Heartland rocker with dark streak was a radio staple for decades
Tom Petty, the Southern-accented rocker whose classic melodies and dark storytelling created 40 years of hit songs, died on Monday of cardiac arrest, his family said. He was 66.
Petty, who sold 80 million records, passed away Monday evening surrounded by loved ones after a confusing day in which several media outlets reported and then retracted premature news of his death. “On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” a family statement said.
Early on Monday, Petty suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, exactly a week after he triumphantly put on what would be his career-capping concert. The rocker had wrapped up a tour celebrating 40 years of his band The Heartbreakers with three sold-out shows at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. He closed the encore with one of his earliest and best-known songs—“American Girl,” which tells of an ambitious girl “raised on promises” but now contemplating suicide, set to electric guitar harmonies from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
The song was one of many by Petty about struggling to overcome long odds.
“I Won’t Back Down,” perhaps his best-known song, took on a second life as a U.S. patriotic anthem after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The singer and guitarist—recognizable for his shoulder-length blonde hair—delivered his vocals in short punches that showed an underlying bitterness, such as on “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” or with a wistfulness as on “Free Fallin’,” a breakup story that ends in loneliness for all.
The rocker’s characters—small-town Americans full of aspirations but running into a wall of setbacks—reflected the hardscrabble early life of Petty. His grandfather was a logger from Georgia rumored to have fled south to Florida after axing a man to death in an argument. Petty was born in Gainesville in northern Florida to a belligerently drunk father who sold wholesale tobacco and candy. Petty recalled that his father, intoxicated and unimpressed by his son’s passion for music, once smashed up the boy’s record collection.
The future rocker said he told him, “Dad, if you’ll just leave me alone, I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.” And his remark proved prophetic.
Petty, speaking in 2015 to Men’s Journal, credited his mother Kitty with saving him by reading to him, introducing him to pop standards and showing him “there was more to life than rednecks.” But he remained haunted by his father and consumed by inner rage.
“Any authority I didn’t agree with could just make me go crazy,” he said of his early adulthood. He struggled with depression most of his life and formed an addiction to heroin, although later in life his only substance was marijuana and he calmed himself with transcendental meditation.
Petty embraced the American South, especially on his 1985 album Southern Accents, but with a sound that was more Florida quirky than hillbilly. The album’s song “Rebels” spoke of Southern mischievousness while the trippy “Don’t Come Around Here No More”—co-written with David A. Stewart of The Eurythmics and accompanied by an “Alice in Wonderland” themed video—cemented Petty’s standing among stoners.
“‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ changed the way I looked at songwriting and production. So odd and complex yet direct all at once,” the indie rocker and producer Jack Antonoff wrote on Twitter.
Touring the United States for Southern Accents, he pinned up a Confederate flag on stage—a move he later regretted, telling Rolling Stone that “people just need to think about how it looks to a black person” as he likened the controversial symbol to a Nazi swastika.
In a speech in February as he was presented a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys, Petty said he owed his greatest debt to African-Americans such as Chuck Berry who created rock ‘n’ roll. But he discovered rock ‘n’ roll thanks to Britain when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
“I had my eyes opened like so many others and I joined the conspiracy to put black music on the popular white radio,” Petty said.
In the late 1980s, Petty joined one of The Beatles, George Harrison, in a supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, which also featured Bob Dylan. The project was short-lived after the death of another member, Roy Orbison.
The three-time Grammy winner was steadfast on artistic control and earned a reputation for battling with the music industry—most memorably with the 1981 album Hard Promises after he was angered by his label’s plan to price it higher than usual.
More recently, English singer Sam Smith agreed to credit Petty as a songwriter on his worldwide hit ballad “Stay With Me” due to the similarities—coincidental, by all accounts—in the chorus to the worldwide hit “I Won’t Back Down.”