Behind The Song: “Insider” by Tom Petty

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Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Stevie Nicks, “Insider.”

“God, when I asked for a song, I didn’t expect this!”

The year is 1981, the guy talking is the producer Jimmy Iovine, and the song being referenced is “Insider.” It’s one Tom wrote as a duet to sing with Stevie Nicks for her solo album, Bella Donna, after both Jimmy and Stevie implored him to write a song for them. 

It was at the same time that Tom was in a legal fight against his record company to keep them from raising the price of his albums. It was a fight he knew he had to fight, as his allegiance to his fans was always his chief priority. He felt that if the label outpriced the product so fans couldn’t afford it, he’d lose everything he worked so hard to gain.

Though he expected some of his peers to join him, he was saddened that none did. But he did not back down, and ultimately prevailed. But it was a tough time for him having to put his music aside each day to go to court.

It was during this litigious season that “Insider” was born. It was a masterpiece. It surprised everyone, even Tom.

He found it to be so strong, in fact, that he changed his mind about it, as he related in our book Conversations with Tom Petty.

TOM PETTY:

“Stevie came to me around ’78. And she was this absolutely stoned-gone huge fan. And it was her mission in life that I should write her a song. And we were a little wary of Stevie. We didn’t quite know whether to like Stevie or not, because we kind of saw this big corporate rock band, Fleetwood Mac, which was wrong, they were actually artistic people. 

But in those days, nobody trusted that sort of thing and we just kept thinking, ‘What does she want from us?’

And then, of course, she turned into one of my great, great friends forever. But Stevie was really adamant about me writing her a song.

And so I think that around late ’78, she approached me about producing her first solo record. Now Stevie, there’s a Cecil B. DeMille movie. This is a person that’s larger than life in a hundred ways. And I loved her voice. I thought she sang great. And I said okay and I went down to the session to produce a record for her. I went down and I did one track and it was a completely different world from anything I had seen. Dealing with girls was a whole different thing and Stevie was in a whole different place than we were.

She was very sweet and we liked her. But she had just a whole different kind of work ethic than we had, and there were a lot of people.

Dealing with girls was a whole different thing and Stevie was in a whole different place than we were. She was very sweet and we liked her. But she had just a whole different kind of work ethic than we had, and there were a lot of people, lot of hangers-on. The whole Elvis kind of theme of a big entourage. We’d never been a very big fan of that. 

And so after a track I went, “Look I can’t do this. I don’t have the time. I’m too busy and I don’t think that I’m going to be a big help to you. But I know a guy who might be good for you named Jimmy Iovine.” 

So she did meet Jimmy, and he agreed that he would produce [Stevie’s album, Bella Donna]. He also wanted [a song] from me desperately. 

And so, as time went by, Stevie and I hung out a bit, we got to know her more and more, she would come over to my house and just hang out and play records or whatever. And we’d sing a bit. We used to sit around and play the guitar and sing. She’s incredible  (at singing harmony).  We could make a pretty good sound, singing with the acoustic guitar. 

And so finally I wrote her this song called “Insider.” 

[The title] came as I was writing, if I remember correctly. It just came out of the verse. I wrote that on my own at home. I remember spending a good day on it. And I was just knocked out with it when I got done. I was really proud of it.. I loved it. I thought it was one of my best songs to that point.  

I remember bringing it to Jimmy, and he just flipped over the song. He thought it was incredible. 

He said, ‘God, when I asked for a song, I didn’t expect this!’

I cut it there, just me and my guitar. 

Then Stevie sang it with me. And then we put the band on after. But by the time the track was coming to fruition with the band and everything, I was getting a little depressed about giving away this song. [Laughs]

I was really attached to it. And it really hurt me when I did the track and the vocals. 

So  I said, [softly] “Stevie, I can’t give you this.” 

And she said, “Well, I can relate to that. I completely understand. I’ll take something else.”

“Now, Stevie, there’s a Cecil B. DeMille movie. This is a person that’s larger than life in a hundred ways.”
Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

That something else was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which Tom had already written and recorded, though not as a duet. Iovine replaced Tom’s lead on the verse with one by Stevie. On the chorus she sang harmony to his melody.

It became a smash hit, leading many to conclude he’d written the perfect song for them. He did, but this wasn’t the one.

He included “Insider” on the next album “Hard Promises,” its title from the song’s chorus:

“I’m an insider, I been burned by the fire/And I’ve had to live with some hard promises/I’ve crawled through the briars
I’m an insider”

Some have interpreted these lyrics as referring to the fire at his Encino home, lit by a stalker. Though Tom saved his family (by having them jump in the pool), he lost almost everything except his Gibson Dove guitar. The damage to his home was terrible, but not as bad as the damage to his psyche, as he related, for the first time, in our book:

TOM PETTY:
I’ve never talked about this ever. Because it was such a shock. To have somebody try to kill you is a really bad feeling. And I never really wanted to talk about it in detail, because it frightened me so bad. I wouldn’t even use the word ‘fire’ in a song or anything. It really frightened me. They didn’t just try to kill me, they tried to wipe out my whole family.”

This happened, however, in 1987. “Insider” was written six years before that. As he said, he couldn’t even use the word `fire’ in a song after that.

But he could use the word before the fire at his home, and he did here. Given that, it’s chilling how “Insider” came through him with its incendiary language of being “burned
by the fire” and “crawling through the briars.”

It’s pure Tom. Tender but visceral, heartfelt, battle-weary,
romantic,
achingly melodic and prophetic.

Insider
By Tom Petty

You’ve got a dangerous background
And everything you’ve dreamed of
Yeah you’re the Dark Angel
It don’t show when you break up

And I’m the one who oughta’ know
I’m the one left in the dust
Yeah I’m the broken-hearted fool
Who was never quite enough

I’m an insider, I been burned by the fire
And I’ve had to live with some hard promises
I’ve crawled through the briars
I’m an insider


It’s a circle of deception
It’s a hall of strangers
It’s a cage without a key
You can feel the danger

And I’m the one who oughta’ know
I’m the one you couldn’t trust
I’m the lonely silent one
I’m the one left in the dust
(Chorus)

I’ll bet you’re his masterpiece
I’ll bet you’re his self-control
Yeah you’ll become his legacy
His quiet world of white and gold

And I’m the one who oughta know
I’m the one you left to rust
Not one of your twisted friends
I’m the one you couldn’t love

I’m an insider, I been burned by the fire
And I’ve had to live with some hard promises
I’ve crawled through the briars
I’m an insider

Tom Petty & Stevie Nicks, “Insider.”
Live at Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida, 2006.








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