I hope you get a chance to listen to my Spotify playlist. I dug deep, consulted some lists, etc. Kudos to fellow blogger Tony at Mumbling About for turning me on to “Room at the Top” and the gorgeous “Angel Dream.” Also to the original excitable boy Christian who turned me on to Petty’s live versions of “Green Onions” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” I also managed to squeeze in some Wilburys and Mudcrutch.
“It’s sad that he’s gone,” said his old cruising pal, Bruce Springsteen, “but it was nice to be alive in his lifetime. Good songs stay written. Good records stay made. They are always filled with the promise and hope and life essence of their creator. Tom made a lot of great music. Enough to carry people forward.”
“By the early 80’s, the lifestyle of Tom and the Heartbreakers was pretty much set – hit the road, record, come home for some quality time with the family (Tom had two daughters – Adria and Annakim), hit the road, record, Rinse. Repeat. As you can imagine – and as we already know about the rock and roll lifestyle – that takes its toll. Tom stayed married to his wife for 14 more years but even at this point wanted out.
The other thing that was happening in this time period was that MTV was in full swing. For its first couple of years it was massively popular. The Heartbreakers took full advantage of this and came up with some pretty good videos.
The Petty composition, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” with its video of Kim Basinger as a dead woman got mucho air play. Kim was a massive Petty fan so she was happy to do it and loved playing dead. (Actors!)
It was around the time of making the Southern Accents album that Petty’s frustration began to grow. Jimmy Iovine had moved on and Tom could not get a mix better than the demo he had done. So in frustration, at his home studio, he punched the wall, shattering the bones. It took him eight months to heal.
While Petty was, of course, the band’s main songwriter, Mike Campbell was also writing tunes. One day he presented a song to Petty and Iovine (who came back to help) and the song was pronounced “too jazzy.”
Hearing that Don Henley was looking for a collaborator, Mike brought the song to him. They worked on it together and lo and behold, instead of “The Boys of Summer” being a smash for the Heartbreakers it became one for Henley. To Petty’s lasting regret.
In 1985, due to a chance remark from Bob Dylan, a regular event called Farm Aid was started to help farmers. Dylan had met Petty, liked his stuff and asked the Heartbreakers to back him which they did. He also asked them to go on the road but Tom was torn between home life and the road. He agreed then told his buddy Stevie Nicks he was not going to go.
“Oh yes, you are going,” said Stevie.” You can’t cancel on Bob fucking Dylan.” (Tell it, Stevie!) She then acted as the go-between with Tom and his wife so Jane would go on the road with him. She wouldn’t do it so Stevie did. (A lotta trust there, folks. Stevie was hot.) While the band enjoyed playing with Dylan, they felt somewhat disconnected from his music.
Back from the tour, Petty, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne kept bumping into each other in LA. Not only did Petty and Harrison become good friends, so did their wives and kids. Somehow this Scouse-speaking Liverpudlian and the drawling Floridian struck up a genuine relationship.
Harrison had already been hanging around with Jeff Lynne who produced his 1987 album Cloud Nine. It was inevitable that Tom would get to know Lynne through the Harrison connection. One day Petty picked up his guitar and started strumming. Hearing the changes, Lynne said “Free Fallin’.”
Petty liked it, they took it and ran with it and it became the kickoff to Petty’s Full Moon Fever, co-produced by Lynne. (I have a random memory of being in San Francisco around this time waiting for a cable car. Some dude was strumming his guitar and singing this to a bunch of German tourists who were lustily singing along.)
The world loved this song but the other Heartbreakers (Campbell played on Full Moon) were less than thrilled with Tom making a solo album while they were expecting to make a Heartbreakers record. “Full Moon Fever,” said Tom, “was about having a little fun on my own, a break from the pressure of thinking about where the Heartbreakers should go next.” Lynne managed to get both Del Shannon and Roy Orbison to sing backup on this album. (You know where this is going, right?)
Petty and Lynne convinced Dylan to start a band. One night they went to see Roy Orbison perform and pretty much begged him to be in the band. (Orbison, for the record, is worshipped by singers for his great emotive songs and his three-or-four octave range.) Harrison: “What I’d really like to do next is … to do an album with me and some of my mates … It’s this new group I got [in mind]: it’s called the Traveling Wilburys, I’d like to do an album with them and then later we can all do our own albums again.”
Their debut album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (co-produced by Otis Wilbury and Nelson Wilbury) was released in late 1988. “Handle With Care” had started out as a Harrison B-side but quickly became adopted by the Wilburys and became a hit. They recorded a second album but alas, Orbison died a few months after Vol. 1 was released.
All of this didn’t sit well with the tight unit that was the Heartbreakers, especially Stan Lynch who comes across as an “us against them” guy, us being the band and them being Tom and his collaborators. (Or as often as not, just Tom.) Sometimes Tom would sit in the back of the bus by himself. But the guys managed to pull it together for an album called Into the Great Wide Open. “Learning to Fly” was a big hit but I’ve also always really dug the title tune:
Petty had by now hooked up with uber-producer Rick Rubin who LOVED Full Moon Fever. In working with the band on their Greatest Hits package, he somehow managed to rub Stan Lynch the wrong way. Or maybe things had just come to an end.
Whatever, Lynch had had it, felt that Rubin was pushing him in the wrong direction. And walked out. He was replaced by Brit drummer Steve Ferrone whom Campbell had met at a Harrison gig. Ferrone was the drummer till the band’s end.
Wildflowers, said Petty, was his divorce album. He wrote the title song initially not even realizing it was about him till a shrink pointed it out:
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free
Run away, find you a lover
Go away somewhere all bright and new
I have seen no other
Who compares with you
Petty moved out and took up with a woman named Dana York whom he’d met at some of their shows. And meanwhile, the mental illness that Jane had been suffering from made itself more manifest. (She’d been known to threaten suicide.) When Dana wasn’t there, he felt the pain of separation from his band and his wife. And with not much to protect him, in the early ’90’s he slipped into using heroin.
Realizing he was sinking like a stone, Tom managed to clean up his act by going to rehab and detoxing. “I probably spent a month not getting out of bed, just waking up and going, ‘Oh, fuck.’ The only thing that stopped the pain was drugs. But it was stupid. I’d never come up against anything that was bigger than me, something that I couldn’t control.”
Bassist Howie Epstein wasn’t so lucky. “He was just degenerating on us to the point where we thought keeping Howie in the band was actually doing him more harm than getting rid of him,” said Petty. “His personal problems were vast and serious.” The cover of the band’s 1999 album Echo doesn’t have Epstein in the shot as he could not make it to the session. That was Howie’s last album with the band. He died in 2003 at the age of 47.
I should mention that in 1992, Tom was one of the performers at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden, a show that by all rights I should have been at. There are some smashing performances on the album. (Clapton’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is one of the most thrilling blues numbers I have ever heard.)
But I happened to hear guest DJ (on the Sirius Petty channel) Stewart Copeland play “My Back Pages” and totally dug it. Performers on this are Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, G.E. Smith and Steve Cropper. Beat THAT with a stick.
Earl Petty died in 1999. (Tom’s mother Katherine had died in the late ’70’s.) Tom went back for the funeral. In a “if it wasn’t so fucking sad it’d be funny” story, Earl’s twin sister Pearl showed up and tried to get Tom to sign a bunch of stuff so she could cash in. (Earl was no prize either. He used his name as Tom’s father to get laid all the time but I don’t know why women would give a shit about that.) George Harrison died of cancer in 2001. He was weakened after some fucking nutjob broke into his house and stabbed him.
And by 2001, the world of music was changing. Tom and the guys were still touring but they weren’t churning out hits. And rock was no longer the dominant force having given way to hip-hop and whatever else was on Top 40. It wasn’t Tom’s time anymore and he knew it.
Mike Campbell had kept in touch with original bassist Ron Blair over the years. He invited Ron down to jam in some workshops at his house. When Tom found out about it, he asked Ron to join the band on tour. And just like that, Blair – after a twenty-year hiatus – rejoined the band, replacing his own replacement. This turned out to be just the tonic that the band needed to keep it together.
In 2007, For their 30th anniversary, Petty allowed director Peter Bogdanovich to make a four-hour documentary of the band called Running Down a Dream. It’s pretty good but doesn’t cover Tom’s heroin addiction as he wasn’t yet ready to talk about it. And while thinking back on the past, he got the perhaps crazy idea of putting Mudcrutch back together as a side project. The band did, in fact, re-form, release a couple of albums and even did a small tour.
Mudcrutch (l-r) Benmont Tench, Randall Marsh, Mike Campbell, Tom Petty, Tom Leadon
Meanwhile, Tom and the Heartbreakers kept doing their thang, touring and recording. It was all about the records for Tom.
And speaking of that, I just wanted to post a couple of tunes you may or may not have heard that I really dig. In 2010, they released what Tom called a blues-based album, fittingly enough entitled Mojo. Here’s a great, ballsy track called “I Should Have Known It.”
And from the band’s final album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, another hot track from the band. It seems like in their later years the band just said ‘fuck it’ and put the pedal down. Sounds good to me. Here’s “Playing Dumb.” (Not on Spotify as it was a bonus track or something.)
I think you know the rest of the incredibly sad story. On September 25, 2017, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers finished a three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl. On October 1st, the world first started receiving reports that Tom had gone into cardiac arrest. You probably recall that no one initially knew if he had passed away or was recovering. We were shocked, We hoped. We prayed.
Alas, his death came on October 2nd, 2017 at the age of 66.
An autopsy showed that Petty had any number of narcotics in him and the official cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest caused by an accidental prescription drug overdose. Tom had fractured his hip and by all measures should have been home recuperating. But in, I guess, the best “show-must-go-on” style, he refused to stop touring and kept taking painkillers. Had he stopped touring, as likely as not he’d still be with us. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just his time.
As mentioned previously, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. He sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
In April 1996, Petty received the George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. The next month, Petty won the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ Golden Note Award.
In September 2006, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received the keys to the city of Gainesville, Florida. Petty was honored as MusiCares Person of the Year in February 2017 for his contributions to music and for his philanthropy. Mike Campbell is #79 on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitarists.
You can still hear Tom’s music and his Southern drawl any day of the week on the Tom Petty channel on SiriusXM.
RIP, Tom Petty. We loved ya, man. You were a famous rocker but by all accounts, you were a regular guy. You always reminded me of that that cool guy in high school who was always just hanging around. “Hey, man,” he’d say. “What’s up? Got any weed?”
Stay cool, Tom. Don’t back down.