One morning just before Valentine’s Day, Benmont Tench put on the alternate version of Tom Petty & the Heartbreaker’s song “The Best of Everything” that’s included on the new compilation of the same name. And the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist was caught up in a wave of emotion about his friend and bandmate, 16 months after Petty’s shocking death.
“It’s hard. And it’s still hard,” Tench tells Billboard. “And it’s probably getting harder, in a way, as time passes by because it just becomes more of a reality, I guess. He was such a large part of my life that it’s hard to just seal it.
“It’s hard to just realize, I suppose, that I’m not gonna get to play with that guy. I’m not gonna get to make that sound. He’s not gonna show me a new song. I’m not gonna be at the Clubhouse and start playing an Elmore James song and he’ll fall in and know every word. That’s not gonna happen — and I really, really miss that.”
Diving into Petty’s archives has become something of a balm for Tench and the other Heartbreakers, along with Petty’s family and other musical associates — first with last fall’s rarities set An American Treasure and now with The Best of Everything: The Definitive Career Spanning Hits Collection 1976-2016, which comes out March 1. The latter features 38 songs from Petty’s recordings with the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch and on his own, including the unreleased, spookily autobiographical “For Real” and the unearthed version of the title track.
“It’s part of, I guess, the cliché of the grieving process, putting these things together,” Tench says. “The choices were much harder on an American Treasure, of course, ’cause there’s so much unreleased stuff. This one is a comprehensive greatest hits of our entire career, so the nature of it is different. It’s the best-known songs for the most part, and (An American Treasure) was unknown versions of best-known songs as well as completely unreleased material.
“(The Best of Everything) is more for the fan who loves the band but is a casual fan. And if this rings somebody’s bell, then An American Treasure is where to go to get deeper. And, of course, for every song on this greatest hits there’s an album that goes with it, so they can go there, too.”
For Petty’s daughters Adria and Annakim, who are overseeing the archive releases along with their mother and stepmother, having Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell and their father’s other musical confidants so actively involved has been as healing as it is helpful. “They’re our uncles,” Adria says. “We’re all dealing with chaos; Our world just exploded when (Petty) died. We’re all a bit shell-shocked. But they’ve been amazing — and the other members of that team that were around for a long time, too. I’m extraordinarily proud of them for the amount of worked they’ve dived headfirst into with us.”
The Best of Everything is, of course, getting the most attention for “For Real,” a statement-of-purpose declaration — “I did it for me/’Cause it was all that rang true/I did it for real/And I did it for you” — that Petty and company recorded during August of 2000 as a possible new track for the Anthology: Through the Years collection. “I’d forgotten how it went,” Tench says now. “I remembered we’d recorded a really cool song that never came out at the time, but I’d forgotten how it went. The first time I heard ‘For Real’ it almost made me cry — ‘Yeah, THAT song, that’s right. That’s a great song!’ I guess at the time I though surely down the line it would come out, and it just never did. So here it is now, and it really is a great song.”
For Adria, meanwhile, “For Real” sounds “like an epilogue from the grave. It’s him looking back on his career when he was putting a compilation together, and here we are digging it out, getting this incredible viewpoint of being an icon, having this huge career, summing it up in this really elegant, meaningful, sincere way. We weren’t even sure it was finished when we first found it — the production was so spare but so beautiful. It’s something we wanted to share as pure as we found it.”
With The Best of Everything and An American Treasure out, the question becomes what the Petty vaults will yield next. Tench promises that “there’s a bunch of really great stuff,” including early Mudcrutch recordings and “a whole other version” of 2014’s Hypnotic Eye album, “not the same songs, just more stuff from the same period,” as well as Petty demo recordings from 2002’s The Last DJ. “It’s good, and it keeps it alive when you hear Tom’s voice on the tapes,” Tench says. But he adds that, “I don’t want to get into exploiting or finding some half-ass jam and finishing it. I’m really leery of anything that isn’t really high quality, and whatever we would put out in the future we would take extreme care with it.”
The Pettys concur, and after the one-two blast of compilations the sisters are now happy to step back and consider the future. “I think we’re going to take a beat after this and let this record come out and do justice to the finest work our dad did and sort of being the journey of trying to be the messengers and ambassadors of this work and this band,” Adria explains. “Personally I’m hoping we’re not releasing anything for a little while so we get a chance to digest what happened. We have such a rich archive; We want to follow the spirit and the ethics our father believed in and be real decent about how we steward this really huge gift he gave us.”
While Campbell is out touring with Fleetwood Mac, Tench is working on new material and contemplating a second solo album to follow 2015’s You Should Be So Lucky. He speaks with most of the other Hearbreakers at least once a month, he says, but he doesn’t anticipate the quintet — including bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston — working together again in an organized fashion.
“It would be very hard on a few levels,” Tench says. “It would be very hard, emotionally, for me to be in a room with everybody without him being in the center of the room. The other component is it’s called TOM PETTY and the Heartbreakers. He was a guy in the band, but he was the focal point of the band. He was the songwriter of the band. He was the lead singer of the band. You can’t take that out and have it still be the band. You can’t take his rhythm guitar out — that’s the real center of the whole thing. What united us at the core was the fact that we loved playing his songs, and playing his songs with HIM. I don’t want to have somebody else sing Tom’s songs. I don’t want to be a Heartbreakers karaoke band. It’s too hard for me to even contemplate anything other than the band as we were, with him there.”