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Tom Petty: An All American Bad Boy Gone Too Soon

When Jakob Dylan inducted Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he shared the following story:

The first time I spent any time with Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers was 1986. It was not the first tour I had been on, but it was definitely the most excited I was, and I had planned on watching every moment from the side of the stage. Also on that tour were his two daughters. And I remember thinking "Jesus, your dad is Tom Petty!"

It's not that far-fetched to believe that Bob Dylan’s son admired and even idolized Tom Petty, just like the rest of us. At the same time, Petty seemed a brother, a son, or a close friend. He was a rock and roll everyman who fought for and got to live the American dream, who sang in plain yet eloquent words about our daily lives, love and loss, betrayal and coming of age. The effect of such music is cathartic. Who will write us out of our malaise now?

We weren't ready for him to go, and there's a lot to mourn in his sudden passing. He brought us decades of great music, was admired across generations of fans as well as his fellow musicians, and he had a sense of justice and dignity to top it all off.

Inspiration came early, but it took Petty a few years to find his voice and the recognition he deserved. And while he saw the magic in the music, he was technically gifted and worked hard to provide the right sound to carry the words. Other musicians were drawn to him for his talent and his camaraderie. He respected the music and his fans, always keeping it fresh and never selling out.

The King, The Beatles, and The Stones

Petty often told the story about meeting Elvis Presley when he was 10 years old. His uncle, a photographer, was working on Elvis's film "Follow That Dream," and he took Petty to the set one day and introduced him. In an early interview with Tom Bernard on the KQ morning show, Petty talked about how the encounter changed him.

Elvis appeared like a vision. It was like nothing I had ever seen. I was just dumbstruck. The music just hypnotized me. I played those records to the point that my parents began to worry about me. I didn't have the faintest dream of being a musician. I just loved to listen to it.

It wasn't until Petty saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show that he realized it was possible for real people to get together and form a band to play music. "You didn't need the orchestra coming out of the shrubbery and appear on the beach,” he told Jian Ghomeshi.

This distinction between the illusion that was Elvis and a more obtainable vocation as musician would become more pronounced as the British invasion continued its impact on the U.S.

The Beatles looked self-contained playing the music they wrote themselves. The music is all their own. They looked like they were having fun. But they were so good, even in ’64, that it seemed really hard to reach that kind of musicianship.

The Stones, however, provided a more realistic model for the type of music he would play. "They were grittier. It wasn’t complicated, and there wasn't a lot of beautiful harmony involved. That could be done."

Grit is just part of the Tom Petty American Bad Boy mythology. He did become his own man; he did take a small group of friends and create amazing music with them; and he never did back down.

Magic and the Dangerous Business of Songwriting

A love of radio and an appreciation for a well-turned lyric were part of the Petty formula. But there was another ingredient as well.

Petty often talked about how radio influenced him and introduced him to a wide variety of music as he was growing up in Gainesville. He's also recounted how he and his friends would copy the lyrics by hand, oftentimes waiting hours for the songs to be played over again so they could capture missed words.

Of course, he didn't know then that one day his own fans would memorize the lyrics to their favorite songs, too.

Generations of audiences have lost and found themselves in Petty's lyrics. This past week of social media tribute is only one example of the impact his words had on us. His songs were mostly about everyday life and love, the usual fodder for rock and roll, but captured with a certain blend of mastery and simplicity.

When asked about the power of words and his ability as a songwriter, Petty provided both mystical and down-to-earth reasons for his keen talent. As he told Ghomeshi:

It's a dangerous business looking into the germ that creates songs . . . I don't like to stare at that light too long. . . There's some kind of magic going on there. I feel like for some reason I was born with some kind of conduit there.

In a 2016 Billboard interview just before his induction into the Songwriters of Fame, Petty talked again about the mystery of songwriting and his way with words, but added more to the story:

Songs are kind of mystical and magical, there’s not a formula that brings them around, I don’t have a concrete method of doing it. Sometimes I sit down and wonder if I’ve ever done it before. It’s just something I was born with, mostly. A lot of areas that are hard for somebody else are really quite simple for me. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because my mother read a lot to me when I was a young guy. When I was two and three years old, she read a lot of nursery rhymes and things that were poetry. And I’m told that I had a really good memory, that I could memorize them all very young. My mom had a lot to do with making me aware of words, so that’s never been that hard for me.”

His inspiration seems similar to what many of us experienced growing up: Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and a host of other early influences brought to life via the radio and LP. Even mom helping to instill a love of words. But not all of us have the magic.


As far back as 1999, in a VH1 Behind the Music interview, Petty reflected on how he had changed over the years, how he’d mellowed out, but then his thoughts turned quickly back to the music.

I know I'm better at what I do than I was when I was younger. As a band we’re better. Those are the nice things about aging. Sometimes you do better at your craft.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were together for just over four decades, but it wasn't a purely monogamous relationship. During that time, they played for and with, and earned the respect of many of the biggest icons in the music business. In 1977, the band gained much needed but short-lived momentum opening for Nils Lofgren in Europe and for Blondie in the U.S., with many reviews favoring them over the headliners. Still, in those years, they had some ground to cover before coming into their own.

The band had already made it when Bob Dylan asked Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to back him at Farm Aid in 1985 and then tour with him in 1986. Playing 60 shows between February and August, Petty said it was educational for the band to be backing someone else up, to be following their lead.

Starting in the late 80’s, Petty started spreading his wings, engaging in collaborations that didn’t include the band, as with Full Moon Fever with Jeff Lynne and the spontaneous yet seminal formation of the Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Lynne.

Like the rest of us, Petty seemed to have been pretty amazed by the Wilbury experience, noting in a Traveling Wilburys documentary

I would listen to the music at the end of the day and say, "It’s just too good."

Petty would return to the Heartbreakers and would go solo again, but his last concert at the end of a 40-year career was with them. Along the way he recorded with the likes of Roger McGuinn and Johnny Cash, and took part in events such as the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992, the Concert for George (Harrison) in 2002.

Petty always appeared laid back yet able to shine among these stars. There's something to be said for that.

He had his own light, but he never used it to outshine his fellow musicians.

He did not back down.

There is a definite mythology to Tom Petty’s life. A young man travels west in search of a dream, leaving behind less dire circumstances than the characters in a John Steinbeck novel, but nevertheless, the journey seems epic. And it’s a very American thing.

  • He signs with a label within a week of arriving in L.A. and appears to be on a trajectory toward success. He and the Heartbreakers struggle for a while, not getting the airtime they need, playing less notable venues, warming up the crowd for the main act. Local boy does good. Sort of.

  • He takes on his record company when he feels he’s being mistreated, and rather than settle, files for bankruptcy. David to MCA’s Goliath.

  • He’s offered a better deal, career momentum continues to build, and then a still unidentified arsonist sets fire to his family home, leaving him, his first wife and child with virtually no physically possessions. He goes on tour three days later.

  • There’s more to the tale, including a second fight with the record company over their wanting to raise the cost of an album and his not wanting to (He won), a second marriage, period of bacchanal that led to drug use and eventual rehab, but the point is . . . He did not let any of this keep him down.

I guess you could say Tom Petty was a man of contradictions. He was a musician’s musician who also greatly valued his fans. He was aware of his tremendous gift for songwriting but he stood in awe of the talent he saw around him. He felt that the Heatbreakers were family, and yet, he took his time away from them to work on solo recordings and to record with friends. He had a gritty, nasally voice that could harmonize with nearly everyone, from Bob Dylan to Roy Orbison to Stevie Nicks.

He used his voice to entertain, and he raised his voice to speak up for what he thought was right.

He was very much his own man, an American bad boy who did a lot of good, much loved and gone too soon.

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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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