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 \o7this\f7 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.
\o7Headed 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.