October 2, 2017 – Tom (Thomas Earl) Petty was born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville Florida.
Growing up in the town that housed the University of Florida, music became the young Petty’s refuge from a domineering, abusive father who despised Tom’s sensitivity and creative tendencies—but would later glom on to his son’s rock-star fame for status.
In the summer of 1961, his uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala, and invited Petty to come down and watch the shoot. He instantly became an Elvis Presley fan, and when he returned that Saturday, he was greeted by his friend Keith Harben, and soon traded his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s.
Petty said in a later interview “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I knew there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports. … I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.” He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play bass with his newly formed band.
Don Felder, who late became the lead guitarist for the Eagles was Tom’s first guitar teacher. Shortly after embracing his musical aspirations, Petty started a band known as the Epics, later to evolve into Mudcrutch. Although the band, which featured future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, were popular in Gainesville, their recordings went unnoticed by a mainstream audience. Their only single, “Depot Street”, was released in 1975 by Shelter Records, but failed to chart.
After Mudcrutch split up, Petty reluctantly agreed to pursue a solo career. Tench decided to form his own group, whose sound Petty appreciated. Eventually, Petty and Campbell collaborated with Tench and fellow members Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, resulting in the first lineup of the Heartbreakers.
Even through the end of Mudcrutch and formation of The Heartbreakers, there was a certain ethos that would form a foundation for the early days of Petty’s career and serve as guiding principles even decades later: a brotherhood with his bandmates in The Heartbreakers, and a defiant belief in the power of artistry and vision.
The rise to superstardom for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came when producer Denny Cordell famously swayed the band en route to Los Angeles to sign with London Records, when he convinced them to sign with Cordell’s Shelter Records after they stopped in Tulsa at his offices.
“At the end of the day, he wasn’t going for the biggest deal he could possibly get,” Cordell said in the ’90s. “But he was going for the chance to make good records.” Shelter was co-founded by Tulsa native Leon Russell, and the label released Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1975. The album flopped in America, but the band was a hit in the U.K.
Petty famously fought back against his label after Shelter Records’ distributor ABC Records was sold to MCA and he realized how much he was losing in a publishing deal he’d said he was forced to sign under duress. “My songs had been taken away from me before I even knew what publishing was,” Petty would later recall. And to free himself from the deal he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, an unprecedented approach to battling his record company. Such a bold tactic meant that Petty wasn’t just fighting his label MCA; he was in a battle against the record business itself.
As he and Cordell’s relationship dissolved and The Heartbreakers’ second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, foundered, the battle raged in the media. The Heartbreakers embarked on “The Lawsuit Tour” and sold merchandise that included “Why MCA?” T-shirts.
“As soon as they thought my action might set an industry precedent,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 1980, “they rolled out the big guns. That’s when I realized these guys were mean. It was like they were after me just because I had the potential to do something. For that, they would destroy me—fuck up my brain to where I couldn’t do it anymore—before they’d let me do it for anyone else.”
Damn the Torpedoes (1979) would be Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ first platinum-selling album, but with status came another headache. Petty once again found himself at odds with the industry after realizing MCA was planning to sell his fourth album Hard Promises at a then-staggering $9.98, “Superstar Pricing” that was designed to make up for financial losses labels were enduring in the late 1970s. Petty fought against the price hike and won the hearts of fans, as Hard Promises would also be a platinum-seller.
Petty established himself as the sort of authentic rock artist whose ethics seemed almost antiquated at the dawn of the MTV era and amid the excesses of the 1980s. As punk, funk, and New Wave gave way to hair metal and dance pop, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stayed surprisingly fresh in changing times.
The video for their 1982 single “You Got Lucky” featured a Mad Max-inspired, apocalyptic storyline, evidence that the group wasn’t as resistant to the music video format as many of their peers. This would be more evident by 1985, with the release of the popular Alice in Wonderland-themed visual for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”—a synth-driven hit by Petty and co-written and co-produced with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a major hit from the Heartbreakers’ 1985 Southern Accents album, but the LP was a source of tension within the band. Accents had originally been conceived as a concept record about Southern culture, but the inclusion of Stewart muddied the theme. Nonetheless, on the Southern Accents Tour, Petty included merchandise and stage dressing that prominently featured the Confederate flag. It was a move he would come to regret.
“The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” Petty would say in 2015. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn’t give it much thought, though I should have.”
“In 1985, I released an album called Southern Accents. It began as a concept record about the South, but the concept part slipped away probably 70 percent or so into the album. I just let it go, but the Confederate flag became part of the marketing for the tour. I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do.”
A sticking point for Petty was when fans began to bring Confederate flags to shows. In 2010, Fred Mills of BLURT recalled seeing Petty live in 1990 (with Lenny Kravitz opening, no less) when a fan tossed a Confederate flag onstage.
“A certain yahoo element had already been making its presence in the crowd known, emitting whoops and raising beer cups whenever Petty would make a regional reference. It was starting to feel like a NASCAR rally in the arena. Now, as the band eased into the song’s signature piano intro, somebody tossed a folded-up object onto the stage,” said Mills. “Petty walked over, picked it up, and started unfolding it: a rebel flag, symbol of the Confederacy—and of a whole lot more. He froze, uncertain as to what he should do. Well, wave it proudly at all your fellow Southerners, you could almost hear the collective thought ripple through the air. Instead, Petty walked back to the mic, still holding the flag, and slowly began to speak, talking about how on the Southern Accents Tour a few years ago they’d included a Confederate flag as part of the stage set, but since then he’d been thinking about it and decided that it had been a mistake because he understood maybe it wasn’t just a rebel image to some folks. As a low rumble of boos and a few catcalls came out of the crowd, Petty carefully wadded the flag up and concluded, ‘So we don’t do’—nodding at the flag—‘this anymore.’ Glaring at it one last time and then chucking it back down, he glanced at the band then launched directly into the next song.”
Petty’s success continued in the late 1980s with the multiplatinum Full Moon Fever (his first official solo album), which featured hits “I Won’t Back Down”, “Free Fallin'” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. It was nominally his first solo album, although several Heartbreakers and other well-known musicians participated: Mike Campbell co-produced the album with Petty and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, and backing musicians included Campbell, Lynne, and fellow Wilburys Roy Orbison and George Harrison (Ringo Starr appears on drums in the video for “I Won’t Back Down”, but they were actually performed by Phil Jones).
In 1988, Petty had joined George Harrison’s group, the Traveling Wilburys, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, a move that made him one of the more venerated “elders” of the MTV generation, and it also emphasized Petty as a conduit that connected three musical generations of rock.
The band’s first song, “Handle with Care”, was intended as a B-side of one of Harrison’s singles, but was judged too good for that purpose and the group decided to record a full album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. A second Wilburys album, mischievously titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 and recorded without the recently deceased Orbison, followed in 1990. The album was named Vol. 3 as a response to a series of bootlegged studio sessions being sold as Travelling Wilburys Vol. 2. Petty incorporated Traveling Wilburys songs into his live shows, consistently playing “Handle with Care” in shows from 2003 to 2006, and for his 2008 tour adding “surprises” such as “End of the Line” to the set list.
Petty and the Heartbreakers reformed in 1991 and released Into the Great Wide Open, which was co-produced by Lynne and included the hit singles “Learning To Fly” and “Into the Great Wide Open”, the latter featuring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway in the music video.
Before leaving MCA Records, Petty and the Heartbreakers got together to record, live in the studio, two new songs for a Greatest Hits package: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”. This was Stan Lynch’s last recorded performance with the Heartbreakers. Petty commented “He left right after the session without really saying goodbye.” The package went on to sell over ten million copies, therefore receiving diamond certification by the RIAA.
Even as pop culture became dominated by grunge and gangsta rap in the 1990s, there was Tom Petty, consistently charting with hit singles like “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” And he and The Heartbreakers had toured with Bob Dylan, played with Johnny Cash, and written hits with George Harrison and Roy Orbison. Even his most famous producers—Jimmy Iovine, Jeff Lynne, and Rick Rubin—represented entirely different generations and approaches to rock music.
In the 2000s, Petty continued to rankle the suits—albeit more as a cantankerous elder statesman than brash upstart – most notably on 2002’s The Last DJ, which railed against commercial radio and the hollowness of the modern music industry. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he and The Heartbreakers continued as one of rock’s most successful institutions. Along the way, there had been scars (the 1994 firing of long time drummer Stan Lynch, Petty’s 1996 divorce from his first wife Jane, which catapulted him into becoming a heroin addict for several years and then bassist Howie Epstein’s death at age 47 in 2003 from a heroin overdose) but Tom Petty seemed to be a permanent fixture in the musical firmament, forever playing a gig and being on tour and reminding fans everywhere just how many of his songs had been a part of their lives.
Tom Petty’s journey came to an unexpected end on Oct. 2, 2017 just a week after finishing his 40th Anniversary Tour, and it may be hard for some to recognize why this old rocker meant so much to so many people across so many generations. Tom Petty was possessed of the kind of easygoing coolness that you took for granted until it was staring you in the face, his songs sounded simple but burst with ideas and subtext, and his band was fucking sick without ever seeming showy. He was ballsy enough to do things his way and honest enough to admit when his way had been flat-out wrong. We’ll always have the songs. But man… we are really going to miss having him.
Tom Petty seemed to embody something that has always been perfect about rock ’n’ roll music. The spirit of the songs, at its purest, is one of freedom and unpretentiousness. It’s there in Chuck Berry’s odes to adolescent thrills, the nervous energy of Eddie Cochran, and the aching earnestness of Roy Orbison. And it’s there throughout the best songs from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
My dear friend Bob Lefsetz forwarded me this tribute to Tom Petty from his website this morning. I felt like sharing it as it explains perfectly how I also feel about rock music and his place in history.
“Oh, baby don’t it feel like heaven right now
Don’t it feel like something from a dream”
He’s in heaven, and we’re dreaming, but it’s a nightmare.
I woke up to the Las Vegas tragedy. And what’s so weird is I was with one of the touring honchos last night discussing this possibility and he said it was just a matter of when.
And I saw Tom Petty, live, in the flesh, JUST TEN DAYS AGO!
So I’m at lunch with my mother, at Brent’s Deli in Northridge. She came out for Yom Kippur. I’m hoping she’s written in the book of the living. With her marbles intact. And my phone, which I’d turned to vibrate, since I wanted my mom to know I was paying total attention, started to go berserk. And ultimately I told her to hold on a second, I slipped my plus-sized device from my pocket and was confronted with a text on the home screen, “Is Tom Petty now dead?”
Huh? There are people who are ill, people who are aged, but like I said, I just saw Tom last week, it did not compute!
I didn’t believe it. The internet is laden with rumors. I told my mother to give me a minute. I searched for news.
And then I found the TMZ story.
And TMZ never gets it wrong. They’d be sued out of existence. Tom had cardiac arrest, he was brain dead, and…
I still did not believe it.
I don’t know what your life is based upon. I don’t know what it’s about. The sixties were about sports, my transistor told the stories of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Tony Kubek. I dreamed of playing in the big leagues.
And then the Beatles hit.
There’s been nothing like it since. I wasn’t the only one. It happened to Petty too.
Just like the nineties, when everybody bought a computer to play on AOL, everybody bought a guitar, formed a band, we were infatuated with the music.
And our heroes were British.
But in the seventies…
The Americans penetrated.
Petty wasn’t there first, but by time he broke through…
He had history, he had gravitas, he had insight, he was the antithesis of a prepubescent rocker, all poses and no substance. He’d lived, played bars, gone to shows, and when he finally put out a record…
It was the one he wanted to make.
Those are the ones that last. Not the ones made for a market, chasing a hit, but personal statements, of truth.
Have you ever heard “Luna”? It sounds like a steamy night on a rooftop, that’s what music does best, not tell a story, but instigate your own, set your mind free to remember, to think, to envelop yourself in this thing we call life.
But now Tom Petty is dead. How can this be?
We don’t know exactly why, but one thing’s for sure, most rockers don’t last into old age. John Lennon was killed. The Big C got George. And history is littered with O.D.’s and casualties of the lifestyle. They thought they were gonna live forever, but they really didn’t live that long.
And by time Tom’s second LP was released it was the heyday of AOR, with tracks codified to formula. Corporate rock killed the record business. But Petty was never corporate rock.
And then he stood up for low prices, he didn’t want to be the poster boy for ripping off the customer, and after declaring bankruptcy, taking too much time off, he exploded on the radio with “Refugee” and everybody had to own “Damn The Torpedoes” and suddenly he was the biggest star in the land. He didn’t come from nowhere, he just needed the timing to be right, to get his story across right, kinda like the Boss with “Born To Run,” but that single was never as big as “Refugee,” there was not another hit on Springsteen’s album, whereas Petty dominated the radio and sold tonnage and got little respect for it, because when you dominate, when you score, it looks easy.
Yet it’s anything but.
And how do you follow this up?
Frampton gave the public what it wanted and it killed his career.
Petty kept searching, kept mixing it up. And then came the solo album and the Wilburys.
Tom Petty? He wasn’t old enough to be in that concoction. He was a junior member, the JV, but Jeff Lynne, et al, knew something we did not, that Tom Petty was a superstar, just because he started in the seventies as opposed to the sixties didn’t mean he wasn’t worthy.
He was the worthiest, the only one who continued to have hits. The only one who continued to dominate. The only one who continued to reach the masses.
Sure, Roy Orbison died. As did George. And I don’t want to take anything away from Dylan, but if you think his work of the last twenty five years is equal to the twenty five years before it, you’re lying to yourself.
And Tom Petty never lied to himself, he was all about honesty.
And his shows were not nostalgia. He did that stand at the Fonda where he played deep cuts. And I’ll always remember him plucking a golden oldie from the country world and labeling today’s country music “the rock of the seventies.” And in most cases it is. I’ve been quoting him ever since.
But Tom won’t be uttering any more gems. He won’t be utilizing his drawl on Sirius XM. He’s gone.
But that can’t be! This is not Elvis, past his prime and decrepit at 42. I don’t even want to play the records, I don’t want to remember what once was, I still believe it can be.
BUT IT CAN’T!
How do I explain an era that was cottage industry, when the music business was built. When all the action was outside the home and you went to gigs with terrible PA’s to hear bands that oftentimes couldn’t replicate the records. Does anybody even remember Frank Barsalona? He deserves a hell of a lot more credit for building the modern concert business than Bill Graham, and my goal is not to piss you off, and I don’t believe art, never mind business, should be ranked, but Petty was the last person doing it the way they used to, sans attitude, with a smile on his face, with the band intact. He didn’t whore himself out to corporations. He didn’t take the easy, expedient money. You could believe in him! In an era where everybody’s doing it for themselves and the audience is the odd man out. You want to feel included, you want to believe the artist is doing it for YOU!
Not that Tom didn’t take risks, didn’t stretch, don’t you remember him dropping in on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” on Showtime, when the classiest thing on HBO was “Dream On”? Tom didn’t play a song, he just lived in the neighborhood, it was so bizarre.
But now Shandling is gone and Bowie is gone and Frey is gone and Prince is gone but Petty?
HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HERE FOREVER!
You don’t want to outlive your children. Going on without Tom Petty is too painful, it wasn’t his time, he still had a lot of living to do. He wasn’t calcified, he was still pushing the envelope.
And he’d already surprised us so much. Solo albums bigger than band albums? The aforementioned Wilburys? When done right, music is a journey, you’re not a prisoner of your hits, Tom was on an endless hejira, all the way from Gainesville to the promised land, and if you don’t think Hollywood is that, the L.A. basin, you’re too scared to come out here and compete where who your parents are and where you went to school are irrelevant, where it’s all about the hustle and the talent, and some make it, very few, but almost nobody sustains.
Tom Petty sustained.
So it feels like a family member died. I’m numb. In shock. And eventually it will pass, and I’ll march on, it’s the nature of humanity.
And that’s what Tom Petty’s music had, humanity.
My girlfriend slept with another guy and I played “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” over and over again.
And when I heard the drop in “Here Comes My Girl,” I felt powerful, like I had game, like I could impress the opposite sex, that’s what music does, ride shotgun, turn you into your best self, help you get through.
And I don’t want this piece to end. I want to keep on writing. Because as long as I do, Tom is still alive, I’m distracted, I don’t have to confront that giant hole inside me that can only be filled with music, too often not the music made today, pabulum, researched stuff for a market. Once upon a time music was art. Tom Petty made art.
Today I was in Reseda.
Tonight I drove down Mulholland.
But one thing’s for sure, I’m free fallin’. Out into nothin’.
But tonight Tom Petty didn’t leave this world for a while, but for all time.
And I just don’t want to accept that.
But I have to.
Now it’s down to us. We must carry on his vision. March into the future. Knowing that the music counts and not everything is right but when you build a catalog of hits you’re not only part of the firmament, you live forever.
In people’s minds. Where rock music resides.
Where Tom Petty forever shall be.