Tom Petty: "I Was Thinking, If This Goes For Five Years, That'd Be Quite A Run"

Tom Petty portrait, 1976
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #200.

Did you start out thinking music would be lifelong pursuit?

No, not at all. It was 1976 when the band started, and Mike [Campbell] and Ben [Tench] and I had been knocking around since 1970. There weren’t a lot of rock stars in their fifties or sixties then. It wasn’t that kind of job. I remember thinking at one point, “Boy, if this goes on for five years, that would be quite a run”.

What would have happened if that’s all there had been?

I think I saw myself doing this for a while and then maybe getting into being a songwriter or a record producer or something like that.

And with age and experience comes…?

It’s a really great surprise to find out you can get better as you get older. I’m enjoying performing because the band just gets better and better. I think you can keep improving, and if we don’t, we’ll stop.

Do you have a general approach or philosophy to the way you make music?

Y’know, I’m just trying to make good-quality music, ’cos I do realise this music is going to be around much longer than me. I want it to be something that does feel timeless and honest.

You have a track record of taking creative left turns and throwing people for a loop.

I’ve always thought from early on that if we got hung up doing the same thing over and over again that it would limit our longevity. I’m sure there’s an element of the audience that wants the same thing again and again, but there’s an element that wants you to lead them. I just try to put the music down where my head’s at at the time and hope someone likes it.

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Gary Graff

Gary Graff is an award-winning veteran music journalist based in metro Detroit, writing regularly for Billboard, Ultimate Classic Rock, Media News Group, Music Connection, United Stations Radio Networks and others. Graff’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Classic Rock, Revolver, the San Francisco Chronicle, AARP magazine, the Detroit Jewish News, The Forward and others. Graff has co-written and edited books about Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. A professional voter for the Grammy Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Graff co-founded the Detroit Music Awards in 1989 and continues as the organisation’s chief producer.