by David Wild
The man who told the world "I Won't Back Down," "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Don't Come Around Here No More" doesn't need any assertiveness-training course. Tom Petty's determined, sometimes defiant attitude has collided with the music business throughout the years. For instance, in 1982 Petty recorded Hard Promises with the Heartbreakers, only to find that his then-record company had plans to use his name to initiate a new, higher $9.98 list price for albums. Petty withheld the tapes and threatened to retitle his record $8.98 in protest.
That same spirit is alive and well on Petty's latest album, The Last DJ, which takes a hard look at the lack of moral grounding in the music business. The title track has kicked up considerable controversy, with some radio stations seeing the song as a slap in the face and banning it. But Petty is not just biting the hand that feeds him. Music is only the beginning of what's pissing him off these days. "The Last DJ is a story about morals more than the music business," he says. "It's really about vanishing personal freedoms."
Radio is not even worth listening to.
"I don't really give a flying f-- about any of it. I've tuned out. But I was elated when my song was banned. I mean, nothing could have complimented me more than to hear they just banned it at such-and-such a station because it's anti-radio. Now, in 2002 to have a song banned that doesn't have a dirty word, doesn't advocate violence -- it's fascinating, you know. Like, what are you afraid of? No record has ever been made that was more pro-radio, you know.
"I remember when the radio meant something. We enjoyed the people who were on it, even if we hated them. They had personalities. They were people of taste, who we trusted. And I see that vanishing. I thought it was a good metaphor to start the album."
All anyone thinks about is money.
"You don't hear any more of, 'Hey, we did something creative and we turned a profit, how about that?' Everywhere we look, we want to make the most money possible. This is a dangerous, corrupt notion. That's where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things. That has made pop music what it is today. Everything -- morals, truth -- is all going out the window in favor of profit.
"I don't think it's a good attitude in your life to feel that you have to be rich to have self-esteem. You know, I saw a billboard in New York I wish I had photographed. It was for the TNN network. It said three words against a patriotic background of red, white and blue -- BIGGER, YOUNGER, RICHER. Now, I find that fascinating: 'Bigger, younger, richer.' This whole idea of being wealthy has gone too far. I never ride in a limousine, you know. I feel gross if I get in a limousine. One good thing about the '60s was it sort of was the opposite back then. You looked silly trying to appear rich."
It's ridiculous to make people pay $20 for a CD.
"It's funny how the music industry is enraged about the Internet and the way things are copied without being paid for. But you know why people steal the music? Because they can't afford the music. I'm not condoning downloading music for free. I don't think that's really fair, but I understand it. If you brought CD prices back down to $8.98, you would solve a lot of the industry's problems. You are already seeing it -- the White Stripes albums selling for $9.99. Everyone still makes a healthy profit; it might get the music business back on its feet."
Only a complete greedhead would charge $150 for a concert ticket.
"My top price is about $65, and I turn a very healthy profit on that; I make millions on the road. I see no reason to bring the price up, even though I have heard many an anxious promoter say, 'We could charge 150 bucks for this.' I would like to do this again and maybe come through and not leave a bad taste in people's mouths. I was at one of our gigs recently, and I was just stunned driving in that it cost $30 to park your car. It's so wrong to say, 'Okay, we've got them on the ticket and we've got them on the beer and we've got them on everything else, let's get them on the damn parking.' You got to care about the person you're dealing with."
Record labels don't care about artists.
"An act like ours wouldn't even be around today if someone hadn't brought us along and let us make mistakes and grow at our own pace. Today it seems that if you don't have a hit -- or even if you do -- they have no use for you the next time. It's like, 'Well, why wait for these guys to come back with another hit when we can bring in somebody else?' It's an asinine way to conduct yourself. These people are looking at balance sheets, not music. Most people involved in putting this music on the air or bringing it to us aren't really listening to it."
Filthy lyrics make me sick.
"I'm frustrated by what I hear. Maybe it's not meant for me. Personally, I'm way too bright for a lot of the hip-hop lyrics to affect. I'm much too smart to think that jewelry or how cool I am is really going to change much about my personality. If you're dumb enough that it entertains you, have a great time. But I am seeking more than that.
"When I was a young rock 'n' roll star, I was really fascinated and shocked at times by the power that I had, by the power of my words, and shocked that it can be taken wrong. I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe that an artist has to take some moral responsibility for what he or she is putting out there. And I think a lot of these young kids are going to have to learn the hard way before they realize that you can actually do some damage if you're being careless or frivolous in what you're saying."
Only a sick culture would sexualize young girls.
"It's disgusting. It's not just pop music, it's fashion, it's TV, it's advertising, it's every element of our culture. Young women are not being respected, children aren't being respected. Why are we creating a nation of child molesters? Could it be that we're dressing up nine-year-old women to look sexy? And even if we're wrong, let's not do it anyway. I really don't put it past these advertising people to say, 'Well, look, we made a lot of money when we brought the nine-year-old out and made her look like a hooker. Let's do it again.' "
Why are we rewarding people for being rich?
"Getting back to the whole issue of ticket prices: We don't do the Golden Circle/VIP thing. I don't see how carving out the best seats and charging a lot more for them has anything to do with rock 'n' roll. A lot of the time, some corporation's bought up these seats with someone's money who doesn't even know it's being spent -- and they are going to use it to entertain clients. A lot of the people who buy these seats don't give a damn about the music -- they're going to get a waiter. What you see from the stage is a group of people just talking to each other, not really interested in being there at all. And the poor guy who really is interested, he's sitting way in the back."
And TV is worse.
"I think television's become a downright dangerous thing. It has no moral barometer whatsoever. If you want to talk about something that is all about money, just watch the television. It's damn dangerous. TV does not care about you or what happens to you. It's downright bad for your health now, and that's not a far-out concept. I think watching the TV news is bad for you. It is bad for your physical health and your mental health. The music business looks like, you know, innocent schoolboys compared to the TV business. They care about nothing but profit. They will make a movie about murdering their kids, you know? And they'll put the guy who killed them on TV. And before long, he might even have his own show."
A lot of artists are as greedy as the industry.
"Let me say this so it's definitely in the story: I don't think the industry is entirely to blame. Let's face it: The music industry has always been laughably corrupt, always. It's the artists themselves who often cause problems. Artists aren't necessarily business people. And they aren't necessarily aware of all the things that go on in their names. Some just want to make some music, but there is a lot of greed among artists as well. Whether or not we know it, we are all to blame. I think it's time -- starting with the artist -- to try to be a little more responsible and aware of what goes on in our name."
This article first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine.