Tom Petty's Legacy Lives On As 'An American Treasure'

Sep 28, 2018
Originally published on September 28, 2018 7:41 am

Tuesday, Oct. 2, marks the one-year anniversary of Tom Petty's death. Members of the prolific musician's family and longtime band have spent much of the past year listening to his early and unreleased recordings. Wanting to mark the occasion, Dana Petty, wife of the late musician, and Benmont Tench, Petty's longtime keyboardist, started combing through the rock star's vault. They made selections for a box set that offers a kind of alternate musical history of the singer who died of a drug overdose in 2017. The 60-song posthumous release, Tom Petty: An American Treasure, contains unreleased tracks and rarities from Petty's decades-long career.

The memory of his death was still fresh for Dana Petty when she walked into his home studio in California to hear what was there. She says it was an emotionally-charged but also healing experience to revisit all of Petty's old material.

"At first, it was really hard to even listen to him on the radio, especially when he spoke," Petty's widow says. "In these recordings, there's a lot of joking around with the band and him talking. That was hard. As we listened, it got easier, and it was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. It was very healing, I think, for all of us."

The recordings preserved Petty's voice and offered a new way to hear the man who lived much of his life in front of a microphone. Tench heard his younger years with Petty on those recordings and was reminded of Petty's writing process. With lyrics that had a distinctive edge, Tench recalls that while Petty sometimes waited like a fisherman for the words to come, often times they just flowed out.

"I wasn't there when he wrote 'Free Fallin','" Tench says, "but he was totally capable of picking up a guitar or sitting down at a piano, opening his mouth and not thinking, and something as complete and beautiful as 'Free Fallin" coming out, in the course of the time it takes to sing the song."

In the time leading up to his death, the musician had knee and hip problems, in addition to recently being diagnosed with emphysema, but his widow and bandmates note that, emotionally, he was in a good place.

"We knew that he had a fracture in his hip, but he wanted to play," Tench says. "If the dressing room was far, on the last tour, he would take a golf cart from the dressing room to the steps up to the stage. But the second he hit the stage, he was on and he was gone. You would never have known anything."

"The only time he was out of pain, I think, was when he was onstage," Dana Petty adds.

What remained after his death was recording after recording of a man who never stopped thinking about his music. Petty's newly published recordings like "Keep A Little Soul" offer, as pop songs like often do, advice for life.

"That's the one I listen to the most," Petty's widow says. "It's not too dark. There's hope there."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a little-known version of a well-known song by Tom Petty. He's playing live in Hollywood in 1977.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKDOWN")

TOM PETTY: (Singing) It's all right if you love me. It's all right if you don't.

INSKEEP: It's a posthumous release of a singer who died of a drug overdose one year ago next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKDOWN")

T. PETTY: (Singing) It's all right. It's all right.

INSKEEP: As the anniversary of Tom Petty's death arrives, people close to him are releasing more of his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T FADE ON ME")

T. PETTY: (Singing) I remember you so clearly, the first one through the door.

INSKEEP: Bandmates and family members spent months hitting play on stacks of old recordings. They chose 60 tunes to release. His widow, Dana Petty, listened in their home studio in California.

DANA PETTY: It was a very healing experience.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by healing?

D. PETTY: Well, you know, at first, it was really hard to even listen to him on the radio, especially when he spoke. In these recordings, there's a lot of joking around with the band and him talking, and that was hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T. PETTY: This is a new song called "Listen To Her Heart."

D. PETTY: As we listened, it got easier. And it was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. It was very healing, I think, for all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN TO HER HEART")

T. PETTY: (Singing) You think you're going to take her away with your money and your cocaine.

INSKEEP: The recordings preserve the voice of a man who lived in front of a microphone. Dana Petty spoke of the recordings with Benmont Tench, Tom Petty's keyboardist, who heard his younger self on some of them.

BENMONT TENCH: Old tapes from my parents' living room of our first band recording a demo.

INSKEEP: Was that like one of those old audio cassette recorders?

TENCH: No, we actually - to make a demo to try to get a record deal in 1973, we had a local guy who had a van with a reel-to-reel tape machine come to the house. And he put some mics up. And we played live in my parents' living room, seven or eight songs. And my parents, God bless them, they let us practice at the house. All we had to do was stop playing when the "CBS Evening News" came on so my dad could listen to the news.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

TENCH: And we were loud, and my parents were totally fine with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING THAT'S ROCK 'N' ROLL")

T. PETTY: (Singing) Some friends of mine and me stayed up all through the night, rocking pretty steady till the sky went light. I didn't go to bed, didn't go to work. I picked up the telephone, told the boss he was a jerk.

INSKEEP: This is a song from 1976. The artist was on the radio from the 1970s until roughly now, with lyrics that had a distinctive edge. She might need a lot of loving, but she don't need you. You got lucky, babe, when I found you. Benmont Tench recalls Petty sometimes waited like a fisherman for the words to come. And other times, they just flowed out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE FALLIN'")

T. PETTY: (Singing) She's a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus and America too.

TENCH: I wasn't there when he wrote "Free Fallin'." But he was totally capable of picking up a guitar or sitting down at a piano, opening his mouth and not thinking and something as complete and beautiful as "Free Fallin'" coming out...

D. PETTY: Yeah.

TENCH: ...In the course of the time it takes to sing the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE FALLIN'")

T. PETTY: (Singing) And I'm free, free fallin'.

INSKEEP: He was not in very good shape the last few years, was he?

D. PETTY: He had knee problems and then his hip, and he just found out he had emphysema. But, you know, he was, emotionally, in a really good place.

INSKEEP: The news accounts of his death linked it to pain medication, which I think I understand hearing you saying that he had a variety of issues that people have as they get older. This is, in a way, a tragically common story in the country.

D. PETTY: Yeah. He wasn't doing pain meds when he was performing. But when he got home, it was obviously getting worse.

TENCH: We knew that he had a fracture in his hip, but he wanted to play.

D. PETTY: Yes.

TENCH: And if the dressing room was far on the last tour, he would take a golf cart from the dressing room to the steps up to the stage. But the second he hit the stage, he was on and he was gone. He was - you'd never have known anything.

D. PETTY: It was the only time he was out of pain, I think, is when he was onstage.

INSKEEP: It was at the start of October in 2017 when he asked Dana Petty if they could listen to one of his songs together.

D. PETTY: "You And Me," he wanted to hear that on October 1. It was the last song he heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU AND ME")

T. PETTY: (Singing) Take a look at what I got. I can't promise you a lot. But you and me...

D. PETTY: It's hard to hear that song. I mean, he wrote that song during our engagement. It was very special to both of us.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about that moment with that song, "You And Me." He just happened to be thinking of you.

D. PETTY: Yeah, I guess. I didn't - I haven't thought about it that way. You're going to make me cry, but yeah. I think he knew that he didn't have long. And that last day is just so - it's just surreal that - he had me look up Cindy Crawford (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

D. PETTY: ...His junior high girlfriend who is partially responsible for getting him into music.

TENCH: Different Cindy Crawford.

D. PETTY: Different Cindy Crawford.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK.

D. PETTY: She lived in Gainesville.

INSKEEP: Just checking. Go on.

D. PETTY: She lived in Gainesville, really beautiful girl that was putting on a dance for his junior high. And she asked him if he knew a band. And he said, oh, yeah, I have a band - which he didn't, so he went out - he got a band together and played the dance.

INSKEEP: On Facebook, they looked up the woman who had started his career. And the next day, Tom Petty was dead. What remained was recording after recording of a man who never stopped thinking about his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP A LITTLE SOUL")

T. PETTY: One, two, three, four.

INSKEEP: And Tom Petty's newly published recordings offer, as pop songs often do, advice for life.

TENCH: And there's something about what he says in "Keep A Little Soul." Don't be afraid to - what is it? Don't be afraid to be what you...

D. PETTY: To live what you believe.

TENCH: Don't be afraid to live what you believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP A LITTLE SOUL")

T. PETTY: (Singing) Don't be afraid to live what you believe. Nothing matters. It doesn't matter, no. It doesn't matter when you keep a little soul...

D. PETTY: And that's the one I listen to the most, and it's not too dark. There's hope there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP A LITTLE SOUL")

T. PETTY: (Singing) Warm people got soul, honey. Hard people got dreams.

INSKEEP: Benmont Tench and Dana Petty, thanks to you both.

D. PETTY: Thank you so much.

TENCH: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.