Tom Petty's Los Angeles 

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008

There exists in sound a map of Los Angeles, filled with song-lyric street names, neighborhoods, beaches, bars, empty spaces and spaces between spaces. It's a chart that follows more than 30 years in the life and work of Tom Petty, a longtime resident of the city and an undercelebrated rock & roll icon who finally appears to be getting his due.

Artwork by Scott Gursky

click to flip through (2) ARTWORK BY SCOTT GURSKY
  • Artwork by Scott Gursky

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Artwork by Scott Gursky

(Click to enlarge)

In 1974, Petty drove cross-country from Gainesville, Florida, to Los Angeles to get a record contract. Knocking on doors along Sunset, he played demos and eventually got a deal for his first band, Mudcrutch, then moved the group to L.A. "We fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there," Petty told author Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty (CWTP). "We just thought this is heaven. We said, 'Look — everywhere there's people making a living playing music. This is the place.'" In 1976, the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album hit, and aside from touring with the band, he's never left town. His songs are indelibly linked with the cityscape, sometimes explicitly but more often in hints — that rare ability of a gifted lyricist to generalize the intimate.

Last October saw the release of Peter Bogdanovich's four-and-a-half-hour documentary on the band, Runnin' Down a Dream. The director, who was unfamiliar with Petty's music prior to the project, called it "the story of a great American band, a great American story." In November, Chronicle Books released an oversize coffee-table book based on the film, also titled Runnin' Down a Dream (RDAD). And Petty's slated to perform during halftime at this year's Super Bowl (February 3). He co-produced the film and book, and one thing striking in both is the relative timelessness and placelessness of Petty's public life — he consciously avoids personal details while focusing on the particulars of songwriting, recording and touring. Which seems odd, since songs like "Free Fallin'" and "Into the Great Wide Open" offer a specific vision of the city, one that unfolded for a generation. Here is a map of that L.A., gathered from evidence the songwriter has left behind.Click here to download a PDF of Scott Gursky's map

1. Sunset Boulevard. Imagine Petty driving up in a van full of Florida stoners onto Sunset Boulevard in 1974, cruising for labels. "You just saw them down the road. So we would just go in the front door of every one with a tape and say, 'Hi, we just got here from Florida, can we play you this tape?'" (CWTP) Later, in "Waiting for Tonight," the mystique had worn off a bit. In the song, he sings, "I went walking down the boulevard/Past the skateboards and the beggars/I was out looking in the windows/Just out walking, letting my mind roam."

2. Ben Frank's. This moderne diner is the site of an apocryphal tale in which the Florida bumpkin Petty walked outside into a phone booth and found a piece of paper with the addresses and phone numbers of all the city's record companies, including his first label, Shelter Records. The place is now Mel's Diner, but it retains its trademark midcentury design. 8585 W. Sunset Blvd.

3. The Sunset Strip. The Strip is the center of Petty's musical L.A., a place where kids with dreams go to try their luck. Petty exposes the naiveté and cynicism of this myth in "Into the Great Wide Open" through the rise and fall of the song's main character, Eddie. For instance, Eddie heads to a Strip tattoo parlor to symbolize his rebellion, only to find a girl "with a tattoo too."

4. Shelter Records Office. The Shelter office was in Hollywood, and by the time of the first Heartbreakers album, producer/co-owner Denny Cordell had moved their studio next door. The label office was the band's hangout. In RDAD, Cordell said "Musicians that had worked with them on this or that project would just drop in." In the evenings, Petty would go to the Shelter offices, and he and Cordell would play records of great songwriters, learning to pick out good songwriting from bad.

5. Hollywood Premiere Motel. Petty and the boys sold all their possessions in Florida and drove back out to L.A. Shelter Records put them up first at this motel, which, Petty remembered, "was really a hooker place." (CWTP) It's got a great neon sign at least. 5333 Hollywood Blvd.

6. Canoga Park. The residences rented for Mudcrutch were in Canoga Park. With no furniture in sight, Petty thought himself a king nonetheless. "We brought all the girls and dogs and everything. This was heavy shit, man. A house with a swimming pool." (CWTP)

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