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Tom Petty's got his 'Mojo' working

The 59-year-old rocker's first album with the Heartbreakers since 2002 has him so pleased that he's taking the boys on tour too. But they won't reach L.A. until the fall.

June 11, 2010|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • LOOKING AHEAD: Petty and the band will hit L.A. this fall in support of their new release, "Mojo."
LOOKING AHEAD: Petty and the band will hit L.A. this fall in support of their… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Tom Petty casually rolled back the sliding glass door at his rustic beach house in Malibu and stepped out onto the deck for a clear look at the waves crashing on the sand a dozen yards away. Surveying the picture-perfect blue sky and sparkling water to match, the 59-year-old rocker took in the view surrounding him and couldn't help noticing two young women sunbathing topless in front of the house next to his.

The record business may be in disarray, but on days like this, it's still good to be a rock star — a job Petty has fulfilled admirably for more than 30 years now.

A couple of decades earlier things might have transpired differently, but on this day, Petty simply cracked a wry smile at the scene next door and stepped back inside. He had other things on his mind, chiefly his new album, "Mojo," which hits stores Tuesday. He left the beach in the care of his wife of nearly a decade, Dana, who pulled up a chair to soak up some sun while her husband turned his attention to his first love, music.

Atop a coffee table near the living room window was a copy of Greil Marcus' new book about Van Morrison, one of Petty's musical heroes.

"I haven't got around to it yet," he said, adding with a laugh: "I haven't had a lot of time to read." That's because he's been busy finishing "Mojo," his first album with the Heartbreakers since 2002's "The Last DJ," and gearing up for a tour that commenced last week. (It doesn't reach the Southland until fall.)

"I always thought that when I got around to the Heartbreakers making another record, that I'd like it really to represent the band that they've grown into," said Petty, his dirty-blond hair a bit shorter than usual, barely reaching the collar of the white Oxford shirt under a black vest that's part of his signature look.

"The band has kind of matured into something else," he said, more with the air of an impartial observer than you might expect of the man who has fronted that band on (mostly) and off (periodically) for 35 years. "This is more the way we play for ourselves when the heat's off; this is what it sounds like. And I thought, number one, it would be more fun, and, number two, it would just be truer to what we really are at the moment. They're a ridiculously good band. I'm still sometimes awed by them."

And why not? The Heartbreakers have emerged over time as arguably the quintessential American rock band, more endearingly human than the studio-perfect Eagles, more consistently in touch with the fundamentals of rock 'n' roll than the musically expansive E Street Band.

"They are the definition of what a real rock 'n' roll band is supposed to be," said Jim Ladd, the veteran rock radio DJ, who will host Petty on his KLOS-FM (95.5) show Monday night. "[They] started in a garage in Gainesville, Fla., and stuck it out through all the hard times, and they never lost sight of their goal, which was, I think for them, not to be celebrities but to be great musicians."

"Mojo" offers a showcase for the empathetic interplay among Petty and fellow guitarists Mike Campbell and Scott Thurston, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone. It's a rootsy, blues-drenched outing for the singer-songwriter and his longtime partners.

"I had this picture in my mind of making a record that had something in common spiritually with the Chess blues records, even the English blues bands of the late-'60s: [ John] Mayall, Peter Green," he said. "That's the stuff that really just kills me."

It's apparent in "Candy," a grizzled, back-porch blues that John Lee Hooker might have tackled, and in the haunting, "Hellhound on My Trail"-inspired "Takin' My Time."

"I love that [old blues] stuff because they're really strong songs, but it doesn't sound like they're trying really hard," he said.

"Everyone thinks they can knock off a 12-bar [blues], but to do it right takes a little time and you have to mature a little bit. I don't think we could have made this record in the '80s. I don't think our heads were in that spot.

"This is something that happened now, and I'm glad," he said. "I don't think I could have hired the best studio guys and thrown this stuff at them. … I think only a band could have done this."

Except for Thurston, who came aboard in 1991, and Ferrone, who took over from Stan Lynch three years later, the Heartbreakers have known one another and played together since they were teenagers in Gainesville.

The many ups and downs they've weathered together — famously suing their record company while working on "Damn the Torpedoes"; a 1987 arson fire that destroyed Petty's Encino home; Petty's loyalty-testing recordings apart from the band; the 2003 death of bassist Howie Epstein — have forged a band-of-brothers bond that Petty clearly prizes.

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