‘Tom Petty — An American Treasure’ box set is ‘a labor of love’ for fans from family members and band mates
Adria Petty opens her laptop and shares with a visitor home movie footage that her father shot in 1980.
Her face lights up as the video and film director takes in the shaky camera work, at the moment projecting childlike joy at how much fun her rock ‘n’ roll star dad, Tom Petty, was having on tour that year.
For the record:
2:20 PM, Sep. 24, 2018An earlier edition of this post stated that 10 of Tom Petty’s albums reached the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 Albums chart. He logged 12 Top 10 albums on that national sales ranking.
Adria, 44, discovered the footage — which she edited into a new video for the previously unreleased song “Keep A Little Soul” — while going through her dad’s effects after his death Oct. 2 at age 66. The song makes an appearance on a forthcoming four-disc box set mining her dad’s considerable trove of archival recordings, photos and memorabilia that have gone into “Tom Petty — An American Treasure,” scheduled for release Sept. 28.
In the the nearly four-decade-old Super 8 mm film, Petty, then 28 and basking in the acclaim from his breakthrough third album “Damn the Torpedoes,” is clearly in great spirits as he revels in the rough-and-tumble glories of the life on the road, something he’d only dreamed of as a scrawny kid in Gainesville, Fla. He’s clowning around some inglorious hotel room, getting shots of himself in the bathroom mirror, then turning the camera on his Heartbreakers bandmates goofing off on a hotel balcony.
Adria then makes a confession.
The abruptness of his death shocked millions of music fans, but that says nothing of the seismic quake it represented for his family, friends and bandmates.
“When my dad died, and everybody was in this really hopeless place, I listened to Tom Petty Radio a lot, which I didn’t do before,” she said, referring to the channel on SiriusXM satellite radio that premiered in 2015 and features a 24/7 playlist packed with the music of Petty, the Heartbreakers, the Traveling Wilburys rock superstar juggernaut and other Petty-adjacent rock, folk and blues records the show’s namesake loved.
“Besides having the DNA, as a layman, I’m also just a huge fan, and I always had a lot of respect and awe for my dad’s craft and his authenticity,” she said, sitting at the kitchen table of the house in Venice she’s just about to vacate to move to New York.
“So I would listen to Tom Petty radio and they would say ‘Tom Petty — American treasure.’ I would hear these fans calling in, and I’d be crying on my way back home,” she said. “I started thinking about what an American treasure he was as a songwriter. There was so much of the catalog that people didn’t hear in those concerts for the last 20 years that spoke to who my dad was.”
She references “Have Love Will Travel” and “Keeping Me Alive,” songs recorded about two decades apart and which both appear on “An American Treasure,” noting that they’re works that capture the “energy of my dad just sitting and strumming his guitar.”
She adds, “When he died, I realized how many conversations we had when he was just sitting in there strumming his guitar.”
All told, “An American Treasure” encompasses 60 tracks, from cornerstone hits including “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Louisiana Rain” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” to never-released songs such as “Keep A Little Soul,” “Gainesville,” “Bus to Tampa Bay,” “Two Men Talking” and “Lonesome Dave.” The new set duplicates just one track — a demo recording of “The Apartment Song” — from the 92-track, six-CD Petty box set “Playback” from 1995.
In compiling the set, Adria worked closely with her stepmother, Dana Petty, as well as guitarist-songwriter Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, founding members of the Heartbreakers, in addition to longtime Petty recording engineer Ryan Ulyate.
“We just want to share his brilliance with everyone,” Campbell said. “The stuff that’s left off the records is so good, and I think he would be proud to have these things come out and have people experience them. He wrote them. Some of them were finished, some of them weren’t. He would have liked them to have been heard.”
The set also includes a smattering of tracks by Mudcrutch, Petty’s early-‘70s Florida band that preceded and included core members of the Heartbreakers. That group reunited in 2008 and has since released two studio albums and done a couple of tours.
“ ’American Treasure’ came about because I was sitting around with a bunch of people and we were all lost in this pretty deep hole,” Adria said. “I was talking to Mike and Ben, kind of begging them about ‘How do we carry on without my dad being the creative voice who makes decisions? How do we get familiar with what’s not been released and begin to take in 40 years or more of a life?’ ”
What to include, and what to leave off, wasn’t always an easy choice. “We argued a lot,” Campbell said with a laugh. “Really — a lot.”
Many of those choices came down to intensely personal connections to particular songs.
“ ‘You and Me’ was one I picked,” Petty’s widow, Dana Petty, said in a separate interview at the Malibu house she and Tom shared since they wed in 2001. Without knowing it, she sat on the same couch, even the same cushion, her husband had occupied a little less than a year earlier in the foyer of his home recording and rehearsal studio during what turned out to be his final interview.
“That was the last song he heard the day he died,” Dana said. “He had me look online and find Martyn Atkins’ video that was never finished that he shot in the desert. [Atkyns] ended up putting a video together of him riding a dirt bike around the desert, and it was so sweet. He got really nostalgic that day.”
All concede that they continue to struggle in varying ways with Petty’s death — ruled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff-Coroner’s office to have been the result of an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers Petty had been taking to contend with the cracked hip he weathered throughout the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour in 2017.
For Dana, it’s heartache over the unfulfilled promise that “Tommy… my best friend, my rock” made to lease an airplane and start to do some traveling with her, something Petty rarely took enough time away from his music to do.
For Adria, tears still flow when it hits her, often, that her 5-year-old daughter, Everly — after the Everly Brothers, the name signifying “perfect harmony” to Adria — will not grow up knowing her rock star grandpa.
For Campbell, “We were more than close. There were so many deep strains in our band. And we lived a dream together. We dreamed a dream, and it all came true for all of us — together. That creates a love that’s deeper than any other love I can imagine: the songwriting, and the song playing, and making records, playing all those shows in front of all those people together.
“Tom could have been a solo artist, but he loved the band,” Campbell added. “And we loved him and we stuck together because we loved it so much, and that’s something you never get over.”
For Tench, echoing his bandmate: “There’s a sound you make with another person, especially if they’re exceptional like him, and that is a sound that’s gone. The sound of me playing with him. The sound of just Mike and him. The sound of all of us playing with him, it’s gone. Since I was 18, I’ve made that sound with those people. Mike and I can still make our sound, but we don’t get to make that sound with Tom. And that’s a big, big, big deal to me.”
In his final interview two days after the triumphant final show of a three-night homecoming stand at the Hollywood Bowl, and just five days before he died, Petty told The Times he expected soon to be undergoing hip replacement surgery now that the tour was in the history books.
Like Adria, Tench, who also has a show on the Petty channel, takes solace these days in listening to the “Buried Treasure” program that Petty hosted, and which SiriusXM continues to air.
“They keep playing these shows over and over and over again because he did so damn many of them,” Tench said, “and they are so damn good.”
Being able to continue to hear Petty’s voice — speaking as well as singing — has been a mixed blessing for all the participants in the “American Treasure” project.
“To be honest with you, it was really hard at times to hear his voice.”
“To be honest with you, it was really hard at times to hear his voice,” said Campbell, sitting on a sofa next to Tench and strumming a vintage resonator guitar in Campbell’s home studio in the San Fernando Valley, where the group’s 1999 album “Echo” was recorded. “I mean, it’s not that long…. At times, it was really emotional. Thank God for Ryan, because he did a lot of the lifting and went through a lot of the tracks. I couldn’t sit there that much because it was just too intense.
“It is overwhelming,” Campbell said. “We all were suffering through it for him. We were doing it for him.”
Tench agreed: “It wasn’t easy for me emotionally in the sense that it would lift me and then I would come down. But it lifted me more than it brought me down, because it kept — in a way, although it’s a look back — it kept us moving forward, because it was discovering things and realizing , ‘Oh, it’s this and this and this.’
“It’s really good for me, because it feels like it’s alive,” Tench said. “And I’m not in denial. I’m still gobsmacked. I’m completely gobsmacked.”
To help ease their own pain, and that of legions of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fans, the “An American Treasure” organizing quintet eventually settled on 60 tracks, many of them studio recordings never previously released. There are also dozens of live performances and alternate takes of classic songs and deep cuts, some framed with the chatter among musicians before and after recorded takes.
For Adria, the goal was personal — not to remind the world of her father’s more than two dozen singles that made the Billboard Top 100, or 10 Top 10 albums, among 20 that Petty placed on the Billboard 200 Albums chart over four decades.
“My dad wasn’t a walking anthem,” she said. “I started to think of my dad as being at one with his Dove guitar writing songs all the time.
“I really wanted this to highlight him as a songwriter,” she said. “I want fans to know what it was like for me, hearing him strumming his guitar down the hall, working on a song, and then hearing that song being finished and recorded.”
She’s describing a process that Petty himself said never grew old.
I compare songwriting to fishing: There’s either a fish in the boat, or there’s not.
Tom Petty in his final interview
“I compare songwriting to fishing: There’s either a fish in the boat, or there’s not,” Petty said in that final interview, in which he expressed enthusiasm about various future projects.
“Sometimes you come home, and you didn’t catch anything, and sometimes you caught a huge fish,” he said. “That was the work part of it to me. To play live was fairly easy. That’s simplifying things a lot, but that part of it didn’t seem as challenging to me as coming up with a song.
“It’s all about songs,” he said. “If Iook back at it, I just think about I always had to write another song. We always needed another hit song. In those days, that’s how it worked; you brought out a song for the radio. And I got pretty good at that. I would just always be writing.
“It’s kind of a lonely work,” he said. “Because you just have to keep your pole in the water. I always had a little routine of going into whatever room I was using at the time to write in and just staying in there till I felt like I got a bite.”
The new box is a testament to that work ethic. Campbell, Tench, Ulyate, Dana and Adria Petty stress that the unreleased material is anything but rejects. At various points in separate interviews, all marveled at one track or another that had never seen the light of day.
“Our criteria,” Campbell said, “is that Tom was sitting here with us. Would he approve of this or not? And a lot of times, you’d go, ‘He wouldn’t like this stuff. He wouldn’t want anybody to hear this.’
“But the other stuff,” Campbell said, “I think if he was here, he’d say there was some validity to it, I’m proud of that and it should be here.’ So we always kept him right by our side through this whole process. …. I think we did a pretty good job of picking things he would be proud of.”
Tench concluded, “It’s been good for me to go through and hear this stuff. It’s validating, it keeps it alive. A friend of mine said, when my mother passed away, that people pass away, but the love doesn’t leave. This whole thing has been proof of that to me. And the music is an aspect of the love, and the music does not leave.”
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