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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: L.A. or Fla.?

Tom Petty 1977

During my recent interview with rocker Tom Petty for a profile that will appear in Friday’s Calendar, I asked him about his decision in the 1970s to leave his home turf in Florida and relocate to Los Angeles in search of a record contract, when he could as easily have gone to New York.

"If I was going somewhere," he told me, "I’d rather come here. I could relate to this more than I could have related to New York. Why starve and freeze? I may as well go to California."

There was more to the original decision than that, of course, but it led to the question of whether Petty and the Heartbreakers deserve to be placed in the long line of noteworthy acts that have emerged from Southern California, where Petty and his band mates have remained pretty much ever since they arrived here three and half decades ago.

Before I share what Petty had to say on the subject, we wanted to give readers the chance to weigh in: Do the Heartbreakers belong in the pantheon of Southland music that goes back to Ricky Nelson in the '50s; the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Doors in the '60s; the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt in the '70s; X, Black Flag, Fear, the Blasters, Los Lobos, Van Halen, Metallica and N.W.A. in the '80s; No Doubt, the Offspring, Sublime, Rage Against the Machine and Snoop Dogg in the '90s; and System of a Down and Linkin Park in the '00s?

Or should they be counted in the history of Southern rock along with the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and Molly Hatchet? 

On Friday, I’ll post Petty’s own comments about where his heart lies musically.

--Randy Lewis

Photo: Tom Petty in Los Angeles in 1977. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (12)

Wow, does it really matter?

LA. There's a reason people move(d) to the musical poles. In Florida nothing happens.

Sure there are elements of "southern rock" in Petty's music but it is quintessential 70s Cal rock. Remember Fleetwood Mac (in its commercial incarnation sans P. Green) had Brits in it, for example.

Having said that, the above stuff has nothing to do with how the artist categorizes him or herself - geographically and/or musically. Dylan probably thinks of himself as a Minnesotta artist. Rush never admits to being prog or AC/DC heavy metal. The list is endless...


Like Tom, I came to these fair shores from Northern Florida (he from Gainesville, I from Jacksonville), and I must ask on behalf of my hometown and its...storied...musical legacy: can we have him, please?

Los Angeles, without question.

Sorry Florida, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers belong to L.A. If there are any doubts, listen to "Full Moon Fever", and most especially the two songs specifically about L.A., "Free Falling" and "Zombie Zoo", and then "Running Down A Dream", which could be about a lot of places, but makes me think of cruising in a convertible down PCH, perhaps more than slightly over the speed limit.

Prior to that album, there is the great track "Into The Great Wide Open," and the classic couplet, "His leather jacket had chains that would jingle/They both met movie stars, partied and mingled/Their A & R man said "I don't hear a single"/The future was wide open."

There are even more songs I could cite, like "The Last D.J.", for example, but suffice to say that any band whose three principal members have made L.A. their home for over three decades must be considered a local band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are as LA as a Friday night cruise down Sunset. But to me the question that really needs an airing is whether they deserve to be at the very top of any list of LA artists. Apologies to the Beach Boys (and I'm as big a Brianista as anybody) but I think a strong case can be made for TP&HB. Longevity, commercial success, artistic excellence. OK so there's no Pet Sounds in the catalogue (or Forever Changes for that matter), but Petty has done something that is almost impossible; for all these years, he has steered his career, his recordings, and most importantly, his band, straight down the rock and roll stream. Right down the middle, as Dave Marsh has written, that's where all the good stuff is and we all know it. And he's just kept on doing it. Fogerty (sorry he's from No Cal, but work with me here) did it for a while but couldn't keep it together. None of the others could keep it together either. Not Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Jim Morrison, Eagles, Byrds, Burritos,Springfield.
Tom Petty found the secret. I think that secret consists of two main elements, dedication to the craft of songwriting, something even more rare, I think, dedication to the concept of the band. Who the hell else could've gone to George Harrison and said let's start a band and have George jump at the chance. Petty told an interviewer that he sensed that George missed the feeling of being in a band. That's what Petty does for so many of us, he makes us want to be in a band. And if you're old enough to remember February of 1964, you already know that feeling.

What the hell does it matter?

Nice to see you're sticking with the hard-hitting journalism, LAT. Asking the really tough questions.

Seriously, this is the sort of thing I expect from the Weekly, but not the LATimes.

What a question! Tom Petty, to me, is Florida, but I really can't see grouping his music with Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers and Molly Hatchet.

Tom Petty is kind of an entity of his own. He definitely does not feel like the more home grown bands, bands where kids grew up here in Southern California or came here for other reasons beyond music then soaked up the culture long before making it. (I wouldn't consider Fleetwood Mac an LA band either.) Rather, Petty feels like one of those old movie men who came here to further a dream. He's like Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin or even Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe an even more appropriate comparison would be visual artist David Hockney, as Petty is at times a very specific chronicler of Los Angeles life. A song like "Into the Great Wide Open" captures it best. It's about people who come here for that California Dream. That's a large part of the population, and Petty paints it beautifully and viscerally, but it isn't part of the homegrown tradition of the Beach Boys, Los Lobos, the Doors, Black Flag, or No Doubt, et al.

Well, I spent ten minutes offering my two cents worth yesterday on this question and I don't see the answer.

So what happened? Is some editor/moderator supreme-being making judgment calls on what's okay for readers to see?

I suppose it doesn't occur to people like that that self censorship and pasturization is what has made newspapers sterile, unreal and dying.

(Or maybe I'm just being paranoid and the internet ate it.)

Now is this really so offensive? From up here in the Great North, we look at people in California as tumbled deposits from regions with more distinct personalities. The Eagles and Beach Boys are then osterized products so repeatedly played that they became offensive long ago. Is that censorable?

As Petty is distinct, imperfect and comes with edges, he seems way more Florida than CAL, but I of course defer to how he classifies himself.

Be that as it may, remember this: real people never shake off where they were born, grew up, were imprinted and graduated from. For decades I've run into Californians who have moved to where I was born and claim to be from here.

Yeah, like the Germans in France and Chinese in Tibet.

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers do not belong in any of these groups. They are a beautifully unique band that cannot be labeled. They are like nothing else. They just rock. This band classifies as a bad-ass rock band. Being this connected to music and older styles of Rock 'N' Roll makes them real rockers. Unlike some overrated rockers that call themselves rock stars.
People say that a rock star is something that is sex, drugs, and alcohol; however it is not. A real rock star is a band that is connected to their music and loves their musical roots. That is a real rock star: a real rock band. Their latest album proved that rock stars are not all about banging your head. It's about feeling the music.


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