The Heartbreakers knew.
When Tom Petty’s band gathered backstage a couple of hours before the grand finale of its sold-out, three-night homecoming stand at the venerated Hollywood Bowl last month, capping a remarkably successful 40th anniversary tour, they knew.
Not about how little time the band’s leader had left on Earth, that just a week later he would go into cardiac arrest and die at 66, leaving them, his family and millions of fans around the world in disbelief and grief.
But they did know, unequivocally, what a rare and valuable thing they had created and grown together, resulting in something considerably greater than the sum of its estimable parts: guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone.
“Everybody always asks me that: ‘Why are you still together?' Campbell said. “It’s really pretty simple: We really love each other and we love the music we make together – more than the music we make with other people. It’s got a brotherhood in it, decades of bonding.”
Beyond sheer longevity, the legacy of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers also centers on a body of work that has stretched over four decades, with an extraordinary level of quality.
Other bands might have splintered when the front man announced, as Petty did in 1989, that he’d decided to make a solo album (“Full Moon Fever”). Or that he was putting the band on hold so he could pal around with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne in a whimsical rock supergroup called The Traveling Wilburys.
Ferrone and Blair might have taken umbrage when Petty, Campbell and Tench decided in 2007 to resuscitate Mudcrutch, the Florida band from whose ashes the Heartbreakers emerged.
“It’s an old but accurate analogy: it’s like a marriage,” Campbell said. “You do need breaks, and we take breaks. We don’t socialize a lot when we’re off tour, for that very reason. It’s really healthy to do other projects outside the group, to grow and get other input and inspirations form different situations.
“But,” he added, “it’s always nice to come home to the band. This band is like 1-2-3-4 Boom! there it is, and you just go, ‘Wow, it works’ – and it always works. And it always feels more fulfilling than other projects,” Campbell said.
The band has one key piece of advice for lasting success, although it may be easier said than done.
“If you put the music ahead of your ego, and ahead of everything else, then it can last,” said Tench, seated next to Campbell on a small sofa, Blair and Thurston in chairs to their right and Ferrone flanking them on the left.
The camaraderie among these longtime band mates was apparent in the quick quips.
Ferrone – whom they still refer to as “the new guy” because he joined the Heartbreakers most recently, a quarter century ago in 1992 – picked up on Tench’s comments about ego, joking, “They don’t allow me to have an ego. I tried to get one, once.”
Petty wasn’t in on the band interview. Over time he developed a ritual of staying on the tour bus virtually until the show begins. It wasn’t a rock-star persona at work, just his way of keeping his attention on that evening’s performance rather than the schmoozing.
“You have to look at it like, ‘That’s great – but it’s not a priority',” Petty said during his final interview two days later. “The real mission is here, and there are going to be a lot of other things, there’s a lot of perks – and a lot of negatives. Just stay focused on the music.”
The overriding feeling was that each musician was ready for a break after a six-month, 53-show tour, one of the most intensive of the band’s career.
But nobody was talking about throwing in the towel. Indeed, all expressed enthusiasm for new challenges and musical rewards they all thought lay ahead.
“The dream does change in a sense that our dreams have come true – a lot of them,” Campbell said, noting how the Heartbreakers once jammed with blues great Muddy Waters, toured with Bob Dylan as his backing band and accompanied Johnny Cash on his late-career albums. “Those are the things I'll remember when I’m cashing it out: ‘Oh yeah, the night I got to play with Muddy Waters? That was worth it all.’
“Our new dream is to keep this great magical group together and see what it can still do,” he said. “There may be a whole new thing and we'll find we haven’t got there yet.”
Campbell and his cohorts knew that continued growth was possible, thanks to examples provided by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
“There are a few people to look up to out there,” he said. “Most of them have fallen by the wayside, but there are a few that are still out there doing it that have eight or 10 years on us. So if they can do it, we can certainly do it – as long as we’re good.
“If it ever stops being fun, of course, you don’t want to do it,” he said. “But as long as we’re improving, enjoying it and really loving what we’re doing, we'll do it as long as we can.
“It’s chemistry….It’s a really a magic spark that happens. It’s why we all do this. We’re searching for that magic chemistry,” Campbell said. “You’re lucky to get that once in a lifetime really.”
And Campbell knew it. They all knew.