Running down a dream

Running down a dream

I was happy in these days of sorrow and felt guilty about it.

I was on my way to photograph rocker Tom Petty at his home in Malibu, and I was driving down Pacific Coast Highway with a grin on my face.

As I hummed all the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs that I could from memory, I reflected on the first time I photographed Petty in the early 1980s. It never crossed my mind that Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, would be my last.

In 1982, my friends and I found out about a secret concert that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were giving at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium as a warm-up to the US Festival. After the concert, we tracked Petty to his motel. He was on the balcony having a cigarette with that James Dean slouch. “Hi, Tom,” we shouted. “Hey, guys,” he responded.

We all stated that the concert was a triumph, and I asked him if he would sign a few photographs I made of him at a previous show. He agreed. Before signing, he stopped and carefully looked at the photographs. “Did you take these?” he said. I nodded yes. “Nice shots, kid,” he said with a smile, and then graciously autographed my images.

I shook off that memory and began to meditate on my upcoming shoot. The assignment came through saying “Tom doesn’t like to pose” and “You can only photograph him during the interview.” So I thought, as with most celebrity shoots, that I had my work cut out for me.

Petty’s press rep warmly greeted me like an old friend. “So there are many options where you can take Tom’s picture,” she said. The proverbial clouds had parted and I was given free rein of where I could photograph Petty. I began scouting potential sites. Pop music writer Randy Lewis was my model and, as always, my moral support.

Randy and I met with Petty in his studio. He greeted us with a smile. He was wearing his familiar tinted glasses, brim and an Army canvas jacket. And he wore that Tom Petty cool without effort. After congratulating him on the completion of his 40th anniversary tour, I asked if we could step outside for a few portraits. I told him that I was hoping to emulate a picture that I made of Joni Mitchell a few years ago as she meditated under a fig tree. I said that I wanted to make an image that captured him in a reflective state, remembering four decades of music. I showed him my image of Mitchell and he became animated with the prospect of recreating the moment. “Let me get my favorite guitar,” he said, walking briskly back into his house. He returned with an acoustic Gibson six-string guitar, a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

As we made our way to the site of my first portrait, I told Petty about how one of his songs reminded me of how my girlfriend in college was stolen from me by famed rock and roll photographer Jim Marshall. I told Tom that I said to her, “You sound like that Tom Petty song, ‘So you think you’re going to take her away, with your money and your cocaine.’ ” That’s exactly what he did. Tom started laughing through a smile. It was the second of many smiles that afternoon.

Tom Petty at his home in Malibu on Sept. 27, 2017.
Tom Petty at his home in Malibu on Sept. 27, 2017. Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

He sat on a wrought-iron bench surrounded by greenery. He held his guitar gently like a father holds a child. He started strumming and singing something that I couldn’t quite make out. I was hoping for the song “Breakdown,” but I didn’t throw out that cliched request.

I made my last portrait of him in his studio against a backdrop of guitars. The late-afternoon light was spilling in behind him. While making my last frames, he swiveled on the stool the sunlight gave his guitar a heavenly glow. He accented the photo with another smile.

He went into the next room and sat on a couch, where Lewis would interview him for the last time.

Before I left, Petty said it was great to meet me. I reached out and shook his hand. These are the rare times when a journalist becomes a fan. “Thanks for all the amazing music,” I said. “Your songs have been the musical landscape of my life. Thank you.” I wished him continued success and creativity and that I looked forward to his next album. He followed my comment with the best smile of the afternoon.

That one I captured with my mind’s eye is the one I’ll forever carry with me.

Tom Petty in his home studio.
Tom Petty in his home studio. Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times