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Petty entered the go-go '80s with a decidedly blue-collar move. MCA, his label, wanted to raise the price of his new album from $8.98 to $9.98 to milk the popularity resulting from Torpedoes. Petty didn't want to. MCA didn't care, and a highly public fight ensued. Petty eventually prevailed, and Hard Promises -- with "The Waiting," "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)" and his duet with Stevie Nicks on "The Insider" -- was released in 1981. That same year saw Petty's highest charting single to date -- "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," a duet with Nicks that peaked at No. 3 (he's never had a No. 1 pop single) -- and the first of his eight Grammy nominations.
Pop tastes changed at this time, as punk grew and splintered into amorphous post-punk. Petty's naturalistic style of songwriting fell out of favor, though he continued to produce tight rock albums. Long After Dark, released in 1982, contained "You Got Lucky," and 1985's Southern Accents, produced in part by the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, featured "Don't Come Around Here No More."
The mid-'80s were simply a rough period for Petty. Frustrated at the pace with which he was writing Southern Accents, he punched out a wall and shattered his left hand, further delaying the completion of the album. In 1987, he lost his house to an arsonist's fire. He has since rebuilt on the site, but the arsonist has never been caught.
Musically, Petty was looking elsewhere. He toured with Bob Dylan in 1986-87 and joined him in writing "Jammin' Me" for the aptly named Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). Petty then put the Heartbreakers on hiatus, and, in 1989, recorded a solo album, Full Moon Fever, enlisting Jeff Lynne, formerly of ELO, as producer and co-writer. The album sold more than three million copies on the strength of such songs as "I Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down a Dream" and the massively successful "Free Fallin'."
Lynne, Dylan and Petty also joined up with George Harrison and Roy Orbison to become the Traveling Wilburys. What began as a quirky, informal project became highly popular, and both of the band's albums, 1988's The Traveling Wilburys and 1990's Volume Three, went platinum.
Petty regrouped the Heartbreakers in 1991 for Into the Great Wide Open, with Lynne again as producer, and off of it came the hits "Learning To Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open."
His attention then turned to a greatest hits package, released two years ago and still on the charts. Petty included two new singles, "Something in the Air" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance," both produced with Rick Rubin, whose credits range from L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash.
Rubin joined Petty again for this year's Wildflowers, which has already gone double-platinum. Though technically a solo project, Petty is joined by all the Heartbreakers save Stan Lynch, who has left the group. Steve Ferrone replaced him, and is now touring with Petty.
The remarkable stability of the Heartbreakers is what you'd expect from Tom Petty. Although this band was formed when Gerald Ford was president, they've aged together well -- and remained good friends, too. Petty's solo ventures no doubt allow him greater creative freedom, but it's telling that he prefers to record with his bandmates, instead of using anonymous studio musicians.
With or without the Heartbreakers, Petty is a band kind of guy. Unlike first-name Bruce, full-name Tom Petty is still hanging around with the people he first started playing with.
Which is what normal people do -- make friends and keep them. And with his friends, Petty gets to make a living doing what he likes best, playing rock and roll. As he told USA Today, "I'm just grateful I have an audience because I'm sure not ready to quit."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play to a capacity crowd at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Tuesday, April 18. The Jayhawks open. Call 363-3300 for info.
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