When former Eagle and gifted guitarist Don Felder was in his early 20s, he gave guitar lessons at a Gainesville, FL, music store. “One day this scrawny, blond-haired kid came in and wanted lessons,” he said in 2010. “He already played bass and sang in a band, but he wanted to switch to guitar, so I started teaching him, and we became friends. I remembering telling another teacher, ‘This kid is already really good. He’s got what it takes to make it — the talent, the charisma and the commitment.'”
That blond-haired kid was Tom Petty. And Felder was certainly right — he had what it took to make it, in a very big way.
The rock music world was shocked on Monday when word spread of the fatal heart attack Petty suffered at his Malibu home. He and his band, The Heartbreakers, had just completed an extensive 40th Anniversary Tour with three sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl only a week earlier.
And now he’s gone, yet another rock hero taken too soon. He was 66.
I used to review concerts for a Cleveland newspaper in the 1980s, and the other day I dug up a clipping of a piece I wrote about a Tom Petty concert in 1983. While I confessed to being largely ambivalent about his records at that point, I readily admitted he had won me over with his live show. “Petty and his band were superb, injecting a healthy dose of vitality and enthusiasm into his no-nonsense material.” I labeled his music thusly: “It isn’t heavy metal, or rhythm-and-blues, or English arty rock, or three-chord rockabilly. It’s straightforward American rock ‘n’ roll, with emphasis on melody and rhythm.”
Petty was a true giant in the business, with 15 classic albums, a couple dozen now-standard rock radio hits, and some high-profile collaborations since his debut in 1976. His music has offered “a more stripped down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock and roll,” as The LA Times‘ Randy Lewis put it. His songs borrowed from his ’60s influences — The Byrds, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash — to produce his own unique style.
“We always wanted very much to create our own sound,” Petty said in 2006. “I tried to take whatever influences I had and make them meld together into something that was our own thing. And we somehow did that. I don’t know how.”
He was not “a rebel without a clue,” as the lyrics to “Learning to Fly” went. He was instead a rebel with a passion, and a fierce determination to do things his way. He famously stood up to corporate record companies and spoke on behalf of the average fan. “I Won’t Back Down,” one of his best known tracks, is the more apt lyrical description of the man.
Other rock music icons reacted swiftly to the news of Petty’s passing. “It’s shocking, crushing news,” said Bob Dylan, with whom Petty teamed up in the late ’80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Bruce Springsteen added, “Down here on E Street, we’re devastated and heartbroken over the death of Tom Petty. I’ve always felt a deep kinship with his music. A great songwriter and performer. Whenever we saw each other, it was like running into a long lost brother. Our world will be a sadder placed without him.”
Born in 1950 in Florida, Petty was among the thousands of American kids who saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and knew what they wanted to do. “I saw that this was the way to do it. You form a band, you write your own songs, you do everything you can to maintain control of your dream. The first time you count four, and suddenly, rock and roll is playing — it’s bigger than life itself. It was the greatest moment in my experience, really.”
He learned his chops in his first group, The Sundowners, and in lessons from Felder. By 1970, he formed Mudcrutch, which included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who would become mainstays of the Heartbreakers. The band enjoyed a local following and even won a record contract with Shelter Records, Leon Russell’s label, and relocated to L.A., but not much came of it, and Mudcrutch soon disbanded. But Petty had a solo contract, and he cut a few demos of original songs (“Breakdown,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll,” “American Girl” and others) with Campbell and Tench, adding Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass.
As Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, this lineup did modest business on its first two LPs, charting first in England and eventually in the US. “You’re Gonna Get It!”, the second LP featuring “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart,” reached a respectable #23 in 1978. “I think we made the most of not knowing what the hell we were doing,” Petty told Warren Zane in his 2015 book, “Petty: The Biography.” “We were having a blast, living the rock ‘n’ roll dream, writing and recording our own music, performing all over the country. It was a great time to be alive.”
But it was the band’s third LP, 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” that truly launched Petty as a star, reaching #2 and selling three million copies on the strength of time-honored tracks like “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Louisiana Rain.”
Petty and the Heartbreakers toured relentlessly, first in support and eventually as headliners, as the venues and the crowds got bigger. As the group returned to the studio for its fourth album, “Hard Promises,” MCA Records decided they would capitalize on their newfound success by slapping a $9.98 “superstar pricing” on the next release instead of the then-customary $8.98. Petty balked, and withheld the master tapes in protest, which helped make the issue a popular cause among music fans. When he threatened to rename the album “$8.98” to drive home his point, the label backed down.
More than 20 years later, Petty’s LP “The Last DJ” (2002) continued his argument on behalf of the common man, offering scathing criticism of the corporate mentality that was dominating the record business more than ever, at the expense of artistic concerns. The lyrics to “Money Becomes King” yearn for the old days when average fans could afford concert tickets in great seats, before lip-synching, TV commercials, V.I.P. areas and other greed-driven developments changed the vibe: “As the crowd arrived, as far as I could see, the faces were all different, there was no one there like me, they sat in golden circles, and waiters served them wine, and talked through all the music and paid John little mind, and way up in the nosebleeds, we watched upon the screen they hung between the billboards so cheaper seats could see…”
In a 2002 Rolling Stone interview, Petty said, “Everywhere we look, all they want is to make the most money possible. This is a dangerous, corrupt notion. It’s where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things. That has made pop music the wasteland it is today. Everything – morals, truth, art – is all going out the window in favor of profit.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, though, Petty and the Heartbreakers were riding high with one success after another. The “Hard Promises” sessions spawned not only “The Waiting” but also Petty’s superb duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which appeared on “Bella Donna,” Nicks’ huge solo debut.
Heartbreakers LPs “Long After Dark” (1982) and “Southern Accents” (1985) both were Top Ten hits. A 1986 tour where Petty & Company backed Dylan broke attendance records at multiple venues. And that experience led to the fun, musically solid merger of Petty and Dylan with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison on “The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1,” which featured Petty’s vocals on “Last Night” and “End of the Line.”
In 1989, Petty decided to try a solo record (although he ended up using most of the Heartbreakers on most tracks anyway), and he ended up with perhaps his most popular album of all, the multi-platinum “Full Moon Fever,” with “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down.” The follow-up project, 1991’s Heartbreakers LP “Into the Great Wide Open,” nearly equalled the impact of “Full Moon,” with solid tracks like “Learning to Fly,” “Out in the Cold,” “King’s Highway” and the title cut.
Against Petty’s wishes, MCA released a “Greatest Hits” package in 1993, which included a new single, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” He later acknowledged the compilation was an attractive option for the casual fan who didn’t already own the original albums, and indeed, the “Best Of” CD remained on Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart for more than six years.
Petty’s second solo album, 1994’s “Wildflowers,” again emphasized his acoustic side, with fine tunes like “Don’t Fade on Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “It’s Good to Be King,” “Only a Broken Heart” and the title song, which recall Neil Young and Dylan more than The Stones and The Beatles.
The late ’90s proved to be a challenging time for Petty, with a few more departures from his customary routine. He and the band regrouped to provide soundtrack music for the Cameron Diaz-Jennifer Aniston film “She’s the One,” which included work by other artists as well. Then the Heartbreakers lent their talents to Johnny Cash for his new record, “Unchained,” which won a Best Country Album Grammy. But behind the scenes, Petty and his wife of 22 years divorced, which sent him into a spiral that included heroin use. He bounced back somewhat by using the experience to write his darkest album yet, the Heartbreakers effort, “Echo.” Then, after his friend Harrison died of cancer in 2001, Petty joined in a group effort with Lynne, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others for the superb “Concert for George” concert and subsequent CD the following year. Petty contributed covers of “Taxman,” “I Need You” and “Handle With Care.”
So many of Petty’s songs, even those from later releases like the bluesy “Mojo” (2010) and the rocking “Hypnotic Eye” (2014), have hit resoundingly with his fan base, which, by the way, covers at least three generations of music lovers now. “I know the songs mean a lot to people, and that means a lot to me,” said Petty recently. “Rock ‘n’ roll is more than just something that you can manipulate into advertising, or whatever they do with them. It means way more than that to me, and apparently to others as well.”
In 2007, Petty had reached a point in his career where he could indulge himself a bit, so he surprised fans and Heartbreakers colleagues alike by reuniting Mudcrutch for an album and a tour, and then a second LP in 2016. Mike Campbell, a member of both groups, said, “The beauty of this is Tom wanted to connect with his old friends, and with the pure joy of revisiting the energy we started with. It’s been very, very spiritual. It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”
A few years back, Petty reflected on his career, and his strengths and weaknesses. “I don’t have a trained singing voice, and I sure didn’t get into this to be a pinup,” he said with a chuckle. “Some people are so good looking they can’t help but be a poster boy, but I’ve certainly never been saddled with that problem.
“I wanted to be taken seriously as far as writing songs and making music are concerned. As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song, or album for album. What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work – the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask for.”
R.I.P., Tom. Although you left us an enviable catalog of great music, you and your brand of authentic American rock will be sorely missed.