INSIGHT: Why my memory of interviewing Tom Petty in Austin is hazy

One of the great things about being an old Austinite is getting to tell people of subsequent generations how much better Austin was before they got there or – in most cases now – before they were born. Along with that is the geezer cred you get from telling people how you saw Bruce Springsteen and The Police live and on stage at the Armadillo or Stevie Ray Vaughn at the One Knite before they were famous. Sure, it’s a cheap thrill and annoying as hell, but I never was one to pass us up any kind of thrill, cheap or costly.

To say that Tom Petty wasn’t famous in 1978 when I interviewed him for the Austin Sun wouldn’t be quite true. He’d released two albums by that time: “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” and “You’re Gonna Get It!” Both got a lot of airplay on Austin radio, but it was a year before the breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes.” To say that I wasn’t famous in 1978 would be absolutely true. I was a cab driver with Roy’s Taxi in 1978, but I was really a writer. While I meditated on the noir novel I was sure my cab driving experiences would inspire, I freelanced articles for the Austin Sun, including backstage pieces about local musicians such as Natalie Zoe, Alvin Crow and W.C. Clark.

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When one of my editors — I can’t remember if it was Jeff Nightbyrd on Dean Rindy — asked if I wanted to interview Petty and write a profile I thought about if for a microsecond before saying yes. I got a contact number from the Austin Opry House, dialed the numbers and it was a done deal. Mr. Petty would speak to me after his show.

Just to be clear, I don’t remember anything about the story I wrote, if the Sun published it or if I got paid. At the show, I realized then the same thing I realized later as a sportswriter; it’s easier to enjoy a concert or a ball game as a fan rather than a writer. While the Heartbreakers put on a fantastic show and displayed all the talent and energy you could ask for, I was distracted, trying to think of questions to ask. Then then the show was over and I was showing my backstage pass to the right people until I was standing in front of Petty. What surprised me most about that instant – that first impression – was how genuinely delighted to see me he seemed, like maybe I was one of his old pals from Florida or a fellow musician.

“Hey! Glad you made it!” He pointed to the dressing room. “Let’s talk in there. Too much monkey business out here.”

About that time someone else sidled up to Petty and introduced himself as a writer for the Austin American-Statesman and said, “You won’t mind if I sit in on the interview, will you?”

Petty regarded the man with real sympathy and shook his head. “Actually,” he said, “I guess I do mind.” He nodded in my direction. “This guy set up the interview with me last week, and I told him he’d have an exclusive kind of deal. I’m sorry, man. I really am.” I think he really was.

In his dressing room, I thanked him for not letting that other guy horn in on our interview, pointing out that he worked for the big daily paper in town and had a lot more readers than the Sun would ever have.

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“Yeah, but I bet most of my fans read your paper,” Petty said. “Whatcha wanna know?”

The only two things I remember about the actual interview is that I failed to ask any interesting questions but Tom Petty was kind enough to give interesting responses. Not only that, but he acted like no one had ever asked him, “Who were your influences growing up?” before.

The other thing I remember is that he broke out a fat joint of potent Columbian and shared it with me while we talked. Maybe that’s why I asked questions like, “Are you as thirsty as I am?” and “Are you going to eat that?” When we were through, he thanked me for conducting such a great interview and said he hoped our paths crossed again. And that was it. The interview was over.

Since then I’ve done hundreds of interviews. While I might not always remember years later what someone actually said, I always remember the feeling, the lasting impression I got from the interview. For example, I interviewed atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1973 or ’74 and I can’t recall anything she said – I assume the subject of God came up at some point – but I remember thinking, “That’s the most hateful old woman I’ve ever met.” And that’s the only thing I remember about my time with her.

Judge the art, not the artist, they say. But anybody who ever met Petty for even 45 minutes as I did reckon him to be innocent of pretension and malice, armed with talent and motivated by love and respect for his audience. All these years later that’s the only thing I remember about my one-on-one with Tom Petty. It’s enough.

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Coppedge is a writer in Williamson County. He’s the author of “Loaded South: A Taxi Memoir.”

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