By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
Tom Petty, an old-fashioned rock superstar and everyman who drew upon the Byrds, the Beatles and other bands he worshipped as a boy and produced new classics such as “Free Fallin,’ “Refugee” and “American Girl,” has died. He was 66.
Petty died Monday night at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles a day after he suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, California, spokeswoman Carla Sacks said.
Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers had recently completed a 40th anniversary tour, one he hinted would be their last.
“I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” Petty told Rolling Stone last year. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”
Usually backed by the Heartbreakers, Petty broke through in the 1970s and went on to sell more than 80 million records. The Gainesville, Florida, native with the shaggy blond hair and gaunt features was loved for his melodic hard rock, nasally vocals and down-to-earth style. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2002, praised them as “durable, resourceful, hard-working, likeable and unpretentious.”
“I’m shocked and saddened by the news of Tom’s passing, he’s such a huge part of our musical history, there’ll never be another like him.” Eric Clapton wrote in a statement.
Petty’s albums included “Damn the Torpedoes,” ”Hard Promises” and “Full Moon Fever,” although his first No. 1 did not come until 2014 and “Hypnotic Eye.” As a songwriter, he focused often on daily struggles and the will to overcome them, most memorably on “Refugee,” ”Even the Losers” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
“It’s sort of the classic theme of a lot of the work I’ve done,” he told The Associated Press in 1989. “I think faith is very important just to get through life. I think it’s really important that you believe in yourself, first of all. It’s a very hard to thing to come by. But when you get it, it’s invaluable.”
Petty didn’t just sing about not backing down, he lived it. In 1979, he was enraged when his record label was sold and his contract transferred. Stating that he would not be “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” he self-financed what became “Damn the Torpedoes” and declared bankruptcy rather than allowing his label, MCA, to release it. He eventually reached a new deal with MCA, for better terms. In the early 1980s, he was again at war with MCA, this time over the label’s plans to charge extra money, a dollar higher than the standard $8.98, for his album “Hard Promises.” He again prevailed.
Petty was both a musician and obsessive fan, one who met his childhood heroes and lived out the fantasies of countless young rock lovers. He befriended Byrds leader Roger McGuinn and became close to George Harrison, who performed on “I Won’t Back Down” and joined Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the impromptu super group the Traveling Wilburys. Petty inducted Harrison into the Rock Hall in 2004; two years earlier Dylan’s son Jakob inducted Petty. In the 1980s, Petty and the Heartbreakers supported Bob Dylan on a nationwide tour.
He would speak of being consumed by rock music since childhood, to the point where his father, whom Petty would later say beat him savagely, thought he was “mental.” Awed by the chiming guitars of the Byrds, the melodic genius of the Beatles and the snarling lyrics of Dylan, he was amazed to find that other kids were feeling the same way.
“You’d go and see some other kid whose hair was long, this was around ’65, and go, ‘Wow, there’s one like me,’” he told The Associated Press in 1989. “You’d go over and talk and he’d say, ‘I’ve got a drum set.’ ‘You do? Great!’ That was my whole life.”
By his early 20s, Petty had formed the group Mudcrutch with fellow Gainesville natives and future Heartbreakers (guitarist) Mike Campbell and (keyboardist) Benmont Tench. They soon broke up, but reunited in Los Angeles as the Heartbreakers, joined by bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. Their eponymous debut album came out in 1976 and they soon built a wide following, fitting easily into the New Wave sounds of the time.
The world changed more than Petty did over the past few decades. In 2014, around the time he received an ASCAP Founders Award, he told The Associated Press that he thought of himself as “kind of a music historian.”
“I’m always interested in the older music, and I’m still always discovering things that I didn’t know about,” he said. “To be honest, I really probably spend more time listening to the old stuff than I do the new stuff.”
Associated Press Writer Andrew Dalton and AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report.
Tom Petty a rock classicist from the beginning
By DAVID BAUDER, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Given the leather jacket and sneer Tom Petty wore on the cover of his 1976 debut, many people assumed he was one of those cheeky punks bent on tearing down the walls of rock ‘n’ roll.
He wasn’t. It’s not that Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, didn’t have their share of energy and attitude. But the kid from Gainesville, Florida, was a rock classicist to the core, and he built a body of work to stand with his heroes.
That debut contained songs that stood the test of time, the snaky “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” which so echoed the Byrds that it confused that band’s leader. “When did I record that?” Roger McGuinn recalled thinking when he first heard it.
Only a week before his death Tuesday night after suffering cardiac arrest, Petty and the Heartbreakers finished a triumphant 40th anniversary tour in his adopted Southern California home. His sturdy compositions built a discography so strong he couldn’t get to all of his hits. “The Waiting,” ”Listen to Her Heart,” ”Here Comes My Girl,” ”Refugee,” ”You Got Lucky,” ”Don’t Do Me Like That,” ”Even the Losers,” ”Don’t Come Around Here No More.” And so on. All are fist-pumping favorites.
It was melodic rock ‘n’ roll built with the solid structures of his favorites from the 1960s. Petty had an impish grin and playful drawl, and in concert he raised his arms to direct both his band and the thousands of fans singing along from the audience.
“‘Rock and roll star’ is probably the purest manifestation of the American dream,” Petty said upon his 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s a blessing beyond belief.”
As Petty and his band performed “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “American Girl” to the well-heeled audience, his daughters stood up and danced.
The Heartbreakers stood with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as one of the all-time great rock backup bands. Petty wouldn’t give ground: he added an expletive to his declaration on that night that the Heartbreakers weren’t just one of America’s best bands, they were THE best. Being able to stand onstage next to guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench made Petty the envy of many bandleaders.
Still, two key periods of his career came without the Heartbreakers.
“Full Moon Fever,” Petty’s first solo album in 1989, stands as the apex of his career. Working with producer Jeff Lynne, Petty fashioned a cleaner sound and created the classics “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” ”I Won’t Back Down” and, most indelibly, “Free Fallin’.”
He sings about “a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend, too.”
And the narrator admits, “I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her. I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart.” He had his own problems.
Petty was also a member of the temporary supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Lynne. Pulled together by Harrison to record a B-side to a single, “Handle With Care,” they soon realized that the song, and their sound, was too good to bury. It felt like a night at a Hollywood party, a bunch of rock legends break out the guitars, pour a few drinks, and maybe a few more, and trade lines with each other.
It’s a good life.
“It was a gift I was given and what it means I don’t know,” Petty said in a 2009 interview with The Associated Press. “Johnny Cash once told me, he said, ‘it was a noble job.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Well, it makes a lot of people happy.’ … It does. It makes a lot of people happy. You can lose sight of that. People come up to me on the street and tell me how some song played a role in their life or how it got them through a hard time or this and that and I just think, ‘Damn, that’s what it is about.’”
Like everyone’s, Petty’s path wasn’t always smooth. Biographer Warren Zanes’ book revealed that Petty slipped into heroin addiction in the 1990s. He recently told Rolling Stone that his use of a Confederate flag as a prop while promoting a 1980s album, “Southern Accents,” was a stupid move he regretted. He was frustrated when the passage of time took him out of the spotlight when he actually deserved it: the 2014 album “Hypnotic Eye” was excellent, but the pop world had moved on.
Last December, as he was about to embark on the anniversary tour, Petty told Rolling Stone that it would likely be his last big jaunt with the Heartbreakers. He had a granddaughter he wanted to spend time with.
It was easy to dismiss it then. Heck, they were too good and not that old, not really. His old buddy Dylan is 76 and constantly on the road.
Sadly, it turned out to be true.
Top photo: Billboard Magazine