L.A. (Pictured above, from left: Mike Campbell, Warner Bros. Records Co-Chairman and COO Tom Corson, and Benmont Tench.)
Ten of the 60 tracks were played at the listening party, two of which have now been released to the public — “Keep a Little Soul” and “You and Me (Clubhouse Version),” both of which have accompanying music videos directed by Petty’s daughter, Adria, who spoke briefly and emotionally at the start of the event. The video for “Soul,” a song in the classic Heartbreakers vein that was recorded for 1982’s “Long After Dark” but shelved until now, came about when ”we found 20 minutes of my dad filming and handing the camera to roadies” from a 1980 tour and pieced it together into something that “covers so much of my dad’s personality and soul and sweetness,” she said.
From there, the mic was handed to Campbell and Tench as they alternately remembered and couldn’t recall lost tracks dating back to 1974, when a preliminary iteration of the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, first entered the studio.
“I remember being in Tulsa with [producer] Denny Cordell, and we were young, didn’t know how to record in the studio,” said Campbell. “We were walking back from the diner toward the Church (the name of the converted sanctuary they recorded in), and being a young, foolish guy I said, ‘Can you make us like the Beatles?’ He looked at me and goes [in a low voice with a stern look], ‘That’s up to you.’ I never asked him again.”
The ’74 Mudcrutch ballad, “Lost in Your Eyes,” turns out to sound like a remarkably mature effort that could have come from far later in the Petty catalogue — although it has some elements that would definitely never come to figure in the Heartbreakers’ sound, like a flugelhorn, plus a harmonica playing a part that sounds like the sort of thing Tench would come to add on organ in subsequent years. “When we recorded in Tulsa,” Tench remembered, “some members of a Texas swing band called Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys came down and played harmonica and fiddle. I know they had a song called ‘Give Me a Shot of Nyquil, That Restful Sleep My Body Needs’.”
Campbell was knocked out when they found the track at how preternaturally grown-up Petty sounded in these pre-power-pop days, bringing in some R&B even as Mudcrutch were endeavoring to be the Flying Burrito Brothers: “Tom is a rock and roll singer, but this song is Otis Redding. He was a soul singer, too. When he hits that high note — pure soul.”
The leadoff track on the boxed set is “Surrender,” from 1976, at which point the Heartbreakers had been formed. It had been a staple of their early live set. “We wrote a set of songs that were kind of Byrds-y, and we kept trying to cut it and could never quite get it how we thought it should be, so it kept getting shelved,” said Campbell. “Over three or four albums, it got shelved. What I really like about it is when you hear Tom singing, he is so full of urgency and youthful energy about what he’s creating… This is Tom as a young guy at his best.”
Ulyate said that in his archival efforts, he could see how the drums had become flat-sounding on the track after the group added so many layers to what in those days was just 16-track studio equipment. “They kind of screwed the groove by trying to fix it,” he said. But a 2018 reclamation effort made it into the debut album standout it should’ve been destined to be. Said Tench, “I remember really trying it [again] on ‘Damn the Torpedoes.’ But we never thought we had it. And we had it from the get-go. There was no cocaine involved at all,” he added, as a tongue-in-cheek catch-all for why they couldn’t always wrap things up at the time.’
“Walkin’ from the Fire,” an outtake from 1984’s “Southern Accents,” is a particularly intriguing artifact — a remnant of the original intent for that record to be more of a Southern-themed concept album, leaning toward Randy Newman-esque character observations, before late additions with producer Dave Stewart like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” diluted the plan.
“It was a crazy record and a crazy time,” said Tench. “There was a whole other record that fit the ‘Southern Accents’ motif, and for some reason we got distracted and started putting on all this other stuff, which was really interesting. But this to me feels like some guy in the South who’s kind of hard, a good person who’s kind of pushed.” One of the lines, “Don’t put me in a corner,” kept showing up in other songs until he finally put a variation on it into “My Life/Your World.” “I liked the way Tom would take [abandoned] lyrics and go, no, I’m not gong to let go of that.”
“He used to say, ‘Never let a good line go to waste’,” pointed out Ulyate.
“I never let one go to waste,” quipped Tench (who, it should be noted, has long since embraced sobriety).
One problem with “Walkin’ from the Fire” was that, as wonderful a find as it was, it had never been completed. “We found this tape and it was great except it didn’t have a solo in it,” said Ulyate, “so we were like, we know what to do here.” Added Campbell: “We were careful because it was good without the solo. It was Tom doing his Creedence Clearwater sort of swampy thing, and we just wanted to put a little extra… but not really add that much to it.” Campbell did have a particular memory of cutting this one in ’84. “I listened to the words and I said to Tom, ‘Don’t you think he’d be running from the fire?’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘Shut up.’”
“Don’t Treat Me Like a Stranger” was the one song played at the listening session that’s been previously released. An outtake from the Jeff Lynne-produced “Full Moon Fever,” it was the B-side to “I Won’t Back Down” in the UK in 1989. This song, too, has its version of the “Don’t put me in a corner” line. Said Tench, who didn’t play on this cut from Petty’s solo album, “I believe we tried it for ‘Southern Accents,’ originally. We all liked it then … The Heartbreakers’ version is pretty cool; hopefully it’ll come out someday. There’s Tom singing ‘I’ll fight like a tiger’ — that’s Tom.”
For pure delight, nothing that was premiered at the listening session beat “Lonesome Dave,” a barnburner that was cut when Petty interrupted the sessions for his “Wildflowers” solo album to go into the studio with the Heartbreakers to come up with a fresh track to tag onto the “Greatest Hits” compilation. It’s not hard to understand why “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” from the same sessions, made the cut instead. But “Lonesome Dave” is still one of the most fun things the Heartbreakers ever recorded, so it was no surprise when Tench said, “Do you know what a white whale it has been for me to get this damn thing released?”
The subject of the song is, or was, a real guy. “Lonesome Dave Peverett was in Savoy Brown and then he was in a band called Foghat,” said Tench. “They were huge… They’d boogie all night, they had a private jet, they dated supermodels, they were all over the world — Foghat! Dave had recently passed away at this point. ‘Oh, the disco came / Oh, what will become of Lonesome Dave?’ If you can follow the lyric in this, it’s just fantastic. I think Tom wrote the lyrics before, because they’re so good. However, he may have written them on the spot, because they’re so good. I had walked into the room when Tom was [improvising] the lead vocal to ‘Free Fallin’,’ so I knew this guy could do write a lyric that blow your mind on the spot. Now, this isn’t ‘Free Fallin’ – this is Chuck Berry on acid. Because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could play Chuck Berry like nobody’s business. He was the best singer of Chuck Berry ever, and next to Chuck, he was the best writer of Chuck Berry ever. So this is a Chuck Berry song that Tom wrote.”
“Gainesville” is an outtake from 1998’s “Echo.” Tench said he mostly focused on locking into the groove and didn’t really listen to the lyrics until much later, at which point he realized just how much Petty had succinctly summarized their early days as a band. “The second line is ‘Sandy loading up the van.’ Before I joined Mudcrutch, my best friend in Gainesville was Sandy, who was loading up the van for Mudcrutch, and introduced me to them and took me down to see them, and they let me sit in —therefore I’m here. And it’s such a lovely little thing to put in there, and it’s a rock and roll song, and I wish it was on ‘Echo.’ ‘Echo’ is a deep well, man. And (passing the mic to) Mike—speaking of deep wells!”
“I don’t remember this song at all,” replied Campbell, honest and deadpan.
“I Don’t Belong” was introduced as another outtake from “Echo.” Did they remember why it was taken off? “With a title like that, how could it stay?” joked Tench. The remaining tracks were alternate versions of songs that were released on the group’s last few records — arguably superior to the arrangements that were chosen at the time. “You and Me (Clubhouse Mix)” is a drumless version that sounds much sweeter and more elegiac than the previous “Last DJ” take, with just Tench and Campbell providing acoustic accompaniment. The same change in feel holds true for “Sins of My Youth,” a far superior version to the one heard on the final Heartbreakers album, 2012’s “Hypnotic Eye.” “Music and context can change the meaning of the lyrics,” said Tench, “so with that kind of bossa nova thing going on (on the previously released version), that lyric meant one thing, to me. Just the music here —which is an entirely different melody, groove, chorus, instrumentation, everything — changes the meaning of the song. I think it’s very moving.”
If there was any revelation from the Q&A with Tench and Campbell, it’s that “An American Treasure” may be the tip of the iceberg, as posthumous archival material goes. “We did cut a lot of really great stuff,” said Tench. “Believe me, there’s a lot more that didn’t fit on this boxed set.”
After Adria’s emotional introduction, there wasn’t a lot of overt sentimentality during the playback, or at least not till it came time to premiere the fan-assisted “You and Me” video she had just completed. But Campbell was coaxed into telling a story about the band’s origins… which led into another fun story about the group’s final tour last summer and fall.
“The night Tom and I met,” Campbell said, “I was living on a farm out at the edge of Gainesville and I had short hair and had dropped out of college and was hiding out from the Vietnam draft.” Campbell saw a country-rock group familiar to him from campus appearances, Mudcrutch, advertising for a drummer and encouraged his roommate, Randall Marsh, to apply. He sat in a back room during the tryout, only to have Marsh come in and inform him the band’s guitarist had just quit, and would he sit in? “I said, sure. I had a $60 Japanese guitar that my dad sent me from Okinawa. And I walked in with my short hair and cutoff jeans and they looked at me and said, ‘Oh, God, not this.’” And then they mutually decided to play “Johnny B. Goode,” and “about a minute into it, they looked at me and their whole faces changed — and they got to the end and he said ‘You’re in our band.’”
That brings the story to 2017, when the Heartbreakers are on their heartbreakingly final outing, with Petty in a perennially mischievous mood. Said Tench, “On this last tour, Tom would tell that story and every night he would change how much Mike’s guitar was worth. There was a pool among the crew and some members of the band, and my wife was in on it too. We would all try to guess what the number was gonna be, because it would change so drastically. One night it was $1.25.” Petty didn’t stop there with the running gag: “It got down to negative 13 dollars.”