"When I see people I knew from earlier in life and I run into them now, they're very different than me," he added. "And they look different. I think this has kept us all thinking young and feeling young."
Not that he had any near-future plans for a tour as extensive as the 53-show 40th anniversary run.
"It is grueling to do a very, very long one," he said. "This was quite a long one. It's sometimes physically hard. But then the lights go down, you hear the crowd and you're all better. You feel like, 'OK, let's do it.'"
Besides, Petty already seemed to have weathered his allotted bout of infirmity during August when he came down with laryngitis and had to postpone a few shows.
Did the incident spook him?
"Yeah, because I don't think I've missed a show in many, many years," he said. "It freaked me out so bad, because it came out of nowhere. ... My doctor said 'I don't think you've been sick -- I'm looking in my records -- in over 17 years, since I've seen you sick with anything. And I'm always like, 'I don't get sick.' But (stuff) happens.
"My doctor said, 'Despite great evidence to the contrary, it seems you're human,'" he said with a laugh. "But I take care of myself on the road. If you're a singer, you've got to be responsible, it's a physical thing, you have to be in shape. It's athletic. I have to make sure that I get enough sleep, that I eat right, that I don't abuse my voice. Don't talk too much. Don't go to the bar and talk for three hours if you have a show the next day. I've learned that it's just instinct, it's built into me from all the years of touring."
After six months on the road, Petty was supposed to get time to forget about those rules, just a little.
"The only happy thing about being off the road is I don't have to worry about keeping myself ready to go the next day," he said.
If this were the story I had intended to write, if everything had gone the way it was supposed to, Petty and the Heartbreakers would still be looking down the road at more chances to engage in the unique form of worship known only to those who've spent decades together in recording studios, cramped vans, dingy bars and anonymous hotel rooms.
"The thing about the Heartbreakers is, it's still holy to me," he said with no air of loftiness or pretense. "There's a holiness there. If that were to go away, I don't think I would be interested in it, and I don't think they would. We're a real rock 'n' roll band -- always have been. And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way. It was more than commerce, it wasn't about that. It was about something much greater.
"It was about moving people and changing the world, and I really believed in rock 'n' roll -- I still do," he said. "I believed in it in its purest sense, its purest form. ... It's unique to have a band that knows each other that long and that well.
"I'm just trying to get the best I can get out of it," said Tom Petty, head Heartbreaker and fisher of music, "as long as it remains holy."
That, in reality-induced retrospect, is the part of my story on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that is, and remains, exactly as it was supposed to be.
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