Tom Petty's Choice Quotes From the Past 35 Years

Tom Petty, 1982
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Tom Petty photographed in 1982 in Los Angeles.

As we mourn the rock icon's passing, we've combed through more than three decades of interviews for some of his most choice observations.

Rock 'n' roll icon and iconoclast. True believer and faithful skeptic. Perfectionist and, sometimes, petulant. The late Tom Petty was all of these things and the combination served him well as he created a diverse and broad-reaching body of work that's one of the most important and inspired catalogs in rock. He was outspoken, too, about his musical roots, his thoughts about the music industry and his great affection for his band, the Heartbreakers. He never hesitated to speak his mind and always had a great deal to say -- and didn't always care how it rubbed the people who heard it.

As we mourn his passing, we've combed through 35 years of Billboard interviews with the man for some of his choice observations. Read them below. 

"It was 1976 when the band started, and Mike (Campbell) and Ben (Tench) and I had been knocking around since 1970. There weren't a lot of rock stars in their 50s or 60s -- or 70s -- then. I don't think there were that many even in their 40s. It wasn't that kind of job. You didn't look at it as a job you'd do your whole life. I remember thinking at one point, Boy, if this goes on for five years, that would be quite a run. Then when we hit five years, I remember thinking, Man, if this goes on 10 years it'd be incredible." (2005)

"Back then it was almost like admitting that you were never going to make any money and realizing you probably were not going to have a professional life but saying, 'This is what I love, so I'll do this.'" (1991)

"I'm glad people understand that we are Southern. I spent more than 20 years there. The music was formed there. I like it mainly 'cause there is so much music down there." (1985)

"I think I saw myself doing this for awhile and then maybe getting into being a songwriter or a record producer or something like that. There just weren't people doing it at our age [now]. The Rolling Stones were about seven years older than us and that was as far as we could look. I guess there was Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but they had become kind of oldies acts. So this is how the world has changed." (2005)

"I don't see myself as the savior of anything. On one hand I'm flattered; that's why it's so hard to complain. What we're really striving for is to inspire someone. But it does seem in the last few years there's a certain great expectation of us and that can cause you a certain amount of pressure." (1982)

"If you're not careful, [the music industry] can convince you that this is a career opportunity, like being a professional person. That's not the reason I came into it. I'm a little concerned that the industry tries to convince ... all these kids who want to play rock 'n' roll for a living, they get into this big corporate nightmare. It's like entering law school. That bothers me. If you spend a lot of time thinking about your career, you don't have one." (1991)

"The Hard Promises Tour was a very hard tour, a hard one for me mentally. All of a sudden we were in a different place. I think I started to take it too seriously. I really wanted to part the Red Sea every night. I felt I had to.... It took me awhile to reckon all that out, get comfortable with it it. Now I cherish it." (1982)

"Really all we are is musicians. It's all we know how to do. I think we would be uncomfortable in a Rod Stewart situation -- I'm not knocking it, I just wonder if you become more celebrity than musician." (1982)

"I was talking with some kids the other night, and they said, 'How's it going, Tom? You makin' good money? You snortin' good blow?' That's really no me. I'm really maniacally interested in music. That's only what I'm into now. I can't get enough of that." (1982)

"There may have been some concern... that I was drifting away (by making solo albums), but I wasn't, really. I've always felt like a member of the band and I think they treated me like a member of the band." (1991)

"Playing with Bob [Dylan] is pretty spontaneous and we can communicate very well. Bob said to me once, 'This band is kinda like talking to one guy.' We pick up on signals real fast. And I'm really enjoying having some of the heat off. I can actually step over to the side and just play my guitar and not have to worry about it." (1986)

"The neat thing [about The Traveling Wilburys] is I can view them as my friends. They're great musicians, with so much to offer and so many things you can learn and pick from. You realize that they're people just like you, but when you do think about it, it's a great honor to work with them." (1989)

"We've gotten used to not playing the same show night after night. I hope some of that feeling comes along with it, some of that freedom to explore. I've seen people that have been around a long time and they just fall into routine and self-parody. That's just not where we want to wind up. We really believe in this music, this rock 'n' roll music that were playing. And we want to keep it fresh and avoid any sort of routine to it." (1999)

"It's great to be improving this many years along the line, with the band. Usually when a band's been around this long, it's just sort of paying lip service to itself. But I think our music is actually improving. It's getting easier to do. It's not nearly the chore it's been. Those are nice things to have happen." (1999)

"It's a really great surprise to find out you can get better as you get older. I'm enjoying performing because the band just gets better and better; instead of going the other direction, we're actually getting better at what we're doing, and that obviously makes it a little easier to do. It seems like over the years, ever time we get together and plug in and start to play we've come a little further than we were. If you kind of take care of yourself and care a lot about what you're doing, there's no end to it I don' think. I think you can keep improving, and I think if we don't we'll stop." (2005)

"It's sort of hope amongst the ruins, I think. To me we're all in the great wide open. I think life is pretty wild; I really want to like the world, but at the same time I have to write about what I see." (1991)

"I don't want to leave the audience out and I don't want to leave the artists out, either. If the audience is just going to blindly accept what is put in front of them, they're not going to get stuff that's very good. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone's feelings. I don't think anyone wants to suck. I just think it's at a crisis proportion where somebody's gotta say something about it. We've all got to kind of come together if we want things to be better." (2002)

"You don't really hear songs about friendship too often. Most rock records I hear now are about how tough [the performers] are. Well, if you're really tough you're going to have to deal with that someday. They're fairly old-fashioned values, but important ones, things that still matter in people's lives." (1991)

"I'm just trying to make good quality music, 'cause I do realize this music is going to be around much longer than me. I do know that now. If I'm gonna get it together to go make a record, I want it to be something that does feel timeless and honest." (2005)

"You've gotta work it a little harder and you have to be mindful of what you're doing all the time. What I really tried to keep in front of my mind is these have to be really good songs, 'cause you don't want to start thinking that lyrics alone will carry you. No one's gonna listen to the lyrics if the songs aren't good. So I worked really hard to make them good songs." (2002)

"I think our 'Storytellers; show will be one of the more humorous ones you've ever seen. It was comical -- me trying to recount stories about writing songs. I'm not really good at saying what a song's about. I don't really ever want to do that. I just tried to give them little anecdotes about what I was doing and where I was and how this one came about. As to what it's about, that was up to the listener." (1999)

"I've never seen a more pro-radio song than 'The Last DJ.' I love radio. I was just singing about how, at one time in life, radio was an art form and you have generations that don't even know that. And I was singing about the vanishing human voice." (2002)

"I've always thought from early on that if we got hung up doing the same thing over and over again that it would limit our longevity. I just naturally felt like going where the wind took me. I remember in the '80s when we did 'Don't Come Around Here No More' that that was really throwing down something different for them and I did wonder at the time if the audience would go along with it." (2005)

"I don't feel constrained to make a song like 'Refugee' or 'The Waiting' over and over again. You have to grow and your music has to grow, too. You have to constantly find a way to make sure there’s some significance, some meaning to your music. You don’t want to ask somebody to buy the latest Tom Petty album if it's not different from the first or the fifth or the one before it." (1991)

"I'm not afraid of backlash; What are they gonna do to me? I'm at a point of not-caring. I don't have many thoughts about the music industry as a business, per se. I'm fortunate in that I'm at a point in my life where that doesn't affect me, personally, a lot. But as an observer, I think it's affecting the world a lot." (2002)

"Over the years we've found that the audience... I'm sure there's an element of the audience that wants the same thing again and again, but there's an element that wants you to kind of lead them rather than you follow the audience. So that's just my nature, I think. I just try to put the music down where my head's at the time and hope someone likes it." (2005)

"I'm enjoying performing because the band gets just better and better. I really think instead of going the other direction we're actually getting better at what we're doing. That obviously makes it a little easier to do. I can just kind of sit back and enjoy it really. There's not a lot of extreme effort in performing anymore." (2005)

"It's a good thing, too, 'cause we're really unqualified for any other kind of employment. I know I got fired from every job I ever had. We definitely would be in some kind of trouble if we had to have real jobs." (1989)

"The nature of the people involved, we'd all be embarrassed if we weren't getting better. There's not any reason to keep doing it if we weren't. I think we're surprised by it as much as anybody else. But it seems like over the years every time we get together and plug in and start to paly we've come a little further than we were, and as long as it keeps doing that I'm interested in it." (2005)

"It's certainly luck of the draw, because we started the band so many years ago -- Mike and Ben and I since 1970. There's something about the band that none of us want to leave because it's still got our interest. I never would've thought that at this point in our life we'd be doing some of our best work. Soo I'm in there for the long haul. I want to see where this is gonna go." (2002)

"I still really love playing with this band. It's just such a ridiculously good band; I think that's what keeps me involved in going out on the road. it keeps me wanting to go out and play. I just really love playing with these guys. I think we all treasure the Heartbreakers; When we actually get together and it's the Heartbreakers there's a sense of pride in it. And we know we're good [laughs], so that's something to live up to, isn't it? Every time we go out there we want to be really great." (2005)