Petty Meets Beck: Rockin', Writin', Survivin' in L.A.
January 1997

Mark Rowland

Getting Tom Petty and Beck in the same room together makes for the kind of  visual event that could permanently sink Hollywood's reputation for glamour. Petty has been favoring a flannels'n'sneakers look well before grunge turned it trendy; chances are excellent that Beck's off-the-rack-from-Sears outfits will remain a mostly individual taste. In conversation they're polite, articulate, droll. Both musicians have spent much of the last 25 years in Los Angeles--Beck grew up not far from downtown, and Petty moved here from Florida in the '70s--but neither has done much to cultivate fashions or attitudes that one generally associates  with stardom.

But that casual air can be deceptive. When it comes to music, they take their craft seriously, if not themselves. And if musicians marvel at the seemingly tossed-off quality of Petty's classic pop choruses, for instance, or the provocative lyric imagery and "accidental" sonic textures Beck weaves through the hip-hop rhythms of his recent opus "Odelay," chalk it up to the effort they exert not to let the seams show.

Both artists have also demonstrated a remarkable ability to stay true to their artistic visions without getting crimped by the corporate trappings of success. Petty's battles for independence over the years with his record companies have been well-documented. And the initial phenomenon of "Loser" as a radio hit a couple of years gave Beck the clout to sign a deal with Geffen Records that allows him to release other albums on independent labels. The song "Asshole," from one of those indie albums, caught the ear of Petty, who recorded a version of it with the Heartbreakers for his most recent album, a soundtrack for the Edward Burns 
movie "She's the One." The Heartbreakers also played behind Johnny Cash's  cover of Beck's "Rowboat" on Cash's new album.

Despite those connections and an admiration for each other's work, Petty and Beck hadn't really spoken much together until sitting down with MUSICIAN for the following interview. The humor and restless intelligence of their music naturally found its place in the conversation. But inevitably the train of thought circled back to surprisingly sober musings of songs and songwriting--of traditions, of process and its place in the world.

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Q: It must be kind of a trip hearing your song covered and re-arranged by  someone else.

PETTY: If they do it worth a shit.

BECK: I think it's great, because I always thought the songs were more important than the person who sings them. That's not really the way it goes these days. A song these days is just an appendage to a personality or a trend or something.

PETTY: I've always enjoyed singing other people's songs, and still do it if they're songs I like, that I can feel something in there and get ahold of it. When we started out in bars, you had to play the hits of the day, which were really a lot better than they are today. You could play the Animals and the Rolling Stones. But you start to learn that maybe this one is good because the song is good. So when you start to write, you try to do something of the caliber of the music you've been listening to.

Q: And at that time you didn't have much access to music beyond what was on the radio.

PETTY: No, I never had the dough to buy a lot of records until I was in the record business. Then right away I was amazed at how they would give you records. I'd take them home and listen to every cut on every lousy record they gave me. But then I started realizing that it's better to go buy 'em, because they never sound right if they're given to you; not the same as if you went down and bought it. But it is a luxury to have access to all that music. For a long time we would learn songs from the radio where we're trying to write the lyric as it goes by--you take the first line, I'll take the second, and we'll get it down.

BECK: I didn't really get turned on to playing music until I heard Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, because at the point where I started getting interested in music, the things that were on the radio, you couldn't figure it out. It was like the music couldn't be made by humans, really.

PETTY: I know what you mean. The radio today is just intimidating. And it's formatted to a point where, if you're on this number of the dial this is all you're going to hear all day. It was much better when they didn't have as many stations and they had to play everything. Not that some things don't come on now and then that are good. But it confuses me.

BECK: I enjoy it. I mean, just living in L.A., when you spend so much time in the car, I love turning on to the hard beat station and that whole culture is so fully going the way it's going--this whole rise of R&B soul settings to gangsta lyrics. And then all the Mexican stations.

PETTY: R&B videos are very interesting now. I notice that there's a lot of people with ski lodges.

BECK: Ski lodge and a barbeque. Well, it's all fantasy. That's what you get when you win the lottery or something.

PETTY: Yeah, you get a ski lodge with twenty girls in bikinis.

Q: The musical formats have become narrowed, but at the same time the access to a wide variety of music has never been greater.

PETTY: It confuses me that there's so much access. It's more than I can take in.

BECK: I can't imagine dealing with the blues now. I remember when I was younger you really had to search and dig the stuff up. It was all kind of obscure--you even had to find 78s. They didn't have the 3-CD Son House reissue box set. Now I'd probably run the other way.

PETTY: I was going to buy some blues when I was in Tower Records the other day and I walked around to the sign that says "blues" and then I really didn't have the energy to go through all the blues that was there. There was so much, which I guess is good, but I didn't buy anything. I didn't feel like going through all of that. You start looking, and even under one artist you can see the same titles appear on four or five albums and you get kind of edgy about which one is the real one. Even if you're a teen getting into rock, there are so many rock bands. There was a time when you felt like you knew who all of them were. Now there's so many. Maybe it's just my age.

BECK: No, I think it's true. We were playing these festival shows that they do every year with all the currently popular bands. We played a bunch two years ago and there were probably four or five names that I knew, and a couple that I might have been a fan of. This time I'd never heard of any of them and there might have been 12 or 13 bands. They were all very popular but it happened in about six months.

PETTY: These days if you can get across to the public more than once with a song it's really an accomplishment. Say you have a big song and it's a hit; you're still very disposable. They're not particularly interested in hearing another song from you. Some friends of mine were talking last night about people that make records and then the record company doesn't even put 'em out, because it's too expensive, I guess. But if you're an act coming along, imagine that! They really are encouraged to fall in line with what's popular at the moment. For awhile it was the Guns N' Roses thing and you had all kinds of bands pointed that way, and then Kurt Cobain came in and I think a lot of bands were encouraged to, you know:  "If you want to get signed up and get your record out you better get on this thing." Which isn't healthy.

Q: Beck, you circumvented the problem by negotiating a deal with Geffen that allows you to release records with other labels at the same time.

BECK: Yeah, I was pretty aware of the music industry treadmill, the revolving door. I've been playing music for a lot of years, so I was always very reticent about having some business people dictate to me what I should be doing. It seemed way too foreign to me. I always did music for my own amusement, which is how anybody starts playing music.

PETTY: It's a pretty good rule to stick to.

BECK: It's easy to be seduced by all that stuff. But I didn't start writing music because I wanted money or needed to be successful. But the thing with "Loser," it sort of took on a life of its own and was a hit before I was on a record label. So I was lucky in having some leverage. It's pretty rare that a song comes out of nowhere.

PETTY: But that goes back to songs. Song power has never changed--if you've got songs, you're happening. A song is all there is that endures out of the whole thing. These days songwriting is not taken as seriously.

BECK: Yeah, at some point it turned over into the personality. The performer had to write the song, otherwise it wasn't genuine or something. I guess in maybe the R&B world or the country world they still have that thing separated. It makes sense in a way. We were just talking together about the grind of touring and how exhausting it is: You put out a record and you have to tour for a year and half, and then you come back and you're expected to put another record together for another tour. The songwriter just stays home and gets to live his life. Musicians travel around and try to get some sleep.

PETTY: And if you go on tours all the time there's very little to write about. All your songs come out like Foghat. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but just writing about being on tour--that's a short book.

Q: You've addressed the problem in different ways on your latest records;  "Odelay" was put together on each side of a concert tour, while "She's the One" had the deadline of a film production schedule.

BECK: You just place your faith in something and go. A lot times I go into the studio, I don't even have songs. I write them while I'm there. So you don't know what's going to come up-- that's where it comes alive.

PETTY: It is if you can afford it. It's expensive if you don't have your own stuff. If you're clever enough you can have your own stuff without too much money.

BECK: Oh, you mean the recording equipment? I record in houses. I can't go into those big studios. It's too much like a laboratory or something. Too scientific.

PETTY: Yeah, I recorded in houses a lot. There's something about houses that sounds good too. You know, people don't listen to records in a room that's all sound-proofed and baffled up and set for stereo dynamics. So if you can make one in a house, it's a luxury. And you don't have to walk past a receptionist.

Q: What atmosphere is most conducive to songwriting?

BECK: Really mundane. Doing the same thing every day. Not too much on the plate. Being between places is good.

PETTY: I tend to write songs when I'm least aware of it. You start playing in the studio or listening to tapes: "Oh, that's kind of good." I don't have any formula for it or anything.

BECK: A good drum sound can inspire a whole song. Every song has its own logic, it's own government, its own everything. There's not even two or three rules for a song in general.

PETTY: Playing with my tape decks at home, I just love to make some music up and listen to. You've made something that wasn't there a while ago.

Q: You don't worry much about hitting a dry patch?

PETTY: No. Probably at some point I've had that worry drilled into me, but I never took it real seriously because that's just insecurity. More are gonna come along. Songs are just out there in the air, kinda.

BECK: After a while it becomes a bodily function. Though you can get taken away from it by traveling, touring, and all the other things.

PETTY: I've never written a song touring, ever. That just stamps it dead for me. I don't feel like playing the guitar. Some people go back to their room or carry portable studios on the road. I couldn't possibly do that. It's always after you come back from the tour and you feel like a civilian.

BECK: There's no way. It's all-consuming. You're more on a basic level of existence and survival. It's about trying to get five or six hours of sleep somehow, getting at least one decent meal so you don't just wither away, and dealing with going to the radio station and all this other glamorous stuff [laughter]. Trying to find a shirt that you haven't sweated profusely in five nights in a row.

Then you go into the studio, it always seems like you're running from scratch again. Everything you thought you had all worked out getting to the next place, you're clueless. It seems like every year you're at a different place. You're not going to be able to make the song you made four years ago.

PETTY: That's even true when you give an interview. You feel strongly about something and then a year later you may have a different view.

Q: Are there any lessons about songwriting you've picked up over the years?

PETTY: One thing Jeff Lynne taught me--a great lesson--was, if you don't have a great middle eight, don't have a middle eight. So many songs are ruined by a not-so-good middle eight. If it isn't as strong as the chorus and the verse you're working with, you really shouldn't go there.

And I think as I've gone on I've learned to work a bit wider. The best songs, it seems, have a heaviness and a lightness at the same time, a lot of air in it, you know? I don't know if this makes sense, but usually when they're very narrow point of view, really tied down, they're usually not as universally accepted. So I try to keep it wide. But even that sounds like my bullshit quota is going over [laughs]. I find that the less I think about them, the better they are. When I really bear down and think about writing a song, it usually sounds like a labored sort of thing. So I try to deal in things that will keep my interest but not overly labor me.  I don't want to feel like I just dug a ditch.

BECK: I never approached it in any academic way. It was pretty accidental, so the learning was just an afterthought, you know. Playing folk songs, "Gypsy Davey," "Buffalo Gals," whatever, just all those songs, just having all those songs lodged in there, you get an innate sense of how a melody is supposed to be. Those melodies are so balanced, they're like old trees. Hopefully they rubbed off somehow.

Rhythmically I've learned so much from Delta blues. That's where funk starts, you know? That sense of sparseness and something plain; the openness is a  really important element. You have to have space in songs. They're pretty basic, logical concepts. But they're all examples within the traditions of folk, country blues, that kind of music. I recommend it to anybody who wants to get a sense of just a song being a human expression, in the sense that it's this natural thing, like a physical 

PETTY: Rhythm is what it's about. I worked with Carl Perkins recently and he was telling how he used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, Roy Acuff, "Great Speckled Bird," and he would kinda jam it out on his guitar with a little more rhythm. His father would get really angry with him, saying, "That ain't the way it goes." And just that little slanting of the beat was "rock," I guess. He said he'd be picking cotton and the black guy next to him might sing an Opry song with a completely different slant. So he adapted that to his guitar. I imagine that's what's been going on for a long time: The source somehow gets mutated and becomes another virus.

Q: It seemed to me that the MTV "Unplugged" phenomenon suggested a desire on the part of fans to reconnect with some of those roots, to the essence of popular songs.

PETTY: I was really disturbed by the "Unplugged" thing. I can't put my finger on why, but I never felt good about it. I mean, acoustic music has been going on for a long time and there are a lot of people who can take an acoustic guitar and play it, and they seemed so marveled by that idea. Like Aerosmith could take a song that they played real, real loud, and they could play the same thing on an acoustic guitar. To me it just sounded like they were playing the song wrong. There is a novelty, just playing the songs. But that has been going on for some time before MTV got a point for it.

BECK: The only time it's really unplugged is when the cable falls off the mic and nobody can hear you.

PETTY: I would rather see it if they were really going to do it in the spirit of embracing folk music or blues that are played that way. There is a lot of music that can be exposed that way that would really be more entertaining than hearing you play your hit song on an acoustic guitar. "Unplugged"--that term just bothered me.

BECK: It's sort of demeaning to people who appreciate that music. It's sort of like, "We're going to step down from our electric pedestal here."

PETTY: We ought to have a "Plugged-In" show where they take people who only play acoustic and give 'em all Marshalls and have 'em play really loud. James Taylor, give him a Marshall and an electric guitar. Or people who never play with drummers, give them a drummer. It would make for an interesting show.

Q: You both express a lot of admiration for older forms of country and folk and blues, but your music pulls together a lot of different strains, which in a way parallels the way of the world, as more sophisticated means of communication gradually shrink the planet.

BECK: Well, I grew up around here and I can't help it. I can't do this straight country because walking down the street growing up I hear hip-hop music, mariachi, and I just pick it up. It's there. Maybe it's just urban music.

PETTY: I got all my music completely backwards, like blues and stuff. I'm like a preacher of the suburbs. Where I grew up we never heard the blues or even Chuck Berry until the Rolling Stones started to do it--then you would trace it back and say, "Who's Chuck Berry?" When I heard Howlin' Wolf I was just beaned on the forehead: "No wonder they're covering this guy!" What was cool about the British Invasion was how much of your own stuff, as an American, was made available to you that you hadn't necessarily even heard of.

Q: What's interesting is that you both had to move from your home towns to find the scene that really nurtured your careers-- Tom moving here from Florida, and Beck getting into the New York "anti-folk" scene of the late '80s.

PETTY: In the Biblical sense. When we came to L.A. there were two clubs, the Whisky and the Starwood. We started to play there, and Blondie would come out from New York to play, and Elvis Costello, but within weeks it was completely polluted and overrun. It had caught on with "We'll just get into these clothes and do it too." Some of them were good and some of them weren't. But that's the way it goes.

I always wished that I had a folk base. I kind of learned the folk music thing backwards, through the Byrds and Dylan and stuff like that. Where McGuinn and Dylan are really folk performers who evolved into this other thing, Johnny Cash is to me a folk artist. Folk music has a real respect for the song and I always wished that I had learned that first. But I was just enticed by the electric guitar and the whole excitement of being in a rock and roll band.

I do remember being about ten years old and the Kingston Trio being around, and Peter, Paul and Mary. But that seemed kind of glossy to me; it didn't take hold. When you hear "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul and Mary for a long time and then finally you hear Bob do it, you go, "Ohhhh, [laughter] now I see." So I was always working backward, trying to find where this came from; I'm still looking backward. I guess 'cause I'm too confused to be looking forward.

BECK: I think I was the opposite, 'cause I wasn't really turned on to something until I heard the original and it made sense. I'd go, "Oh, okay."

PETTY: It's a much better way. I always wished I could be a folk singer, but I've never had the nerve to do it. I could never do it now, because people have too much of a preconceived notion of what is gonna go down, and you just can't fill that role. I mean, people go to McCabe's and play alone, but...

BECK: Any of your folk artists, now, they'd all be playing with drum machines. Woody Guthrie, he'd play rock.

PETTY: Oh yeah, Leadbelly, he would have been rappin'.

BECK: Folk music essentially becomes what's available to you--using what you have. All they had was acoustic guitars.

PETTY: What I love about folk singers is that a lot of them have this great knowledge of tunes. You know, Dylan would know, like, a hundred songs by somebody, and they would go back to God knows where, to some kind of sea chantey or something. When Bob first showed up in New York, he told me he heard "Blowin' in the Wind" by some other folk singer. And he said, "Wow, where'd you get that?" And the guy said, "There's a guy down the street who's singing it." They would just pick 'em out. It just seemed like a real interesting scene to me. But that's gone. And it won't be back.

BECK: I spent a lot of years looking for it. I couldn't find it.

Q: Where is music heading now?

PETTY: I have no idea. It's up to people much younger than me. I do think it's in very good hands though, which I didn't think ten years ago. Back then I thought it was in very poor hands. [laughs]

BECK: I think it's going somewhere more intuitive. I feel like so much of music has been exhausted--most of what we hear on the radio, we've heard it a million times. The "rock band sound" was perfected in 1968. But I don't see the future being in the direction of mindless dance music. The main thing that's going to change is the technology, the way people go about it. And its references will be a little more diverse, 'cause that's just our consciousness now.

Our lifestyles now, we don't get to escape to a beautiful meadow, or some lakeside beautiful spot. We need music or movies to get out of the drudgery or the pressure, the stress of our environment. We live in these incredibly unnatural environments-- unnatural in the sense that they're completely different than what's preceded it for the last ten thousand years. So music is important. It's a physical thing. Music is escapist, in the sense of anything that's beautiful.