Tom Petty Talks Of Songwriting 'Magic' For 'Storytellers'

Rocker and his Heartbreakers deliver overview of 25-year-career, explain select lyrics for VH1 special.

LOS ANGELES -- Tom Petty clearly wasn't going to give himself

away during the taping of VH1's "Storytellers" series here Wednesday

night.

Though the rocker seemed happy to comply with the premise of the cable

TV series and talk about his songs, he made it clear that explaining how

they happen or "what they're about" wasn't part of the deal.

"It's kind of like an orgasm," he said, referring to the "magic" of

songwriting. "You know, you don't know how you did that."

Before a small audience of fan-club members and invitees, Florida

native Petty and his five-piece band, the Heartbreakers, performed in a

setting tailor-made for the camera. The musicians were surrounded by

makeshift columns and large, funky-patterned fabric swatches that were

draped around the set.

The nearly two-hour taping featured songs from throughout Petty's

extensive career, including such hits as "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and

"I Won't Back Down"

(RealAudio excerpt). Also featured were new songs -- "Swingin" and the

just-released single, "Room At The Top," off Tom Petty and the

Heartbreakers' forthcoming album, Echo, to be released April 13.

"It's 25 years tomorrow since we came to town," Petty said toward the

end of the taping before launching into the group's 1976 hit,

"Breakdown"

(RealAudio excerpt).

Petty, who was dressed in a velvety, dark blue shirt and dark pants,

explained the origins of some tunes through anecdotes

and his self-mocking, wry humor. Usually, the ruminations offered small

insights, and, on a few occasions, explained just one line. For example,

the lyric in "Free Fallin' "

(RealAudio excerpt) -- "I wanna glide down over Mulholland" -- Petty

said stems from when he used to write songs while driving down the

winding Los Angeles street.

Before "You Don't Know How It Feels," Petty said the line "Let's roll

another joint" wasn't "meant to be controversial," and he joked about

how radio edited the word "joint" into a strange-sounding muffle. He

added that he hoped VH1 would let the unaltered line go through on

"Storytellers."

Referring to "You Wreck Me," from his 1994 Wallflowers album,

Petty said he had the whole song done except the main line of the chorus.

After his original idea to call it "You Rock Me" was criticized by the

Heartbreakers for being cheesy, he wracked his brain to come up with the

right line, Petty said. Suddenly the realization came that it shouldn't

be "You Rock Me" but "You Wreck Me."

"They say if you think you've talked too much, talk some more," Petty

said, midway through the taping. "So I'm talking some more."

Introducing the harmonica-dappled "Swingin," he said the Heartbreakers

typically come up with their best material right off the bat, before their

sessions turn into a "lot of talkin' and drinkin'." They rarely go back

to a number to give it a reworking, he said, but one song they'd written

for Echo just wasn't quite right. As the band tried to figure out

how to redo it, Petty -- twiddling on his guitar -- wrote a whole new

song, which became "Swingin."

In addition to that number and a standout rendition of "Room at the Top,"

Petty debuted another new "song," one he wrote specifically for

"Storytellers." Saying the important thing about the show was "everyone

has a good time," he added that he tried to think of what might

guarantee that goal.

"And then I thought, 'Everyone loves 'Titanic!' If I could write a song

about 'Titanic' we'd have one [great] television program,'" Petty

proclaimed, referring to the blockbuster, Academy Award-winning movie.

He proceeded to sing a little ditty that pivoted on the lines, "Titanic/

It's gigantic/ Celine Dion/ Should have been on/ That Titanic." The

lyrics -- referring to the inescapable Canadian singer who performed

the film's hit single, "My Heart Will Go On" -- received applause and

laughter.

Though the taping went smoothly, Petty and the band had to perform a few

songs twice, and he jokingly blamed "the drunken cameraman" for reshoots

of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Free Fallin'." It was clearly Petty's

choice to give one song another whack, however, after he seemed unhappy

with his first go at a stripped-down version of "I Won't Back Down."

"They said I could do this," he explained as he began the song a second

time.

No one complained.