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It’s a Heartbreaker: Tom Petty’s Bandmates and Daughters on Missing the Late Rock Legend

"I'm tired of him being gone," says Benmont Tench, who helped assemble the new collection "The Best of Everything."

Tom Petty’s song “The Best of Everything” sounds like it was meant to be the title track for something. Now, long, long after it was initially recorded and released in the 1980s, it finally is, providing an appropriate title for the first fully comprehensive best-of to represent the entirety of his career, from beginning to what many of us still have trouble accepting is its end.

This hits collection is a singular treasure trove for the more casual fan, although the inclusion of two previously unreleased tracks, including the moving “For Real,” and a superior remastering job ensures that serious Petty aficionados will pick it up, too. The two-CD/four-LP set, which finally brings together material from his stints with both MCA and Warner Bros., follows a few months on the heels of “An American Treasure,” a much larger boxed set that consisted mostly of outtakes.

Both collections were assembled by guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, the two lifetime mainstays of the Heartbreakers, along with the late star’s eldest daughter, Adria Petty (who has also been making posthumous music videos for her dad’s work), and producer/engineer Ryan Ulyate. Variety spoke with Campbell, Tench, and Adria and her sister Annakim Petty about putting together these two projects, how they’ve been dealing with their grief, and what lies ahead for archival projects and their own careers. They were eloquent enough in speaking about their friend and father that we thought we’d leave their words as uninterrupted as possible.

Mike CampbellWhen I went back through all this stuff… I don’t want to get heavy with it, but it’s very emotional, in being nostalgic, because we were never nostalgic when we were working. We never looked back. We just always were looking forward. But Ben and I were forced to look back as we went through this stuff, and we both had an epiphany about how we have a legacy that has integrity. We were sad, but also very proud of what we’ve done.

Benmont TenchWhen Tom passed away, none of us saw it coming. We weren’t going to retire. We weren’t going to quit making records and playing gigs. He’d made some noises about it, like he had before, but by the end of the tour, we were on the plane flying to the next gig and he’s like, “I’m never breaking this band up! We can wait a couple years and come back. and do this and this and this and this.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah! Obviously.” … And now it’s getting more real for me. That might sound strange after a year and a half, but it takes time for somebody whose impact on your life and presence in your life was so huge for almost half a century. You know, the phone’s going to ring, and it’s going to be “Go down to the clubhouse at 3.” It always happened, whether it was “Mudcrutch is coming back” — and boy, would hearing that again have made me happy — or literally just “Let’s go play a bunch of blues,” and I would start a Howlin’ Wolf song and he would just fall in, or (Scott) Thurston would blow something on the harmonica that would turn into a Sonny Boy Williamson song. We played together since before I was old enough to drink. It was a long time. That’s just what I’ve done my whole life, and it’s gone. It’s weird. It’s messed up. It’s not good. But there it is.

Adria Petty: His whole thing was so much about creating a good vibe that I don’t want people in a constant state of grieving when they hear Tom Petty music. There is the joy of his existence. So it’s a tricky transition at the moment. He’s got the sort of light that I still feel is around. So we’re doing the best we can with it, and it did get easier about a year after he died. It definitely sort of dawned on me that he was just completely free — free of any stress, free of any responsibility.

Campbell: We all miss him. And we’re all going to be okay.

Adria: My sister and I never had an experience like this before, for us to be together talking about our dad. We wanted to make sure the fans knew we were behind the new record — that we really actually did endorse it, and it wasn’t like a corporate re-release.

Annakim Petty: He was a dad to a lot of his fans, too. It sounds like one of the clichés of rock ‘n’ roll, but he really fought to give a lot of love to people and create that world for them. So there’s a lot of compassion for us now in listening to it and thinking about the connection that other people had. Now, it doesn’t feel so invasive anymore. I can see how they can connect to my dad without him being a part of their lives in the physical world all this time.

Adria: Like my sister, I always felt like the fans were other from us… And after he died, I felt like we all shared a great connection to him that was much more universal. We both opened up our Instagrams to fans after he died because it was extraordinarily comforting to share that feeling of love. … He was one of the few people in 2016 and 2017 where you would see Americans with very different views sharing something in common. My friends were saying, “The only things people in America can agree on at this point is tacos and Tom Petty.” And he thought it was cool that he could get them all in a room singing “Learning to Fly” together.

Tench: With“The Best of Everything,” we wanted to do an overview and get the Warner Bros. stuff and the MCA/Shelter stuff in one place. I don’t know what the legal things had been. I’d heard that Tom had been talking about trying to do something like this, or maybe just a compilation from the Warner Bros. years, but until he passed away, emotionally it wasn’t as compelling to do this.

Adria: These songs that are on the hits collection include the gold standard of what my dad felt were the hits on his (later) records at Warner Bros., from “Mojo” or “The Last DJ” and the other albums that were sort of post-FM radio. After finishing a record, he’d often take us into a studio and play us a key track where he was like, “I really cracked the case on this one. Sit back and check this one out.” And those songs are on this compilation, anointed as hits by us, to share space with the legendary hits in a playlist. Some people will be like, “Oh, I could do this on Spotify.” But for us, the flow of this felt like it had connection to it. A good example of that is (segueing from) “Runnin’ Down a Dream” into “American Dream Plan B.” That second song is sort of like an addendum to the first, going from “I can get whatever I want in America” to “Well, maybe not! Maybe it’s going to be a little different for this generation.” He really did have a good way of reflecting back on what he meant and putting it in context in the later years. And I think ending it with (the previously unreleased) “For Real” is such a rad way for us to allow him to speak about his whole body of work.

Tench: I remembered the vibe of “For Real” but I didn’t remember how the song went, and when we got it and put it up. I was really happy with it. It was recorded when we went to Bill Bottrell’s studio in Mendocino so we would have something to put on “Anthology: Through the Years,” a two-disc greatest hits of the MCA stuff that came out in the early 2000s. We went up to record “Surrender” because we didn’t realize that we had good versions of “Surrender.” And that’s not my favorite version of “Surrender.” (An earlier, better version was unearthed for “American Treasure.”) We did that really loud and played it like us, and I don’t think Bill’s studio was set up to maximize that kind of playing. But his setup was ideal for something (gentler) like “For Real.” That song to me sounds like Tom reporting from his heart — reporting from the front. It may sound like it’s meant to be a summing up of a career or something, but it’s not, really, because it’s almost 20 years old. We weren’t quite as long-in-tooth and gray then.

In putting “For Real” on this collection, it was important to me that if you’re going to put an unreleased song on a (hits) record, put something good, you know? Because there’s always the charge that “Oh, you’re just making us buy the same stuff all over again by putting something new on it.” But we have a good track record (with previously unreleased material). On the first “Greatest Hits” we did, there was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and that is world class. On “American Treasure,” “Keep a Little Soul” to me is world-class. And I think “For real” is, too. It’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, or shellac — a really beautiful, heartfelt song.

Campbell: Which song do I like best (on “The Best of Everything”)? Without sounding egotistical, I tend to like the songs I co-wrote better. [He chuckles.] But a song like “I Should Have Known It” (from “Mojo”), I was glad that was on there, because I’m really proud of that track and that performance. It showed a band in their later development still doing quality music.

Tench: There are songs on here that are from records that didn’t get a lot of attention, for whatever reason. If you look at the stuff from some of the later period, after “Wildflowers”… Take a look at “Scare Easy,” for instance. That’s a really broken-hearted song, and kind of a defensive song, and he “doesn’t scare easy” — you know, I’m not sure that that guy doesn’t scare easy. That guy’s toughness sounds to me like a front. It sounds like somebody who’s tough because his heart got really badly broken. It’s a great song. “Room at the Top” is a great song from “Echo.” “Hungry No More” from the second Mudcrutch record is fantastic. That’s one of the last things we recorded, and if you want a song that’s summing up, I think it’d be “Hungry No More.” “Saving Grace”: what a song! What a lyric. And of course, you’ve got…

[A long pause as Tench becomes quietly emotional.] I’m tired of him being gone. But it’s just the way it is. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I don’t like not being able to play with him. I don’t like not being able to be mad at him. I don’t like not being able to be blown away by something that he brings in. You know, I don’t like it.

[Tench collects his thoughts.] He’s really good. And I really miss going in and seeing what he’s got. I really miss learning something, and then kind of going inside my head, “Ah, you can do better than that,” or going, “Holy shit, that’s f—ing great.” I really miss it because I think there’s a (lost) standard. He wrote songs that said a lot in a few words, and you didn’t have to listen to them twice to get into them. And that’s what we loved about the 1960s with all those great songs that you’re into from the get-go because the melody is so good and the lyric is direct, and in the better writers of the 1960s — like Jagger and Richards, like Rod Argent and Chris White, like obviously Bob (Dylan), and the great professional songwriters, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Carole (King) and Gerry (Goffin) and all those folks — you went in from the get-go. You were there. And Tom really had that.

CREDIT: Courtesy Universal Music

Adria: “The Best of Everything” is like the (class) 101 of the entire 40 years. And “American Treasure” is for the hardcore fan, but it’s also for the Leonard Cohen fan or the person that isn’t just so into the shiny rock side of my dad and is more into the blues or the acoustic or the emotional.

Campbell: From “American Treasure,” I would pick either “Lonesome Dave” or “Two Men Talking,” for different reasons. “Lonesome Dave” is just a pure jolt of adrenaline. It was unrehearsed, and I think even Tom was making up some of the lyrics as we were playing the take. It really captures the band, just unbridled and excited. And then “Two Men Talking” is really cool because the Heartbreakers didn’t do much extended jamming, but that’s a nice jam that goes on for a while, and guitars and piano get to explore some improvisation.

Adria: He kept saying this last tour was it. Like, “No more hits tours. I’m not gonna play ‘Free Fallin’ anymore, I’m gonna go and play the music I want to play” — whether that would have been blues or somebody else’s music or more obscure things that aren’t going to be sure-fire adrenaline triggers for the crowd. He was ready to go focus on music that was a little more selfish after that. And he unfortunately didn’t get that opportunity. But I think that “American Treasure” definitely scratches the surface of what that repertoire would have been.

Tench: Will there be an “American Treasure, Vol. 2″? I don’t know. But I would like to take another dive in. I don’t think I’m emotionally ready to go dive in again, although it was a healing experience.A lot of stuff got left off that’s really good. So there’s a way somewhere down the line, I hope, to go into some of the unreleased stuff that we still have and do more — or go into maybe “Southern Accents” or “Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough,” those two albums, and go, “Well, what might have been, if the original plan and the original song list had been stuck to?” Now, that’s just me talking off the top of my head. I haven’t talked to Adria or Mike or Dana (Petty, Tom’s wife) or anybody about that. That’s just a thought and a hope that I would have in the future. You know, there’s a lot of Mudcrutch stuff that’s really wonderful that hasn’t come out — dating from 1973 or dating from just two or three years ago.

Campbell: The one I’m really excited about would be “Live at the Fillmore” from 1997 through ’99. We did a couple of runs there and it was a different set list every night. We did residencies at the Vic in Chicago and the Beacon in New York, and there may be live albums in there. And in terms of studio stuff, I just heard that our engineer was going through the “Wildflowers” era and he thinks there’s an extra album’s worth of songs in there. I haven’t heard them yet, but when I get home, I’ll be curious to hear if there is a record in there. But we’re going to be really careful to just put only the ones out that we think Tom would want out. Some of that stuff is not finished enough or maybe he wouldn’t have thought it was up to his level. We’re trying to put that barometer on anything we do to make sure our integrity is intact.

Adria: I don’t want to inundate the fans with “Hey, here’s another record!” He made entire other (unreleased) records that, when we look back, they might not have been great for an audience in 1986 or something, but now you’re like, oh my God. But there’s so much stuff to digest for us in terms of how to do it the way that he would want us to do it. “Southern Accents” is a perfect example of a record that sort of scratches the surface of what they were doing at that time. So we have a lot of homework to do to sit down and look at what happened in a particular time frame.

“Wildflowers” (an expanded boxed set that Petty had long planned to put out before his death) definitely is an amazing project that we have in our arsenal, and I would say that it will be coming out pretty soon, but not immediately. That’s a masterpiece that needs to be really well handled and explained not only to a younger generation, but even to the people that only got to see half of the record because it was originally a double record. We’re actually still like struggling to find the original track listing of that double record. … So it’s not just “Hey, we got left this stuff and it’s going to make money for this family.” It’s “Hey, we are the stewards of this big archive of awesomeness, and how do we go in and explain to someone who’s 25 or even 35 what ‘Wildflowers’ was?” It’s him growing as an artist and pushing the Heartbreakers into a new direction; it was a solo album. but a lot of the players are the same, while he was experiencing a different level of freedom in doing this personal material. And “Wildflowers” is undoubtedly about him leaving my mom and falling in love with someone else. So there’s sort of this celebration and this grieving process all in that record. And when you get all of it together, you see what the guy’s real life was like at that time and what he was going through. It’s so beautiful and so empathetic and so connected that it’s a really important thing to be able to share with people the right way.

He was such a music creator. That was really his only raison d’etre. He didn’t really care about promoting it or making T-shirts. My dad would say, “You don’t have to make all the money,”

Annakim: He was always in the studio. But if he wasn’t, he would be playing guitar while he was watching TV. It was wild.

Adria: Because I worked in advertising and music for a lot of pop stars, I’d be like, “Dad, why aren’t you doing this or doing that? Why do you have to bust your ass touring all the time” (instead of making money off synergy)? I’m in the edit right now doing a video for “For Real,” which we’re going to release soon, and I’m listening to quotes from him where he’s saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “Our career was defined by what we didn’t do.” They didn’t do People magazine and game show-type things that people would say, “Oh, you’ve got to do this to be in the public eye.” He defined himself by the things that he omitted — sometimes to his detriment, and sometimes to the music’s detriment, in not getting certain real masterpieces noticed. And it’s our job to sort of gently draw attention to those things because they’re a really extraordinarily uplifting gift to people.

Benmont: I’m about to go play some shows with Phil Lesh in March at the Capital Theater in Port Chester, New York, and I want to play a couple solo shows while I’m out there, too, because I’m serious about what I write and I want to act like it. So, sure, I’ll play a club in New York City entirely solo and sing my songs. You aren’t really living if you aren’t doing something that scares you. Hey, I had a child at 64. There’s nothing scarier than that.

Adria: I feel like Ben and Mike haven’t had a second to process this, what the next chapter can be, and I think for us, it’s kind of the same. Ben had a baby for the first time six or seven weeks after my dad died, and he’s been deeply in love and entrenched in that. It’s a really horrible thing to have to process both things at the same time, so he probably finally has a little space to just focus on that. Mike’s going to be on the road with Fleetwood Mac through April. He had his first grandchild right after Dad died. There’s a third generation of Heartbreaker kids coming in that are all amazing.

Campbell: I wouldn’t have joined another band if the Heartbreakers were still together. That’s just not the way I work. So (Fleetwood Mac) could only have happened if the band had broken up or stopped completely —or what did happen. Yeah, I’m still grieving. I’ll be grieving a long time. And it’s hard. But I guess to have something that’s really time-consuming that occupies your energy is helpful in the grieving process, yeah. And we do play “Free Fallin;” every night in the set, and it’s very emotional and very sweet, and a great tribute to my friend. So, grief – this is going to be a long one for me, but it took 50 years of getting close. I’m just going through it, but I’m doing okay. I’m happy to have the work, I’ll tell you that. I’m grateful, very grateful, for the way things are working out for me right now.

I’ll be on tour with (Fleetwood Mac) till September. When that’s done, I have an album that’s nearly finished of my little side project, a band called the Dirty Knobs, which I’ve had for 12, 15 years, and we would always play between Heartbreakers tours. I had always intended to explore that when the Heartbreakers would wind down. I didn’t expect them to wind down the way they did, but there’s now time for me to follow through on that. The Fleetwood Mac Australia tour ends some time in September, and I’m sure — I pray — we’re going to take a break. [Chuckle.] And then I’ll have time to rest and then focus 100 percent on my band.

I love those guys (in Fleetwood Mac). It’s been the most wonderful experience for me. They have amazing songs. We get along really well. Neil Finn is like a brother to me; we really connected, and everyone is having such a blast. So I’m open to anything they want to do. We’ll take a break and see what Stevie’s up to and what everyone else wants to do. And if they want to do some recording, I would definitely be into that, if we can get some good songs together. There are no specific plans of anything yet; we’ve got to get through this tour in one piece.

Tench: Catherine is 14 and a half months. Tom passed away and she was born I think two and a half months later. We had wanted to have her during the break from the tour so I could be home with her and not have to go anywhere for at least a couple of years, and then she’d be old enough to travel with us with the Heartbreakers. … [A pause.] It’s not the kind of circle of life lesson I wanted. [He chuckles.] I’d rather have watched “The Lion King.” But she’s the salvation in this. There’s no replacement for what the band is to me. But she’s a whole new window on the world.

People ask if we’re going to play together again. I would love to sit down and play with Mike and Steve (Ferrone) and Scott (Thurston, the final lineup of the Heartbreakers). I’d love to play with Mike and Ron (Blair, former bassist) and Stan (Lynch, their former drummer). Any form of the Heartbreakers, I would love to play with. I have already been on stage with Mike and Steve, individually. But I just think the sorrow would be too big for me … The strangeness of Tom not being in the middle of the room… it just seems odd. You never know what the future will hold.

Before I was in the band, I would go see Mudcrutch as they were playing small clubs in Gainesville, and they blew my mind and I just followed them around and just fell in love with that band. And so I stan for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers all year long, and that’s part of why I’m so sad, because I was a fan first. You know, I’m just some aging fanboy.

 

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