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Tom Petty Packs 30 Years of Rock for the Road

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are marking their 30th year in the business with a U.S. tour, and Petty has a new solo album, Highway Companion.




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Other segments from the episode on July 27, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 27, 2006: Interview with Tom Petty; Commentary on the band Aerovons.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Singer-songwriter Tom Petty discusses new CD,
"Highway Companion"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is singer, guitarist and songwriter Tom Petty. This year marks the
30th anniversary of his first album with his band, The Heartbreakers. Since
then, they've sold more than 50 million records. Petty's songs include
"American Girl, "Breakdown," "Listen to Her Heart," "Don't Do Me Like That,"
"Refugee," "I Won't Back Down" and "Running Down a Dream." Tom Petty and the
Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the
first year they were eligible. As a member of the Traveling Wilburys from
1988 to 1990, Petty performed with several of the people he most admired: Bob
Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. This summer, Petty's touring with The
Heartbreakers, and this week he released a solo CD of new songs called
"Highway Companion."

Let's start with the opening track "Saving Grace."

(Soundbite from "Saving Grace")

Mr. TOM PETTY: (Singing) "I'm passing sweeping cities fading by degrees, not
believing all I see to be so. I'm flying over backyards, country homes and
ranches, watching life between the branches below. And it's hard to say who
you are these days, but you run on anyway, don't you, baby? You keep running
for another place to find that saving grace. I'm moving on alone over ground
that no one owns, past statues that atone for my sins. There's a guard on
every door and a drink on every floor, overflowing with a thousand amens. And
it's hard to say who you are these days..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: In addition to touring and recording, Tom Petty hosts his own radio
show on the XM Satellite network. I asked him what radio meant to him as a

Mr. PETTY: Everything. You know, I still see it as this really magical
thing, and it was wonderful. I didn't have the money to have a vast record
collection, so I learned everything, really, from the radio, and in the--you
know, in the mid-60s, AM radio, pop radio, was just this incredible thing that
played all kinds of music, you know, just--you could hear Frank Sinatra, right
into the Yardbirds, you know, The Beatles, into Dean Martin. It was this
amazing thing, and I miss it in a way because music has become so
compartmentalized now, but in those days, it was all right in one spot. And
that's--you know, we used to learn--you know, when I was 15 or 16 playing in
groups, we used to sit in the car and try to write the lyrics down as a song
was playing, and we'd assign each person a verse, you know. `I'm going to do
the first one. You go for the second one.' And then sometimes you'd wait an
hour for it to come on again, you know, so you could finish it up but...

GROSS: What's a song you did that with?

Mr. PETTY: I'll tell you the hardest one was "Get Off My Cloud" by the
Stones. It had so many words.

GROSS: Oh, and fast, too.

Mr. PETTY: Yeah, it took us a good three hours to get that one written down.
But it was that kind of thing. It was a friend, you know, and something that
was there. You didn't really think about it that much, but looking back on
it, it was such a musical education.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your new CD "Highway
Companion," and this is a song called "Down South." Is there a story behind
this song?

Mr. PETTY: Yeah. This is--I had--a long time ago, I'd done a conceptual
record about the South called "Southern Accents." And this one was inspired by
a book...(unintelligible)...Warren Zanes who wrote a book about the South, and
I read it and I was really impressed by it, and then I started thinking, well,
you know, what if I--you know, I haven't been back there in a long, long time.
I lived there, you know, 35 years ago and grew up there, but I went--you know,
I just kind of went back in my mind, and the stories started to kind of
develop and appear, and I'm not really sure who that character is but I know
part of it is me. And I wrote it--oh, God, I wrote it kind of quickly. I
wrote it--I wrote the lyrics out first before I did the music, which is
unusual for me, and I--then I searched for a long time to find music that
created the right tonal kind of thing with the lyric and had to find a melody
that went with it. So, it took a little while to pull the whole thing
together, but I'm--it's one that I'm most pleased with from the record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it? This is "Down South" from...

Mr. PETTY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Tom Petty's new CD "Highway Companion."

(Soundbite from "Down South")

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "Headed back down south, gonna see my daddy's mistress,
gonna buy back her forgiveness, pay off every witness. One more time down
south, sell the family headstones, drag a bag of dry bones, make good on my
back loans."

Mr. PETTY and Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "So if I come to your door, let
me sleep on your floor. I'll give you all I have and a little more."

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "Sweet late down south..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "Down South" from Tom Petty's new CD "Highway Companion." I
want to ask you about a couple of lines in that song. You said you're not
quite sure who the character is in that, but the song has "headed back down
South, gonna see my daddy's mistress, gonna buy back her forgiveness." Did you
go back home to see your father's mistress? Is that part of the character

Mr. PETTY: My father used to have many mistresses. I never made a specific
trip to meet them. But my dad was--he was hell on wheels, you know. He was
quite a character, and he was one of those people that was--somehow remained
likable although he was really a cad, you know. But I--you know, I don't
really know where that--I guess the line just popped into my head and seemed a
good way to start it.

GROSS: Now, something I want to mention about the track we just heard. You
know, it has that kind of jangly rhythm guitar that you play.

Mr. PETTY: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you start playing in that style?

Mr. PETTY: I don't know. It just appeared. I think we were inspired a lot
by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and his 12-string playing, and it was just
something that came to me naturally, and I kind of took it from there, and I
think we developed it into our own thing. But I'm sure it comes back--you
know, from the Byrds. You hear that sound in a lot of early '60s records.
The Beatles used it a lot, and Dylan used it. And between myself and Mike
Campbell, our guitarist, we just make that sound when we play now. I'm not
really as conscious of it as other people are, but it just kind of happens.

GROSS: You grew up in Gainesville, Florida.

Mr. PETTY: Yeah.

GROSS: I think there's a branch of the University of Florida in Gainesville,

Mr. PETTY: It is there, the University of Florida, the whole thing.

GROSS: So were you in a college part of Gainesville or were you in a
different part of town?

Mr. PETTY: No, I was in the redneck, hillbilly part. I wasn't part of the
academic circle, but it's an interesting place because you can meet almost any
kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it's
really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are--you
know, they're farmers or, you know, tractor drivers or, you know, just all
kinds of--game wardens, you name it, you know. So it's an interesting blend.
My family wasn't involved in the college, you know. They were more of just
your white trash kind of, you know, family. And so I have that kind of
background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else, and I made a
lot of different friends over the years that were--you know, passing through.

GROSS: What did your parents do for a living?

Mr. PETTY: Well, my mother worked in the tax collector's office as a clerk,
and my dad had a variety of jobs, you know, from--at one point, he owned the
only grocery store in the black part of town. The only black grocery store
that catered exclusively to black people, and so I used to go down there when
I was quite young, and I would--I was just put out in the back, and so it was
unusual to me that I'd play all day with black kids, and then they'd bring me
back to our--you know, our little suburb that we lived in, and it was all
white kids, you know. And then from there, he went--he did a whole line of
different jobs of--being an insurance salesman, a truck driver, all kinds of
different things.

GROSS: Now you had an uncle--I guess this is a famous story in your life
because you got to meet Elvis Presley on a movie set when you were 11 through
an uncle of yours who was doing something on the set, though I'm not sure

Mr. PETTY: Yeah. Yeah. I had an uncle by marriage who was the kind of--he
was very into film. He was the guy in town that developed all the film and he
had a movie camera. He used to film the college basketball practices and
football practices, and when a movie came nearby, as a lot of them did around
northern Florida, he would usually hire onto the set and work in some
capacity. And he was working on an Elvis Presley movie in 1961, I think,
"Follow That Dream," it was called. And I was invited there by my aunt, who
drove me down to see Elvis, and I really didn't have much idea of who Elvis
was. I was only 11. But we did indeed go there, and it was quite a circus,
you know. A lot of, as you'd expect, you know, mobs in the street, and he was
just back from the Army and--but I didn't really talk with him. I mean, he
just sort of nodded my way, you know.

I was introduced by my uncle as, you know, this is--`These are my nephew'--and
my two cousins were with me, and he just--I don't remember what he said
really, but I was very impressed by it, and when I went home, I kind of
scoured the neighborhood and came up with some old Elvis records, and I
started listening to them, and they really took me over. You know, these were
all '50s records, and I had a friend whose older sister had gone to college
and left this beautiful box of 45s of rock and roll, you know, from the '50s,
and I loved it, you know. It just spoke to me. It seemed like such a magical
place, you know.

And the odd thing, in those days, there was no information about the records,
you know. I was dying to know stuff about them, and there was no such thing
then as a book on rock and roll or...

GROSS: Or liner notes.

Mr. PETTY: Yeah. There were fan magazines but there was nothing really, you
know, intelligent, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. PETTY: You could read Elvis' favorite color but you didn't know much
about the records. And, finally, I did find a book in England--I had to send
away to England and pay a buck, send a buck to England, and they sent me a
discography that lined up how the records, you know, came out and when they
were made and this and that. And so from there I got really interested in all
the--you know, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, all these people. I was just
this 11-year-old kid, and I was already, you know, not involved with my own
generation. Until--you know, until The Beatles came, I sort of felt--and the
Stones and all that British invasion--I kind of felt that was my generation,
and that was interesting to me because they were playing this '50s music in a
slightly different way.

GROSS: So how long did it take after that until you started to play something

Mr. PETTY: Well, the idea had never dawned on me until I saw The Beatles on
"The Ed Sullivan Show," like so many musicians did. When I saw it, you know,
I didn't think you could just become a rock and roll singer. I didn't see how
it could happen, you know, because you needed to be in a movie and have the
music appear on the beach and stuff, so I didn't see how one would get that
together, you know. So when I saw The Beatles, it sort of hit me like a
lightning bolt to the brain that, `Oh I see,' you know. You have your friends
and you all learn an instrument, and you're a self-contained unit. This is
brilliant, you know. This is a--this looks like a great, great job to me, and
apparently it did to lots of people because very quickly after that, there
were bands forming, you know, in garages all over town, and I was just one in,
you know, thousands of little bands that started then in around '64, '65.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Petty.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tom Petty. His new solo CD is called "Highway Companion."
Here's a hit from his first album with The Heartbreakers, released 30 years

(Soundbite of "American Girl")

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "Well, she was an American girl raised on promises.
She couldn't help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else.
After all, it was a great big world with lots of places to run to. Yeah, and
if she had to die trying, she had one little promise she was gonna keep. Oh,
yeah, all right, take it easy, baby, make it last all night."

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) "Make it last all night."

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "She was an American girl. Well, it was kind of cold
that night..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "American Girl." My guest is Tom Petty.

Now earlier you were talking about how, you know, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds
influenced you and influenced your guitar sound. He later recorded this song.
What did it mean to you to, years later, after having been influenced by him,
to have him record your song?

Mr. PETTY: Well, I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. And you know, I
couldn't believe, you know--people said, `You sound like the Byrds." Well, we
couldn't believe that we would, you know, even have the talent to sound like
the Byrds, you know. So we--I was very taken aback by it, and I was quickly
invited over to meet Roger McGuinn, and I was very intimidated but I went over
and met him, and he told me that--he said, `When I first heard this record, I
thought it was, for a few minutes, I thought it was a Byrds outtake.' And he
invited us to go on tour with him and we did go out on tour and became
friends. We're still friends to this day really.

GROSS: Did you become any more or less conscious or self-conscious about his
influence on you when you were working and touring with him?

Mr. PETTY: Well, we always wanted very much to create our own sound, you
know. We knew that if we became just clones of something, it wasn't going to
last long, and so, you know, I just--I tried to take whatever influences I had
and make them meld together into something that was, you know, our own sound.
And we somehow did that, I don't know how. But, you know, if you listen to
those records, you know, the earlier records that we did--I mean, if you
hear--I've heard that we'd sound like Bob Dylan or we sound like the Byrds,
but I can't picture the Byrds doing "Refugee" or Bob Dylan doing that or, you
know, "Breakdown" or things like that. I think we did find our own sound.
But everyone in music certainly comes from--you know, they all are influenced
by other artists, and it's kind of that way of fumbling and trying to
do--trying to do something that, you know, maybe sounds like someone else, but
when you do it, it doesn't. It sounds a little bit like someone else. But we
were never interested in actually, you know, sounding exactly like someone

GROSS: Tom Petty will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Don't Do Me Like That")

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "I was talking with a friend of mine. He said a woman
had hurt his pride. She told him that she loved him so and then turned around
and let him go. Then he said, `You better watch your step or you gonna get
hurt yourself. Someone's gonna tell you lies, cut you down to size.' Don't do
me like that. Don't do me like that."

(End of soundbite)


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with singer, guitarist and
songwriter Tom Petty. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his first album
with The Heartbreakers. Some of his best-known songs are "American Girl,"
"Breakdown," "Listen to Her Heart" and "Don't Do Me Like That." He has a new
solo CD called "Highway Companion."

Let me play another song that was--it's a great song and a very popular one of
yours. Johnny Cash recorded this song late in his life, and the song is "I
Won't Back Down," which you recorded in 1989. I know it's hard to talk about
writing songs, but is there a story behind this one?

Mr. PETTY: Hmm. I wrote this song with Jeff Lynne. We wrote it in the
studio while we were mixing another song, and it came very quickly, and I was
actually worried about it. I thought that it was maybe just too direct. You
know, I thought, `Well, there isn't really anything to hide behind here,' you
know. It's very bold and very blunt. There's not a lot of metaphor or any,
you know, anywhere to go, and--but I was encouraged by Jeff that, you know,
`No, it's really good. You should record this and go ahead with it.' And it's
turned out to be, maybe, you know, the one song that's had the most influence
on people that approach me on the street or talk to me in a restaurant or
wherever I go, or mail that I've gotten over the years. It's been really
important to a lot of people in their lives. And I'm glad I wrote it, and I'm
kind of proud of it these days, and I was very, very proud when Johnny Cash
did it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. From 1989, this is Tom Petty.

(Soundbite of "I Won't Back Down")

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down. You
can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down. Gonna stand my
ground, won't be turned around. And I'll keep this world from dragging me
down. Gonna stand my ground, and I won't back down."

Mr. PETTY and The Heartbreakers: (Singing) "I won't back down. Hey, baby."

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "There ain't no easy way out."

Mr. PETTY and The Heartbreakers: (Singing) "Hey, yeah."

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "I'll stand my ground. And I won't back down. Well, I
know what's right. I..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Tom Petty, recorded in 1989. He has a new CD that's called
"Highway Companion."

You recorded that song just a couple of years after an arsonist burned down
your house. The house was set on fire while you and your family were in it.
Did your instincts kick in like they were supposed to when you realized that
your house was on fire and that you and your wife and child had to get out of

Mr. PETTY: They kick in very fast, you know, when your house is on fire.
Yeah. They kicked in really fast, and it was a pretty horrific thing to
happen, and I did just survive with the--you know, with the clothes on my
back, but I don't know--maybe, you know, that had something to do with the
song, like "I Won't Back Down" and things, because I felt really elated that
they didn't get me, you know, like I kind of just--that was the thought that
was going through my head is `Whoa, you bastards, you didn't get me,' you
know. `I survived.' But it's very hard to even believe that someone wants to
kill you, you know. It's a very hard thing to go through. And, you know,
when the police and the arson people are telling me that, you know, someone
did it, I'm just going, `Well, surely, there's a mistake,' you know. `It must
have been a bad wire' or, you know. And you know, they were absolutely sure,
there was no mistake. So, the interesting thing about that is how many people
called and confessed the following day.

GROSS: You're kidding. Really?

Mr. PETTY: You know? Yeah, they were confessing from all over America, and
it was like, you know, people in New Jersey would call and confess.
It--that--then I realized just how bonkers people are, you know. It's like,
there--you know, there are some people that are really bonkers, and you have
to be careful. But, you know, that was, you know, that--I never really talked
about that because it stunned me so, so deeply, and I'm sure it had a great
effect on the music I did, because I came back with this very positive, happy
kind of music, that I didn't want to go into any dark corner or anything like
that. I was just so glad to be alive and to have escaped something like that,
and, you know, it was also really traumatic and terrible, but part of it made
me really be extra glad to just be alive.

GROSS: Did you ever find out who the arsonist was?

Mr. PETTY: Oh, no, no, we never did. And they certainly tried for years,
you know, but they never caught...(unintelligible).

GROSS: Did it make you more suspicious of fans, thinking that maybe it was
one of your fans who had, you know, been mentally ill, who tried to...

Mr. PETTY: No.

GROSS: ...kill you?

Mr. PETTY: Well, it makes you--unfortunately, it makes you a little wary of
people, you know, in general, that you don't know, and you know, you do have
to have security people and that kind of thing when you're going to be in a
public situation. And, you know, that's unfortunate but, you know, that's
just part of public life, I guess. You know, there's always--there's always
the chance that someone's going to be a little shakey out there.

GROSS: Of everything that you lost in the fire, which was, I guess, virtually
everything you owned, what do you miss the most and what surprises you that
you never really missed it?

Mr. PETTY: You know, I mostly missed photographs and, you know, all the
video I had of my children when they were young. Things like that I really
missed. And to tell you the truth, there wasn't anything else I really cared
about. You know, I didn't--it's funny like you accumulate stuff so fast, too,
you know. I went from, you know--it was quite a big house full of stuff--and
went from that to just living in a hotel room with nothing, and you know, in a
year or two, you've accumulated so much junk, you just go, `My God, I can't
believe this!' But, you know, you learn very quickly that nothing else really
mattered much.

GROSS: I know you had another bad period in your life in the late '90s, a bad
depression. You separated from your first wife. I read that you lived in a
cabin for a while. I guess at some point...

Mr. PETTY: That's depressing.

GROSS: That's depressing, right. Well, it sounded like it was a pretty--I
don't know, it sounds like it was a pretty rundown cabin, but you could tell
me about the cabin. But I guess like the elation of being alive only lasts so

Mr. PETTY: You know, it's--being alive, you know, it's a challenge, isn't
it? I mean, I...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. PETTY: But, you know, I--yeah, I lived in a cabin. It was really quite
a nice place I lived in, you know. It was in a beautiful, gorgeous kind of
wooded area, but the cabin was a little rundown, and I think that's where that
comes from, but I didn't mind at the time, you know. I just--I like the
outdoors, and I like big trees, and I like, you know--so that's where I
retreated to and...

GROSS: My impression was people were very worried about you at that time.

Mr. PETTY: Yeah. Yeah. I think they were. And I just kind of cut myself
off for a long time at that point and didn't really talk to a lot of people
and just dropped out for a while and went through, you know, a really tough
time, and I guess, you know, I'm OK now, you know. But it took me a while to
come back. I think that I just went through some bad, bad stuff, and it
finally just knocked me down and I retreated, and I think I was kind of, you
know--my wife, Dana, really, I think--you know, she wasn't my wife then, but
she was a very strong person, and I met her and she worked really hard at just
bringing me back to life, and I thank her for it, and then years later, we
married, and I'm OK now. Thank you.

GROSS: Did you work at all during this period?

Mr. PETTY: Yeah, yeah. I worked occasionally. Not at my best, I don't
think, but I did work and--but I think I was just walking around in a daze
most the time. I didn't really have a sense of direction.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Petty. His new solo CD is called "Highway Companion."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tom Petty. He has a new solo CD called "Highway

I want to play another record here, and this is one of Johnny Cash's albums.
On the album "Unchained," which is one of the albums he made later in his

Mr. PETTY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: that great series of American recordings...

Mr. PETTY: Yeah, we backed him on that.

GROSS: Yeah. You and The Heartbreakers backed him up on this, and how--I
guess, how--of all the bands in the world, how did you get to play with him?

Mr. PETTY: Well, we had been friends a long time, I think 20 years when we
did "Unchained." I mean, that...

GROSS: You and Johnny Cash had been friends?

Mr. PETTY: Yeah, we became friends back in the early '80s, and John had made
this--he was--you know, he was breaking out of a thing, too, where he had kind
of been disappointed in what he was doing in the Nashville world, you know,
and he made this acoustic album that was really brilliant. It was his first
American record, and then I guess the plan for the next one was to make a, you
know, a band record, with a band, and he came to me, him and Rick Ruben,
actually at a time--the time we were talking about when I was going through a
pretty tough period. And they called me one day, both of them on the phone,
and said, `Hey, why don't you come and play the base on this record we're
going to do?' And I thought, `That's great,' you know. And so they got me out
of the house and then it grew from me playing the base on the record to `Hey,
how about The Heartbreakers playing on the record?' And it was a wonderful
time, you know. We all went down and made a whole album with Johnny Cash, and
it's--I think it's some of the best playing The Heartbreakers ever did. You
know, it's--it was--it turned out just great. I love that album to this day.

GROSS: Well, here's a track from it. This is "Sea of Heartbreak," Johnny
Cash, with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers playing.

(Soundbite of "Sea of Heartbreak")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: One, two, one, two, three, four.

(Singing) "The lights in the harbor don't shine for me. I'm like a lost ship
adrift on the sea."

Mr. CASH and Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "The sea of heartbreak, lost love and
loneliness, memories of your caress. So divine, I wish you were mine. Again,
my dear, I'm on this sea of tears, sea of heartbreak."

Mr. CASH: (Singing) "Oh, how did I lose you..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash, backed up by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Tom
Petty is my guest.

I think that when you're young and you fall in love with a song, it has this
incredible impact on you, and the song just kind of stays in your mind for the
rest of your life, and every time you hear it, you think about what that song
meant to you and how your feelings about the song has evolved over the years.
And you have, like, a bunch of songs that have that kind of place in people's
minds, and I wonder if you think about that a lot. If you think about that
special place that great songs have in the lives of young people and teenagers
when they first hear them over and over.

Mr. PETTY: I know the songs mean a lot to people, and it means a lot to me.
You know, we just played this Bona Rue festival up in--well, it was in
Tennessee. And there were 80,000 people there, and they were singing, you
know, "I Won't Back Down" so loud that it nearly drowned us out, you know.
And I--you know, I was thinking at the time, you know, `God, this is just
wonderful that this has reached people on this level, you know, when the
people know the words to these things, and it means something to them.' So I
don't want to sell them out if I don't have to, you know. And I know that a
lot of music has meant--you know, has been important to me. You know, the
rock and roll stuff is more than just something that you can manipulate into
advertising or whatever they do with them. It means more than that to me.
Right or wrong, that's what--you know, that's the way I am.

GROSS: Well, Tom Petty, thank you so much, and congratulations on the new CD
and on, you know, 30 years with The Heartbreakers. That's kind of incredible.
Thanks so much...

Mr. PETTY: OK, well, thank you.

GROSS: ...for talking with us.

Mr. PETTY: Thanks for having me. It was nice to be here.

GROSS: Tom Petty is touring with the Heartbreakers this summer. Here's
another track from his new solo CD, "Highway Companion."

(Soundbite of "Highway Companion")

Mr. PETTY: (Singing) "Well, they raised that horse to be a jumper. He was
owned by a Midwest Bible thumper. His preacher was a Louisiana drummer. Took
all winter to get through the summer. The field hand hit the switch and
stumbled. Outside the big engine roared and rumbled. The stolen horse
spooked and tumbled. She didn't speak for a week, just kind of mumbled.
(Unintelligible) love."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward considers the case of The Aerovons,
a group that was inspired by The Beatles, recorded an album for The Beatles
label and then disappeared.

This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Rock historian Ed Ward discusses the curious case of
The Aerovons, a band who could have been America's Beatles

Ever since a black cosmetician named Chuck Berry turned a country and western
song into a teen hit and Delta bluesman Ike Turner and his teenage wife pretty
much invented funk, St. Louis has been producing rock and roll which has
defied the prevailing norm. But is it possible that in 1969, it also produced
America's Beatles, a band no one ever heard of? Rock historian Ed Ward
investigates the curious case of The Aerovons.

(Soundbite of music)

THE AEROVONS: (Singing) "These are the words from a song we used to sing
while alone and through rainy days and sleepless nights. Sing them well, sing
them right. Where are the words from before. If they are true, where are
you? At the door. I want..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. ED WARD: According to those who were there at the time, St. Louis in
the late '60s was awash in great bands. There were only two problems: no
recording studio to record them and no interest from national record companies
busy chasing the latest thing from San Francisco or New York. People still
talk about the `acid test,' `the good feeling' and especially about the

The Aerovons were the brainchild of Tom Hartman, whose father had been an
amateur musician and whose mother had been a big band singer. Tom saw the
Beatles on television when he was 12 and his life changed. He bought a guitar
and grew his hair like theirs. By the time he was 16, he'd formed the
Aerovons, the outlet for his Beatle dreams. In late 1967, Tom's mother,
Maureen, decided the boys should make a demo. So they went into a St. Louis
studio with a hired cello player and recorded one of Tom's songs, "World of

(Soundbite of "World of You")

THE AEROVONS: (Singing) "It's a new world of you, and I'm just a stranger
here. It's a new thing to do, and I'm being quite sincere. Though I know I'm
far from home, I'm going to stay till tomorrow, tomorrow. Without cost or
obligation, I will send my resignation into you without sorrow. For

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Miraculously, the representative from Capitol Records who released
The Beatles in America found himself in that same demo studio and heard the
band recording. He decided there was something there and, in a couple of
days, Capitol rang the Hartman home, offering a session in Los Angeles.
Maureen was the one who talked to them, though, and she said, `No dice.'
Either The Aerovons recorded in London or they didn't record at all. So they
recorded in London.

In January 1968, the boys got on a plane and flew to London. Maureen was with
them and she set up an appointment with EMI, Capitol's parent company, while
the boys walked down Carnaby Street and bought flowered shirts and fish and
chips. After a couple of days, the meeting took place, and they were offered
a deal to record a single for Parlophone, The Beatles British label, one of
several under the EMI umbrella. They'd return in August to sign the contracts
and record early in 1969. EMI turned on the hospitality, getting the boys
memberships in the Speakeasy Club where they met Paul McCartney and heard Jimi
Hendrix jamming. They also got a tour of Abbey Road where they had a talk
with a guitarist recording there named George Harrison. The visit concluded
with an impromptu gig in a nightclub in front of a frenzied crowd.

Back home, two of the original Aerovons got cold feet, but Tom recruited three
new guys, and they began making demos like crazy. Finally, in March 1969,
they went to London again to record their single.

(Soundbite of music)

THE AEROVONS: (Singing) "I remember when you went away, goodbye,
broken-hearted words were left and right. I remember all the things you said
that night, slightly quoted memories in the darkened skies. How long has this
train been gone? I've waited for you, you're long overdue. How long has this
train been gone? I've waited for you, you're long overdue."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: Intrigued, the man who'd signed the band gave them more studio
time and pretty soon, five new songs were in the can. Finally, it was agreed.
The Aerovons could have a full album in addition to the single they'd
contracted for. Even stranger, after he'd fixed an engineering problem on one
of the songs, Tom was allowed to replace the producer EMI had assigned them.
As The Aerovons labored in Studio 2, The Beatles were busy with the "White"
album in Studio 3, and at last, the album was finished. Demo copies were
pressed for the band, who were happy to return to St. Louis, and a newly
recorded version of "World of You" was pressed up as a second single. Back
home, the guys invited their friends over to hear the album.

(Soundbite of music)

THE AEROVONS: (Singing) "Girl, I've made my mind up that this love is here to
stay. Surely, we could find love if you turn your head my way. Everything's
going to be all right. I don't know about that. Everything's going to be all
right. You make me feel needless when you smile the other way. Actually, I'm
helpless after what you did today. Everything's going to be all right. I can
say for sure. Everything's going to be all right. Say what was on your mind
instead of locking inside the world, they keep you up at night and stop your
wings from flying away. Going round all the time. You make me feel...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: And until 2003, they'd be the last people to hear it. The singles
came out but they tanked. Then the guy who'd signed them and guided them the
whole way discovered his wife was having an affair and had a nervous
breakdown. The album wouldn't come out until a British journalist, intrigued
with the story, hunted down the tapes, arranged for their release and found
Tom Hartman pursuing a career scoring films and commercials.

Could The Aerovons have become the American Beatles? I don't think so. Tom
Hartman was too young at 17 to write really enduring songs like The Beatles
did, and he was too obsessed with The Beatles at that point to be truly
original. As he explained on a St. Louis television show...

(Soundbite from St. Louis television show)

Unidentified Man: As I told the people in the audience, this is kind of
unique, I think, for an American group to go all the way to England to record.


Man: The first question that comes to my mind is why?

Mr. HARTMAN: Well, the main thing is, for a long time, it's been a thing
with us to see how they get the sounds they do over there, because they've
always seemed to come out with better sounds than the US studios did. I don't

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: They might not have become the Beatles, but Tom Hartman does
resemble another American whose career was starting at the same time in
Philadelphia: Todd Rundgren. It would have been interesting to see how
history would have been different had that Aerovons album come out and been
followed up. But it never happened.

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Berlin.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

THE AEROVONS: (Singing) "Sunday drives in ferris wheels, something, and
something real. Now, Sunday's really Monday in disguise. Floating down a
stream of smiles, you take some time to stop a while resurrecting
every...(unintelligible). And I reach out for you..."

(End of soundbite)

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