Tom Petty never felt above us. The hit records and sold-out tours never stopped, and he counted Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, and so many more legends among his friends—yet he still felt down to earth. It was as though he was our representative among those storied artists, like a fan had snuck in and grabbed the last seat at the table with the big boys.
And now he’s gone.
Tom Petty died on Monday at UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, surrounded by family, his bandmates, and his friends, longtime Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers manager Tony Dimitriades said in a statement. Petty had suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu early Monday and could not be revived. He was 66.
"It’s shocking, crushing news,” Bob Dylan said in a statement to Esquire.com. "I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Born in Gainesville, Florida, on October 20, 1950, Petty rose to legendary status as the frontman for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. He was also a co-founder of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. Just last month, he’d wrapped a 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
It was an unlikely story: The small town boy with the abusive father, who’d scaled unimaginable heights after being inspired by a childhood handshake from Elvis Presley while on the set of a movie in Petty’s hometown, only to become a legend in his own right. But no matter how easy he made it seem, Petty was an artistic giant, even among his legendary friends. He had innumerable hit records—Damn the Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, and his first number-one album, 2014's Hypnotic Eye. Of course, there were hit singles, too: “Breakdown,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—plus a shelf full of Grammy Awards, a George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement, an ASCAP Golden Note Award, a Billboard Century Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and he became a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016.
His songwriting seemed simple, almost effortless. In fact, it was unique and economical, full of memorable lines and musical hooks. His singing was often jeered at; sent up on Saturday Night Live. But it, too, was unique, as well as expressive and singular in a way that only the greatest singers are. When Tom Petty opened his mouth, you knew he meant what he was saying. And, of course, he was the consummate bandleader, taking his Heartbreakers from little more than a collective dream to the mountaintop, and sustaining that, wowing audiences for four decades, night after night on grueling tours long after he needed to, and holding it all together in the process.
But in person, it was hard to reconcile all that accomplishment with the person standing in front of you. When I first met Petty, at a Manhattan event for the launch of his 2010 album Mojo, he was exactly as you might imagine: intense, sure, but also warm, funny and relaxed. We talked about touring and songwriting, and he bemoaned having to recently retire a beloved Gibson acoustic guitar on which he’d written almost all of his hits. A rock and roll fan, too, he was also happy to share stories about Dylan and Orbison and Harrison, seeming almost as amazed as I was that he counted those legends among his closest friends.
All the while, it was hard to forget I was talking to Tom Petty, but, of course, that was a large part of his appeal.
That's because Tom Petty really did seem to be one of us. His music has been so ubiquitous for so long, we've probably taken him for granted more than we should have. But his catalog boasts some of the greatest songs of the past 40-plus years, if not the entire history of rock and roll.
TOM PETTY'S CATALOG BOASTS SOME OF THE GREATEST SONGS OF THE PAST 40-PLUS YEARS, IF NOT THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL.
In fact, there’s not a bad Tom Petty record. Pull him up on Spotify, and marvel at just how many songs you know—and love—and how every album he released had at least a fistful of true gems.
"We've always been a great band, but we've really blossomed in an unexpected way and this album really showcases that,” Petty told me in 2010 with his characteristic humility. “I always say that, but this time there's something really special going on."
Then he squinted at me and smirked, just the way you’d imagine Tom Petty would, and we both laughed.
"Well, you must be real proud of this one," I said. In his trademark southern deadpan, Petty grinned at me again, and without hesitation replied, "Shit yeah!"
Of course he was right, though. The Heartbreakers never lost their fire. Instead, unlike so many of their contemporaries, who toured to support greatest hit collections or playing classic albums from start to finish, they seemed to grow only better with age.
Last summer, at Forest Hills Stadium, in the midst of the band’s 40th anniversary tour, Petty and company seemed almost ageless. I’d seen them countless times, and of course they were older. But for two hours, in the Queens heat, they played a set chock-full of hits and with a large helping of deep cuts; they seemed to turn back the clock.
With all the battles he fought over the years—with everyone from the record labels heavies who’d sold his contract out from under him or raised the price of his albums without his approval, to politicians using his music to promote their “outsider” status—it was easy to see that Tom Petty had a chip on his shoulder. But, as he joked to me that night in 2010, having a father that beats you up regularly will do that. So he never felt as though he fit in, and he had to do it his own way, while never, ever selling out. That he found rock and roll, and channeled that rage into being the absolute best artist—always true to his heart and his beliefs—is something that we all, and most especially his peers, should take note of.
Ultimately, though, as effortless as he made it seem, and as graceful as he was holding down center stage for more than 40 years in front of the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty earned his seat at the high table of rock and roll, and then some.
In the summer of 2016, backstage at New York City’s Webster Hall, I watched as Petty and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, along with the reunited members of Petty’s first band Mudcrutch, jammed with The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Using little practice amps and singing just loud enough to hear themselves, they were preparing for McGuinn’s guest spot with the band that night. Although McGuinn was only scheduled to play “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Lover of the Bayou” with the band, the group of musicians, with grins on their faces, played on, trading licks and digging deep into the catalogs of Bob Dylan and The Band. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience.
But, most of all, I’ll remember Tom Petty, with a beaming smile on his face, ceding the vocals to McGuinn and guitarist Herb Perderson, plucking a bass, lost in the music. He seemed the happiest I’d ever seen him, onstage or off, lost in the magic of the music he loved so dearly.
BY JEFF SLATE