As It Happens

Remembering Tom Petty's last show: 'I don't think I've ever seen him more happy'

Paul Zollo, author of 2004's Conversations With Tom Petty, tells As It Happens about the year he spent learning about the rock legend's life and career, and about the bond they formed.
Paul Zollo took this photo of Tom Petty one week before he died. (Paul Zollo )

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Before Tom Petty died, writer Paul Zollo got to sit down with the rock 'n' roll legend every Saturday for an entire year, discussing his life and career.

"The idea for the book was to be a series of conversations about music and songwriting and being a musician in the world and an artist — not about his life," Zollo, author of 2004's Conversations With Tom Petty, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"But as we started doing  it, it became really clear that his entire life led to his songs and all of his songs were inspired by different chapters in his life. So what started as a series of conversations about creativity and writing songs turned into, really, the story of his entire life."

Petty, frontman for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, died on Monday after suffering cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu.

Zollo spoke with Off about those Saturdays with the rocker. Here is part of that conversation. 

When was the last time you saw Tom Petty?

I saw him a week prior to the night he died, which was Sept. 25. It was the final show in his tour, the 40th anniversary tour with his band The Heartbreakers, and he played the Hollywood Bowl.

I don't think I've ever seen him more happy.

They let me take photos right in front and he smiled so openly and joyously at me.

Paul Zollo says Tom Petty smiled 'joyously' at him during his performance a week before he died. (Paul Zollo )

You got to know Tom Petty while you were writing your book.  ... What did you talk about in those interviews?

It was conversations about creative courage, about persistence in the business. Probably most exemplified when he wanted to leave his band, The Heartbreakers, to make a solo album with Jeff Lynne producing from ELL, and that became Full Moon Fever which had Free Fallin', his most famous song of all time and four other hits.

Yet, when he brought that album to his record company, they didn't like it to the extent that they said they didn't hear any hits at all and wouldn't even release the album. 

So people probably don't realize that, even at his position and his level of enormous success, ... that's still what he was dealing with.

The business encourages you to repeat past successes and it doesn't encourage you to try brave experiments. And yet Tom was an artist and brave experiments is what artists do.

Musician and writer Paul Zollo is pictured here with rock legend Tom Petty in 1994. (Henry Diltz)

You mentioned his solo work, but what he's best known for are the collaborations ... The Heartbreakers, principally. What is it that he liked about that?

The thing that really changed his life was seeing The Beatles when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was a kid.

He had a great love of bands and the great fortune of meeting truly phenomenal musicians there in his hometown of Gainesville (Fla.); Mike Campbell, who's the guitarist, Benmont Tench, who plays keyboards, these were virtuoso musicians and Tom recognized that.

As they came to L.A. to get a record deal, immediately, as the industry will do, they tried to persuade Tom from this band idea and offered him a solo deal and gave him a lot of money. And many artists at that point are happy to step over their friends and accept the deal. Tom didn't do that.

Tom Petty loved playing with his band, The Heartbreakers, says Zollo. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Image)

Besides The Heartbreakers, the most fascinating collaboration that people can imagine is, of course, The Travelling Wilburys — Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbinson and Tom Petty. What did he think of that?

When he would speak to me, there were some very dark, sad chapters in his life, and his sadness was palpable. I could always tell. 

In the same way, there was really infectious joy when we'd talk about happy parts of his life, and [there was] nothing ever more joyful in his life that he discussed with me than The Wilburys.

For him, that was a chance to make music completely for passion and joy and fun. It wasn't about writing a hit. It wasn't about making money. It was his chance to get to play with people that he truly idolized himself. 

You mentioned the dark periods and there certainly were those in Tom Petty's life. What did he tell you about those?

He went through, like a lot of rock 'n' rollers, some problems with drugs. And drugs, especially cocaine, can really mess someone up.

He was overdoing it and that exploded in a recording session at Capitol Records when he was trying to get a mix and he just could not get what he wanted and he was so upset and so crazy on cocaine that he smashed his hand into the wall.

And the doctor said, "You will never play guitar again."

That was maybe the lowest chapter of his life, but also a time where he could have gone under. But, instead, he used that as a way of redeeming himself and getting off of cocaine.

What do you think will be Tom Petty's legacy, his contribution to American pop music?

I think Tom Petty will be considered one of the great and maybe last true rock 'n' roll American heroes.

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