TOM PETTY got plenty of mileage out of the Mad Hatter persona in the 1980s, but on a recent afternoon he staggered to answer his mansion door looking like a surlier version of the Scarecrow from Oz's cornfields. In denim and tattered flannel, and with a gimpy knee buckling beneath him, the 55-year-old rock star sized up the visitors on his porch, shrugged and handed off a lit cigarette to his wife. "OK, so where are we doing this photo?"
The photographer positioned the singer beside a tree that partially obscured him, and Petty, pleased by the notion of camouflage, held up his guitar for further cover. The reporter asked Petty if he loathes interviews. "It's part of the job," he answered, the way a miner might shrug and explain that yes, of course black lung is to be expected when you dig coal for a living. "And sometimes," Petty added, "people get things wrong or misunderstand."
This year, Petty did an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that made it sound as though he was retiring. He is not. But the article led to a flood of media requests because, well, there's nothing quite so tidy for a music journalist as a career-closing retrospective. Petty was by turns amused, frustrated and dazed by the false-retirement attention, but it all fed into a one-of-a-kind year for a singer who may be one of the most routinely undervalued songwriters in the rock pantheon. "I really couldn't have imagined a year like this happening," he said. "I didn't see this coming, especially with the way things were just a few years ago."
Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, celebrated their 30th anniversary this year with a triumphant tour that, in September, included a homecoming to Gainesville, Fla., where the band formed in the 1970s. The return was greeted with a local fervor that made it seem like the Fab Four returning to Liverpool, except this Liverpool was situated between humid swamps and these Beatles sounded more like the Byrds. The mayor came on stage with a key to the city, the local press gushed and Petty watched the whole scene wide-eyed.
"It spooked me, really. It was nice but it was also overwhelming," he said. "You can't really walk down the street or talk to anybody because everybody was talking at once. At the concert I just hid in the bus until it was time to play."
The homecoming was only one in a crush of valentines for Petty. His new solo album, "Highway Companion," was met with strong reviews and, this month, two Grammy nominations as well, including best rock album. It was his first new music in four years -- a fact that had escaped him until a European journalist asked him to explain the drought. "I was surprised. Was it really that long? Yes, I guess it was." See, sometimes these interviews can be enlightening.
The album, released at midyear, has a gothic feel in spots and Petty's nasal drawl fits in especially well on "Down South," a song draped in the Spanish moss of central Florida, where Petty grew up. The lyrics sound like a vagabond spinning on his heel and retracing his steps.
Headed back down south
Gonna see my daddy's mistress
Gonna buy back her forgiveness
Pay off every witness
One more time down south
Clearly, he's a fellow who inventories the skeletons in his closet.
Petty and his band are also the focus of a documentary, due in 2007, by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. It's not simply a filmed concert or extended music video, either; Bogdanovich followed the band on the road, recorded rehearsals with hidden cameras, sat them down for lengthy interviews and rummaged through their vaults for footage.
"It's looking at Tom, an American troubadour in the truest sense of the word, and the history and legacy of this band, which is a considerable history indeed," Bogdanovich said backstage at Petty's Hollywood Bowl show a few months ago. Also backstage were Stevie Nicks, with her hair up in curlers, and Traveling Wilburys alumnus Jeff Lynne. Both of them would join Petty and the Heartbreakers on stage as surprise guests. Petty seemed a bit overwhelmed by the ovations, patting his heart, waving to the crowd. He may not be retiring, but it's clear he's soaking up every single minute these days.
"THAT night," Petty said, "that was one of our best shows. That's why we're upset it wasn't reviewed in The Times." Back on Petty's porch, the photos were done. It was time to amble over to the guesthouse that had been converted to a recording studio, guys' clubhouse and jam retreat.
Despite all of the accolades this year, and the 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Petty is a bit prickly when it comes to getting his due. It may be partly because radio programmers deny him airplay for new music (after his sniping at corporate radio with the 2002 album "The Last DJ," some of that may be personal) and because after collaborations with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and so many other icons, Petty is sometimes consigned to a junior partner role in the minds of fans. The singer does not have leading-man good looks, and it's fair to say the best reviews of his career were early on.
But what a career it has been. Just look at the hits, all sly but accessible: "Breakdown," "American Girl," "Listen to Her Heart," "Free Fallin'," "The Waiting," "I Won't Back Down," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Don't Come Around Here No More."
Still, there's something to the blue-collar ethos of the band that makes people describe it with language veering toward the drab. There are plenty of compliments, but lots of them sound like "My, what a handsome woman." Check out the official entry on them at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website: "Durable, resourceful, hard-working, likeable and unpretentious, they rank among the most capable and classic rock bands of the last quarter century." It sounds like they're selling a used Packard.
Bogdanovich calls Petty and his crew "a great American rock band of a sort you don't find anymore," and that's true. Calling someone a rare link to the classic rock era doesn't sound complimentary, but in this case it is. This band gathered up threads from the music traditions of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Dylan and Fleetwood Mac as well as the crowd-pleasing sensibility of 1950s rockers who were intuitively suspicious of "art" and put a premium on writing hit songs and playing their instruments better than anyone else. Benmont Tench, the keyboardist for the Heartbreakers, said he's also blanched at arty aspirations for a rock band. "We wanted to make music that follows a certain tradition and appeals to a lot of people," he said, "and there's nothing wrong with that. Far from it."
A few years ago, Petty was in a roadside diner and was handed a cup of coffee. It was fantastic. "I asked the waitress and she said it was Maxwell House. The instant kind." So, now at his Malibu mansion, the one with the tennis courts and pools, you can request a cup of java, but you'll get handed a cup of joe.
In his studio, Petty began to warm up with the coffee in his hand, the cigarette between his fingers and a seat to nurse the knee that, after thousands of stage stunts, is now in the seasons of surgery.
Petty is in an otherwise healthy phase of life. That wasn't the case a few years ago. "Things," he said, "got dark. Let's just say that." A bitter divorce led to a slide into a hermit's haze. Petty isolated himself and self-medicated with the familiar rock-star prescriptions. "Things weren't good and I was worried about him. We all were," said Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers' guitarist and "co-captain," as Petty calls him. Salvation is hard to catalog, but in this case it looked like a new marriage (to Dana York), a new album and a rejuvenated spirit in the band. Veteran rock outfits have to give one another room to stay together, Petty says, but he is clearly pleased that the winks and hugs are back.
"You learn a lot about each other and it's amazing that we have done this for so long, not many people can," he said. "We still argue but it's for the music. The big difference is we don't punch each other anymore. You learn that you can't play if you got a sore hand."
The Malibu afternoon was giving way to a cool twilight. The grumpy scarecrow from the porch had been replaced by a chuckling Mad Hatter. Petty told stories about Orbison and Johnny Cash and mentioned how Dylan had told him that he loved "The Last DJ," which endured plenty of critical barbs.
"You can't have a real comeback if you have any turkeys in there," Petty explained. "Bob told me that the audience comes and goes and praise comes and goes, but you just have to not listen too much." Petty sipped his good-to-the-last-drop coffee. "You never know how things are going to turn out, and I didn't see this year coming, like I said. But maybe next year will be even better."