When original Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch was let go from the group in 1995 — or “excommunicated,” to use his own term —he started a new chapter of his life in Florida as a producer-songwriter and rarely looked back. His only encounter with Petty in the years that followed took place in 2002 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and the only communication he can recall from guitarist Mike Campbell in the two decades since that night was a brief phone call in 2017 shortly after Petty died.
So it was no small surprise in late 2021 when Lynch picked up his phone one day and heard Campbell’s voice on the other end. “I have a proposition for you,” said Campbell, who was on the verge of kicking off his first-ever solo tour, but was going to be without regular drummer Matt Laug for a period in the spring and summer when he had commitments in Europe with Italian superstar Vasco Rossi. “I’d need you to play a leg of the tour. Are you up for it?”
Lynch’s first instinct was to decline the offer. “I have a really good life,” he says. “And it’s a new life. I haven’t been a drummer since I was in my thirties. That was 30 years ago. I felt like all of the uniforms and emotional and metaphysical stuff about being a drummer, I’d sort of outgrown. When I heard from Mike, I almost said, ‘That’s probably not a good fit, but I appreciate the offer.’”
But when he went to speak, he found himself tentatively agreeing to the plan. “I wouldn’t want to let anyone down,” says Lynch. “Also, I could never really close doors on people that were important in my past. Mike is a pivotal player in a previous life of mine. I’ve known him since I was 15. That’s a long run to have someone in your life one way or another.”
Campbell sent over the two recent albums he released with his longtime backing band the Dirty Knobs, 2020’s Wreckless Abandon and 2022’s External Combustion, and told him to learn the songs. Lynch’s portion of the tour was slated to kick off April 23 in Boulder, Colorado, so he had plenty of time to prepare. “That was another experience for me,” says Lynch. “I’d never learned anyone else’s parts.”
He started going over the material at his home studio, and he turned to longtime drummer buddies Kenny Aronoff and Gregg Bissonette for advice. “They were laughing their asses off,” says Lynch. “I said, ‘How do you digest two albums worth of material?’ They went, ‘That’s Wednesday for me.’ Bissonette was going, ‘You chart them out. You learn them.’”
In some small ways, the experience mirrored a very difficult time in Lynch’s career with the Heartbreakers when Petty cut 1989’s Full Moon Fever as a solo album and asked the band to learn the songs and tour it with him. This was unsettling for everyone in the group besides Campbell, who worked extensively on the album, but Lynch voiced his objections the loudest. The tension that followed played a significant role in his ultimate departure from the band. (For a detailed account of this saga, check out Warren Zanes’ definitive book Petty: The Biography.)
Looking back at that intense time all these years later, Lynch says he wishes he’d handled the situation a bit differently. “There was a lot of things that were not said that should have been said,” he says. “There was a lot of miscommunication and a lot of immature shit going down. I didn’t need to be that way. … I have regrets. Tons of them. There are things I could have handled better, specifically with Mike. And so I have regrets, but they don’t hold me back. I just learn from them.”
Campbell feels the same way. “Stan and I had some personal conflicts with family here and there,” he says. “I won’t get into all that, but we were young and stupid and full of too much testosterone. But a lot of that has calmed down. It’s felt really nice to get my friend back.”
They finally met up a few months ago at Campbell’s Los Angeles home studio he calls Knobville. It was their first face-to-face encounter in 20 years, and they had a chat before playing much music together. “We apologized to each other for being assholes and young and stupid,” says Campbell. “We got beyond it. I found out he’s turned out to be quite a gentleman and a real brother to me.”
It also turned out they needed a lot less time than they anticipated to lock back in musically. “We have the same musical pulse we always had,” says Campbell. “If you listen to the old records, Stan and I are pushing, we’re locked, and lot of times we’re driving the songs. I was pleased to see that was still there. A lot of the times I’d just be focused on what I was doing, but then I’d turn around and be like, ‘My God, it’s Lynch and he’s fuckin’ smoking it!’”
“I don’t give a shit what we’re playing,” adds Lynch. “If I look up and see Mike Campbell’s butt in front of my drum kit, it’s kind of like I’m home.”
Opening night in Boulder was heavy on material from the two Dirty Knobs albums, but they also dipped into the Heartbreakers catalog with songs like “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Southern Accents,” and “You Wreck Me.” As the days went by, they started sprinkling in additional oldies like “Listen to Her Heart,” “When the Time Comes,” and “Casa Dega.”
“I’m still learning to be a singer,” says Campbell. “Stan had never heard me sing before, and he was the main harmony singer with Tom. I think I have some Tom nuances in my voice. It works really well with him. We both started smiling at one point and went, ‘We got something here. Let’s do some more.’”
One night, they started warming up backstage by singing “Stories We Could Tell,” an obscure John Sebastian–penned song that Petty and the Heartbreakers often played in their early days. “We hit a really sweet harmony,” says Campbell. “And our bass player Crawdaddy [Lance Morrison] said, ‘You should play that song together in the show. It has a special vibe when it’s just the two of you.’ And so we started closing the show with it. It’s become a very special moment and the crowd picked up on the love between us.”
Another intense moment in the show is “Southern Accents.” Midway through the tour, Campbell changed the lyrics from “There’s a dream I keep having where my mama comes to me/And kneels over by the window and says a prayer for me” to “There’s a dream I keep having where my brother comes to me …” It’s a change of just one word, but it’s had a profound impact on the crowd.
“The other night I looked down during that song and there was a woman in the front just sobbing,” says Campbell. “She was having a moment. I kneeled down, took her hand, and I went, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I think it’s a bit of healing and closure for people to revisit that feeling and revisit Tom in a positive way.”
Playing Petty’s music night after night has also given Lynch the opportunity to grieve for his friend. “I didn’t even speak to him at the Hall of Fame,” says Lynch. “But we had a quiet moment at the rehearsals. I grabbed him and told him what I needed to tell him. His last words to me where, ‘I heard you, man.’”
When he heard about Petty’s death in 2017, Lynch says he was shocked, but not completely surprised. “I knew that there was the capacity within that group to push boundaries,” he says. “And with that, there can be the ultimate cost. When I heard what happened, it put me right down on my knees, literally. I was on my fuckin’ knees, staring at the sky. I didn’t know whether to say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Fuck you.’ I only knew I was grateful to have had the experience of having all those men in my life. It made a big difference for me, and I believe my participation made a huge difference for them.”
Lynch has stayed on good terms with Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench during the past 30 years, and the drummer is very open to the idea of one day playing with all the surviving members of the group in some capacity. “The original four ‘Breakers are all upright as far as I know,” he says. “I don’t know what it would mean to them since they have a lot more miles than I do, but it would be a joy for me.”
Campbell says he’s not ready for something like that. “I’m not really there emotionally,” he says. “If it’s just one or two of us, that’s one thing. But if it’s all of us without Tom, there’s this big hole in the room. I don’t know how that’s going to feel. It also fucks with the legacy. I’m really proud of the legacy. I wouldn’t want to cheapen it or do a watered-down version.”
There’s been talks of a one-off tribute show where the Heartbreakers would play with guest singers, but Campbell says he can’t even envision that. “I don’t want to hear anyone else sing those songs,” he says. “I know I’m not a great singer, but I can get the point across. And I have what I think nobody else has. That is the affinity to the soul of Tom’s delivery. I have the slang and the cadence and the understanding of how those songs are supposed to be translated. I don’t think anyone else has that. They may be better singers, but they won’t have that thing. … I’ve thought about having different singers up there doing the songs, but why? I’d rather hear the old songs with the real singer.”
Right now, Campbell and the Dirty Knobs are on a brief break before returning to the road in late May for another long string of shows that includes stints opening for Chris Stapleton and the Who at arenas and even a few stadiums. Lynch’s run ends after a June 26 show in Aspen, Colorado. He hopes he’ll get another chance to play with Campbell in the future, but he says he’s ready for whatever happens.
“The coolest thing about this is that I get to put a bookend on a really, really long book of life,” he says. “I get a good chapter out of this. ‘And then we got together when we were old fucks and we played some clubs.’ I would have never bet on that.”