In strictly rock 'n' roll terms, Mike Campbell is a bit of a bigamist. For almost four decades, the guitar god has been married to one woman, Marcie, who has stood by his side no matter the excesses of his particular occupation. "This is a rough business (for marriages)," Campbell says, "so I'm very proud of ours."
Indeed, Marcie must be a saint, because for just as long as she's been hitched, she's had to share her Hall of Fame hubby with another demanding spouse: Tom Petty, who has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Campbell since the gritty Florida boys were called Mudcrutch, the '70s house band at Dub's in Gainesville.
"We admire and respect each other, but there's friction, too, good friction," Campbell says of Petty, who calls the lead guitarist the "co-captain" of the entire TP and the Heartbreakers ensemble. "It's kind of like, 'I don't like the way you're doing that!' 'Well, f--- you!' That sort of thing."
Ah yes, sweet, profane everlasting love — all on display tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, the group's only Sunshine State gig on this tour.
Campbell, who just turned 60, says his dueling love affairs with wife and co-worker continue to be bountiful. For instance, the Pensacola native recently bought a '59 Les Paul guitar: "It's a beautiful instrument, and it makes a beautiful sound." He won't reveal how much it cost but does allow that he — a very rich rock star, mind you — had to go on a payment plan. "You could buy a house," he hints. "It's ridiculous. There's only 500 of them left."
Marcie urged her husband to get it, to realize his dream. "She's always inspired me, pushed me. With the Les Paul, she's the one who said, 'Go ahead. Buy it.' "
As they were messing around in the studio one day, Petty, 59, then urged his boyhood pal to play that Les Paul: "I was playing it one day, and Tom said, 'Wow, that really does sound like that era. Let's make an album like that. Let's make it real loud.' "
The result is raucous new record Mojo, which, he says, is "different sonically and attitude-wise for us." The most pronounced difference, of course, is that Campbell and his Les Paul are boldly front and center.
Sure, Campbell has had a profound hand shaping popular music for the past 40 years; he coproduces Petty's albums and has cowritten such hits as Runnin' Down a Dream and Refugee. His L.A. side project, the Dirty Knobs, allows him to soak up a lil' starshine and "work out new stuff." But when it comes to his day job, Campbell is fine letting Petty be king. With that natural shrugged humility, Campbell says: "I love to play within the format of the song we're doing."
And yet, there's no mistaking the star on Mojo. And if you've ever seen Petty and his Heartbreakers in a live setting, you know there's a palpable anticipation, a sexy energy before every ringing Campbell solo, every fortified lick that acts as perfect complement to Petty's fine whine.
"We feel it's our responsibility to play the hits, but secondly, we really love doing them," Campbell says. "American Girl, Free Fallin', Don't Come Around Here No More. Those songs are very powerful, and we still find new elements of each one to explore. I still love to play Refugee; the end of that is always a little different."
It's an old rocker trope to claim it has never been more satisfying on the road than RIGHT NOW, but Campbell swears on it. First of all, they're touring with ZZ Top, guitar wonks after Campbell's own six-string heart. "I love them! Always loved that band. They have a sense of humor. A lot of hits. I watch from the wings and learn something new every night. It's inspiring for me."
But there's also the golden satisfaction that this tour is reward for decades of hard work.
If you don't reap the benefits now, then when?
"We're still here," he says of his band, one of two true loves in his life. "I don't know how long the Heartbreakers will go. I think it's uncharted territory. Our heroes — the Stones, McCartney — they're still going out and performing valid shows." He laughs: "And fortunately, our band does not rely on a bunch of dancing."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in the Floridian section.