On the Life and Times of Tom Petty

Tom Petty, on Vine Street in Hollywood, 2016. Photo by Paul Zollo

Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still

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I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing

From “Learning to Fly”
By Tom Petty

“I don’t want to be one of those people who are miserable even when they’re successful,” he said in our first interview, back in 1994. “That’s not the way I want my life to go.”

He learned early on that none of it mattered, the music, the band, the success, if he was unhappy. Gradually, and with the real love of his beloved wife Dana, he succeeded in creating a life of calm and joy even while spinning in the very heart of a rock and roll hurricane for four decades. Though the life and times of Tom Petty were never simple or without challenges, he was never derailed, and he came up with ways of making it all work. “I’m not sure if people know,” he once said, “but those crowds at my shows – they’re downright frenzied.”

But his authentic connection with the muse, and with the electric current of rock & roll, empowered him over those years to transcend the frenzy. He knew as long as he stayed plugged into that source, and never took it for granted or tried to fake it, that he could not only maintain but prosper. Asked for the secret of his onstage joy, that infectious spark which has been igniting reverent rock and roll fires for decades, he said it was all about truth. Faking it, in rock & roll, is simply not an option. Not for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, anyway.

“The secret, really,” he said, “the most important thing, is: Have a good time. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ve got to take it seriously enough that it happens. But don’t let anything throw you. You can’t be thrown by something breaking, or this or that. You’ve got to remember that they all came to see you, they like you [laughs] and all they want to do is see you and hear you play some songs.”

“If you keep it on that level, and be sure you’re enjoying it,” Tom continued, “then that will carry and they’ll enjoy it… If I go up there and really enjoy myself, it’s going to travel, and [the audience] is going to pick it up in the furthest regions of the room … So I always try to enjoy it. And the audience sustains me. That is the truth.”

The truth. It’s where his journey began and ends. And the truth was that there was nothing Tom Petty loved more than music. Since he was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida, it was everything for him: his joy, his passion, his solace, his escape, his dream come true. And he never wavered from that love. “A lot of my friends,” he said, “they love to go to Hawaii or play golf or something. This is what I love to do.”

That love for all aspects of his work, from the songwriting through the record-making to live performances and touring, sustained him over the decades, and never was removed from his work. Not once did he allow himself to become disengaged for long. Plugged directly into the original juice of rock and which flowed through Elvis into The Beatles, The Byrds, The Stones and the other bands that electrified his youth, Tom never abandoned that authentic passion. His music was based on that simple, visceral equation of electric guitars, bass, drums and keys united in song, always playing together in a deep pocket as only a solid unit can. Even in the studio, he knew the key to capturing the essence of rock and roll was when the band played together. Sure, he could overdub parts and add a lot afterwards. But it all started with the band playing it live, just as the Beatles always did, creating an energy that cannot be created in any other way.

Even among legendary songwriters, his extraordinary instinct for writing songs which appealed to a vast swath of humanity was exceptional. His popularity expanded incrementally over the years, and by the time of “Free Fallin’” and other hits from Full Moon Fever, he crossed over all demographics to appeal to everyone from young kids to old timers in a way few rock artists have done since The Beatles. Back when music acts were divided up into those with youth appeal who went on MTV, and those on VH1 who skewed older, Tom & The Heartbreakers were on both.

“Demographics,” however, was a word Tom hated and refused to use. To him, that kind of thinking – how best to divide an audience for maximum marketing potential – was antithetical to the spirit of rock and roll. His goal was never to direct material to any one segment of the populace. It was the exact opposite, and audacious as it might seem, he wanted to write songs all people of all ages could love. Few things made him happier than knowing that his music appealed to kids. “I get a lot of letters from little children,” he said. “And I really like that, because little kids don’t lie.”

More than anything, he was never phony. He knew rock and roll was about real musicians playing together, and whether live or in the studio, and recognized that the energy of live performance was the fuel for his rocket ship. To the very end, his final show of his final tour, September 25, 2017 (preserved here in these photos), he remained dynamically and directly connected to the source. After having completed a “really long tour,” as he put it, that started in April of this year, he seemed happier than I’ve ever seen him. He was home again, in his element, at the historic Hollywood Bowl on the same stage where his beloved Beatles performed, and at the immense helm of a cherished band of world-class musicians. All was right with the world. Though word circulated that this could be his final tour, Tom looked so happy and sounded so strong that no one believed for a second he was ready to stop. Never did the idea occur that this was to be his last show ever.

Still it doesn’t seem possible. Tom was such a force of nature, and such a positive one, that the thought of a world without him simply seems wrong. How is it possible that Bob Dylan is still alive and kicking, while Tom – his little brother in the Wilburys – is already gone? To quote Bob, it’s the sign of a world gone wrong.

People come, people go
Some grow young, some grow cold
I woke up in between
A memory and a dream

Let’s get to the point
Let’s roll another joint
Let’s head on down the road
There’s somewhere I gotta go
And you don’t know how it feels
You don’t know how it feels
To be me.

From “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
By Tom Petty

He made it seem easy. All of it: writing songs, making records, giving concerts. Because Tom was real, always invested completely in the art and science of authenticity, and because his songs sparkled with a charming and direct simplicity (hence their almost universal appeal), many made the false leap that it was all effortless for him. That was the exact impression he intended to make, as rock and roll, in terms of songwriting, production and live-performance, must never seem labored. It’s about spontaneous passion, not calculations contrived to deceive. There was nothing at all deceptive or false about anything Tom did; not in the musicianship of the band, the level of the songwriting, or the production of his albums. None of that could be faked. That is real magic. Unlike the illusory magic of magicians, writing and recording a classic song is no trick. It’s authentic magic, impervious to time.

When a great one came through him, such as the haunting “Southern Accents,” which he wrote at about 4 am on the piano in his home studio, it thrilled him. “It was one of the best songs I ever wrote,” he said. “It just appeared. I did it all real fast on the piano. I taped it on a cassette deck. I loved the bridge. The bridge was what made it for me, when I found that. I hit those chords. Sometimes you have a lot of tries for a bridge. I actually hit those chords on my first pass … It’s what makes you keep doing this, when you get something like that. I don’t remember a lot of them, but I remember playing that cassette over and over again. I stayed up all night. I couldn’t possibly go to sleep. I was so excited. I wanted to play it for somebody.”

That great bridge revolves around a dream vision of his mother, similar to “Let It Be, “another elegiac piano ballad. When asked if he ever heard it referred to as his “Let It Be,” Tom said, “No, but that’s a pretty good analogy for that one.”

There’s a dream I keep having
Where my mama comes to me
And she kneels down over by the window
And she says a prayer for me

I got my own way of praying
And every one’s begun
With a southern accent
Where I come from

From “Southern Accents”
By Tom Petty

But although “Southern Accents” came through him, as did “Wildflowers,” those were exceptions. Still people would hear a song which seemed to spill directly from Tom’s rock and roll heart into his songbook – such as “Free Fallin,” or “You Don’t Know How It Feels” – and conclude it just arrived, with no coaxing from its creator. In fact, Tom worked hard on every aspect of his work. As he explained, it takes a whole lot of effort to make the thing appear effortless. After Tom worked on it long enough that the work doesn’t show, the whole thing zips by in about three minutes, creating the sense that he doesn’t write these songs, they simply arrive.

In truth, he wrote his songs in any and every way there was. Some remained unfinished for a long time, such as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” for which he wrote a chorus a full year after writing the verses.

Sometimes he’d finish all but one tiny part of a song. A perfect example is the classic “You Wreck Me,” which grew, as have many of his great songs, from seeds planted by Mike Campbell. Mike’s way was to give Tom a cassette tape containing many tracks of music, to which Tom would write a song.

Tom was both quite crafty when it came to ingenious songwriting and construction, but also had a lot of respect, as well as patience, for this dynamic of discovery. “You Wreck Me” took almost a whole year to complete. Sensing that the title would be three syllables, he had “You Rock Me” for many months, which fit metrically, but never felt right to him. When he finally arrived at “wreck,” he knew he’d gotten there, a new instant classic that only took a year to finish. It’s powerful proof of the pure patience and endurance required to do what he did.

Now and again I get the feeling
Well if I don’t win, I’m a gonna break even
Rescue me, should I go wrong
If I dig too deep, if I stay too long

Oh, yeah, you wreck me, baby
You break me in two
But you move me, honey
Yes you do

From “You Wreck Me”
By Tom Petty & Mike Campbell

It was on the occasion of the 1994 release of Wildflowers, his second solo album that our first interview happened. Still living in his Encino home then with his first wife Jane and his two daughters, he was brimming with joy about Wildflowers. That record, with brilliantly intimate songs like the title cut, “You Wreck Me,” and “Crawling Back To You,” reflected a songwriter at the very peak of his powers. Unlike so many greats who peaked decades earlier, here came Tom after the early triumphs, after the remarkable and joyous reinvention of Full Moon Fever, with a new album overflowing with every kind of song under the sun – from gentle acoustic ballads to pure electric rock and roll – each completely invested with the heart and soul of the songwriter.

In fact, even since Full Moon Fever, with its bounty of greatness, including his most famous song ever, “Free Fallin’,” it seemed that Tom’s connection with the rock & roll muse had only intensified over the years. Hearing those songs – the playful lyrics, the beautifully infectious melodies, the warm and rich textures, the impassioned vocals, the resplendent harmonies – was hearing a songwriter in love with the art and craft of songwriting itself. That brutal judgmental part of himself seemed to have been jettisoned so that he could get out of the way to plug directly into the source in a way few songwriters have ever done with such consistent purity.

Asked if those songs emerged more from leading them or following, he said, “More like just letting them happen. Getting out of the way.”

Letting on that I was a fellow musician and that I was stunned by the organic, unforced and joyful nature of his new songs, all of which shone as evidence of a songwriter in love with songwriting, his eyes sparkled with happy concord that the full meaning and moment of his journey was understood, and our conversation instantly deepened.

Like Lou Reed, who said that if you tell journalists of the true mystic dimensions of songwriting they will ridicule you, Tom was reticent to shine much light into the mystery with most journalists. But musicians to musicians always open up, sharing a common language, and Tom was happy from the very start to discuss this thing about which he had gained so much wisdom and expertise over the years with someone who understood what it all meant.

It created a bond of trust and mutual admiration that extended over many subsequent interviews for different magazines – and one for a United Airlines inflight audio entertainment show – and ultimately led to the great honor for me to collaborate with him on a full book of conversations with him. That became Conversations with Tom Petty, published in 2005. Doing that book required me to spend more than a year of Saturdays with Tom, discussing in depth all facets of his life and career.

Working on the book with him was truly joyful. By 2004, when the work commenced, he’d gotten remarried to his beloved Dana, and moved into his sprawling Malibu mansion just off the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s there, in his little recording studio, where we met mostly, though on a few occasions we’d meet instead at his other Malibu house, a charming little cottage right on the ocean where Dana painted and kept her art supplies. (“This is where we rough it,” Tom said of their hide-away. “We even make our own beds here!”)

As he kept rock & roll hours his entire life, our meetings never commenced prior to noon, soon after his wake-up time. He’d arrive sometimes sleepily, but never in a bad mood. Always ready to work, and with a happy spirit that buoyed my own, he not only made doing the book easy, he made it fun.

Usually we’d meet in his home recording studio, where he used a conga drum as a table for the little bottles of cold Coca Cola we always drank. Always attired in something cozy and often whimsical – big colorful cardigan sweaters, funny knit caps, big fur-lined boots, – he always devoted ample time and thought to answering my endless questions. He loved that I would show up, as he wrote in the intro, “ridiculously prepared, to the extent of knowing how to play the songs himself.” This was true, as knowing the song from the inside out, and understanding its ingenious architecture, is the only way to truly discuss the totality of a song with its songwriter. 

He appreciated the singular focus on songwriting and the creative process maintained in our previous interviews, which led us to the concept of doing an entire book of conversations that would focus entirely on his songs and his songwriting, as opposed to a biography about his life.

That was the original idea. But almost immediately after doing a couple conversations, it became evident to both of us that all his songs were about his life, and his entire life was built on song. And so what started as a book about art, creativity and music became a book about being an artist in the world, and all it entails.

At the same time, we did focus intensely on each and every song and record he’d created up to that moment, including discards later used in his boxed set. After a session in which several songs were named about which he had little memory, he suggested that from now on we plan in advance the ten or so songs we intend to discuss. He was a pro, that way, and took everything he did seriously. For the rest of out time working on the book, he’d spend a week doing homework prior to each interview, listening to and reflecting on his past songs and records.

His comprehensive answers and memories about all these records – even quite obscure ones – astounded many readers and reviewers who simply couldn’t fathom that Tom Petty – a rocker who had famously championed weed in several songs – possessed a memory so sharp as to recall every song and every record he’d ever made. He found that funny.

In addition to shining light into the origins of all his songs, he also divulged the truth, as he knew it, about his personal origins. All sorts of rumors abounded about his history, including the notorious assertion that the Pettys moved to Florida because Tom’s paternal grandfather, Pulpwood Petty, killed a guy in Georgia.

Tom confirmed that this was the story his father told him, though not till later in life. “My grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian,” he said. “My grandfather was a white guy. She was a cook in a logging camp. He worked there. They made [the timber] into pulpwood. He married my grandmother, which was not popular, to mix the races.”

Fearing they could be in danger, his grandparents attempted to flee with a horse and wagon in the middle of the night. Suddenly stopped on the road by several guys, “some kind of violent situation came down about him being with an Indian. Somebody got insulted, and my grandfather ended up killing a guy.”

Had that murder never occurred, the history of American rock & roll as we know it would have been written differently.

It was me and my sidekick
He was drunk and I was sick
We were caught up in a barroom fight
Till an Indian shot out the lights

From “Crawling Back To You”
By Tom Petty

Growing up in Gainesville, Florida wasn’t easy for this tender, slender, sensitive and musical boy. His father could be wildly unhinged, a man who was forever driving his car into ditches. An insurance man who loved to fish and hunt, he had no love for Tom’s long hair, grown out then in 1965 to emulate the Beatles. But he did appreciate and even encourage Tom’s musical proclivities, buying him his first guitar, a Stella, when Tom was 12.  Often when his dad would have a friend over, he’d tell Tom to come out and play a song.

Frequently, though, his father would force him to come along on the boat for fishing, or on a hunt to shoot quail or some other easy target. Tom hated every second of it. “It was kind of mandatory for a while that I went with him,” Tom said. “But I never liked it. My dad was a hard man. Hard to be around. He was really hard on me. He wanted me to be a lot more macho than I was. I was this really sort of tender, emotional kid. More inclined to the arts than shooting something.”

His father’s behavior always could surprise and even scare Tom. Most notably the time they were out fishing, and a large gator came right up to the boat.

“I actually saw my dad take his forefinger and thumb,” Tom said with awe, “and punch the eyes in on the alligator. To show me that he could knock the alligator out.”

Even while saying it, he seemed to disbelieve it himself, and echoed it as if to convince himself. “Took his thumb and forefinger and pushed the alligator’s eyes in! The gator rolled over in the water.”

“He was nuts,” Tom said of his dad. “And he wasn’t afraid of anything. I once saw my dad grab a rattlesnake by the tail, swing it round his head, and pop his neck. That’s pretty wild shit, you know?  So I was kind of scared of him.”

His father’s attitude towards him mirrored how he was treated by most of the town. In Gainesville, Tom couldn’t get hired anywhere with his long hair except for one job. Grave digging. “Actually, “ he said, “there wasn’t that much grave digging. Mostly it was mowing the lawn.”

Since he was a kid, he had an uncanny knack for memorizing nursery rhymes perfectly, a skill which extended to songs as soon as he started collecting 45s. Like a musical sponge, he’d absorb every record he could get, with an early love of rockabilly. It was an education that served him well. At twelve he started playing guitar, and with only two lessons took to it naturally. Almost as soon as he could play and learn new chords, he started writing his own songs. Songwriting, like playing guitar, came instinctively to him, and he loved it. His first was called “Baby I’m Leaving,” and had four chords: C, F, G and A minor. A crafty songwriter from the start, he was especially proud of that A minor.

As soon as he started writing songs he never stopped. Being in a band was all that mattered, a vision galvanized the first time he saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. From that day forward, he was a changed man.

“Once we saw The Beatles,” Tom said, “we were never the same. There was nobody else with a self-contained band like them. The only bands I had seen were at the teen rec center, and they played surf music. Pop stars were not self-contained units then. I’ve never even dreamt of that. To me, I would have loved to have been a rock & roll star. But I just didn’t understand how you got to be a rock and roll star. How did you suddenly have a mohair suit and and orchestra?

“But the minute I saw The Beatles – and it’s true of thousands of guys – there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit and you make the music. And it looks like so much fun.”

He never looked back. His first band was the Sundowners, formed on the spot when a pretty girl whose name was Cindy Crawford (not that one) asked him if he had a band for the school dance. “Yes, I do,” he lied, and then went off to assemble one. They rehearsed in his living room: three guitars all plugged into one Silvertone amp, a sax and drums. They learned four instrumentals. The first time they played together, Tom said, was “the biggest rush of my life.”

Their first performance was such a triumph that they repeated their set of the same four songs later in the night. Afterwards, a guy said he could get them gigs at fraternity parties if they learned new songs. Tom leapt at the chance, and playing in bands was his life and his love from that moment on. With the Sundowners gigging often, he started making more money than he did at the graveyard. Other local bands, such as The Epics, noticed him and invited him to fill in for their bassist, eventually convincing him to leave The Sundowners to join their band. He did.

That band gradually morphed into the band Mudcrutch. It was then that two future Heartbreakers came into his world, both remarkable virtuoso musicians from the start, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench.

Campbell, who Tom said was as great then as he is today, was so much greater than anyone Tom had ever heard he knew Mike had to be in his own band.

Benmont, who is three years younger than Tom, was still just a kid when they first met years earlier. But he was no normal kid; he was a musical prodigy, a fact made exceedingly evident when he sat down at the organ at the local music store and played all of Sgt. Pepper. Years later Tom realized that same amazing kid was a teenager now, and enlisted him for his band.

Mudcrutch became quite popular in Gainesville, playing bigger and bigger shows until the day came to follow their dream, and go to L.A. to get a record deal. So naïve was Tom about how the business worked, he came to town with a list of record companies, went to Ben Frank’s diner on the Sunset Strip, and started calling them to announce his arrival. No one told him it wasn’t done this way. Remarkably it worked, and he got offered a record deal.

More than once music execs told him they liked him, but persuaded him to drop the band idea. They told him they saw him as a solo artist, and offered substantial bucks if he’d drop his band. He refused. Unlike the traditional music business method of walking over your friends to get to the top, Tom Petty was always loyal, and always dedicated to his band. The first album came out in 1977. Consecutive masterpieces followed, and decades of hits and amazing songs. Forty years later, on September 25, 2017, they performed their final show at the Hollywood Bowl at the top of their game. Tom went out at the very height of his powers. 

Working on the book with him almost every week for more than a year, I came to feel his emotions powerfully as he related chapters of his life both happy and dark. The happy chapters came across with infectious joy, exactly like that which he projects onstage performing with the band.

But his sorrow was also palpable, and several dark chapters of his life came with a heavy, foreboding darkness that was impossible to ignore. The darkest of all and most difficult for him to was the story of Howie Epstein, the bassist he heard in Del Shannon’s band and brought to the Heartbreakers when Rob Blair left. Tom loved Howie for his bass playing, but said there were a lot of great bassists. The thing that really won Howie the job, Tom said, was his singing. He could always perfectly nail the harmony parts. “And when you’re a Heartbreaker,” Tom said, “you need to sing your harmonies perfectly.”

But Howie’s heroin addiction gradually overcame his life, and he started messing up, missing recording sessions, and not even showing up for the photo shoot for Echo. Tom loved Howie and gave him many chances to mend his ways, but to no avail, and Tom had no choice but to fire him. Tom never saw him alive again. Soon after that, Howie’s dog Dingo died, and the next day Howie overdosed and died.

Tom told the Howie story slowly; it was clear it was really hard for him to talk about it. The darkness was in the room, like a giant boulder weighing down on him. Yet he persisted, and told me all the sad details. He got the news of Howie’s death from Dana. It crushed him. “Even though we had all seen it coming,” he said, “it’s still really hard to believe when it happens.”

Afterwards Tom was especially drained and down. It took a lot out of him. That night he did something he never did before. He called me up. In his soft drawl, he said, “Hey, would ya mind doing me a favor? I was doing some thinking about our Howie talk today, and it just seemed way too dark and sad. Would you mind terribly throwing that all out so we can start over?”

That said so much about Tom, about what a genuinely kind guy he was, and also such a loyal friend. It hurt him that the only portrait of Howie he painted was this dark, desolate one, which left out all the good parts. It mattered so much that he wanted to start over completely, which is exactly what we did. The second time around, which is the part used in the book, began and ended with happier memories of Howie.

Looking back at that section now, the saddest part is Tom’s experience of watching Howie performing with the band on TV, and describing the surreal sorrow of seeing his friend still so alive, still in the pocket, yet knowing somehow he’s gone. It’s exactly the same way so many of us, those whose lives have been forever enriched and illuminated by his songs, feel today about Tom. It simply seems impossible that someone so vital, so fundamental to our lives, so evidently alive in every way, could truly be gone.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” Tom said of Howie.” I saw a rerun the other night of when we did `Saturday Night Live.’ And there he was, and he looked so vibrant and healthy, the way I remember him most. He was just the sweetest person. I never heard anything but positive statements from him. He was never negative, and he always looked for the good in things. And it’s weird, because he hasn’t become like a photograph to me. He’s still 3-D.” 

Somewhere, somehow, somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you wanna lay there
And revel in your abandon

Honey, it don’t make no difference to me, baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You don’t have to live like a refugee

But just as substantial as was his sorrow when relating dark chapters was the sense of joy he radiated when detailing happy ones. Except for the story of falling in love with Dana, no chapter was related with more pure joy than his time with The Wilburys. It was a time and a project unlike any other in his life, based purely on the love of songwriting, making music and being in a band. It wasn’t about commercial success or creating a hit (though they created several). It was about the joy of making music with friends. Friends who happened to be five of world’s greatest living musicians, each of whom had made a significant impact on the arc of popular song.

It all started, as is famously known, as a lark dreamed up by George Harrison of forming a a dream band of his favorite friends and musicians. He enlisted Tom, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan first, all of whom immediately accepted. To entice their ultimate dream singer, Roy Orbison, to join the band, they got a limo to Anaheim, where Roy was performing, headed straight to his dressing room in Anaheim to invite him in-person. Hearing Roy say, “Sure, I’ll do it. I’ll be in your band,” was one of the most exultant moments of his life. “We were just high as kites on that ride home,” he said. “A natural high. Roy Orbison was going to be in our band!”

Making the Wilburys records was pure fun. Recording the first album at Dave Stewart’s home studio in Encino, the five Wilburys would meet every morning, each with an acoustic guitar, and write a new song then and there. Everyone would toss in lines. Endearing songs of great charm quickly emerged, each of which would be recorded that very day, following a great meal prepared by their chef. It was the very rare instance of five legendary artists making music entirely for the joy of it. And that joy, like the passion projected by The Heartbreakers in every show, is genuine and infectious, and injected directly into those Wilburys tracks. If ever you feel like connecting with the ecstatic joy Tom felt making that music with those friends, it’s preserved there forever.

Learning to fly, as Tom wrote, isn’t easy. Though becoming a rock star as famous as The Beatles was always his aim, adjusting to fame and becoming an icon was not something he took to naturally. Always grateful for his vast network of fans around the world who sustained his career with fervent loyalty and love for over forty years, he was nonetheless reasonably cautious about getting too close to those who become dangerously fanatical. In 1987, a woman who claimed to love him set fire to his Encino home. To save his wife, daughters and housekeeper, he had them all immediately leap into the swimming pool.

That came only seven years after Lennon was shot dead by a fan. But it was the attack on George Harrison’s life that darkly haunted him forever. He never got past it. He and George were more than friends, Tom always said. They were brothers. And George of all people was, as the world knows, one of the most spiritual, peaceful and beautifully centered souls around. So for him to be attacked in his own home, as he was on December 30, 1999, was a brutality far too horrific for Tom to digest, and forever darkened his outlook.

“George was attacked much more brutally, much more viciously, than they let on,” Tom said. “They didn’t want people to know the extent of it. But it was way worse than people knew.”

I’m an insider
I’ve 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

From “Insider”
By Tom Petty

Although he worried about his safety, Tom also wanted to live as normal a life as possible. Though often accompanied by his pal and driver, Bugs, he refused the advice of those who insisted he enlist a bodyguard because, as he said, “I don’t want to walk around with a gorilla.”

Still at times there was a sense that Tom felt somewhat trapped by his celebrity. He described fame to me once as being similar to “going to a party with your psychiatrist.” By which he meant that everyone would scrutinize his every move, his every word, and rarely just let him be.

He also told me a few rather scary stories about being in public when veritable mob-scenes erupted around him, triggered by some guy spotting him and announcing to the world, “Oh, my God, it’s Tom F—ing Petty!” These near-riots would both shake his car and rattle his soul, leading him to conclude that staying home behind his big walls was the safest thing to do. True to his nature, which was genuinely humble and grateful,  he phoned me the night after telling me that and other horror stories of crazed fans, with a gentle suggestion.  “Hey, you know,” he said, “I was thinking, maybe we should just cut out all that stuff out that we talked about today. Nobody really wants to hear Tom Petty complaining about how hard it is to be a rock star.” 

In recent years however, he showed up at many public events, including his pal Jeff Lynne’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony, at which he spoke. Following that, he generously signed autographs for every fan who asked for one. Among the vast legion of Hollywood autograph collectors, he was adored. Said one about him, “That dude never said no! I love Tom Petty.”

Sometimes you’re happy,
And sometimes you cry.
Half of me is ocean,
Half of me is sky.

But you got a heart so big
It could crush this town.
And I can’t hold out forever
Even walls fall down.

From “Walls”
By Tom Petty

Though he could get dark, he had a good sense of humor about himself. Often he’d refer to himself laughingly as “Tom Petty,” underscoring the surreality of being an icon. In the movie Waterworld he played himself – Tom Petty – but far into a very watery dystopian future. While working on the book, he told me he kept in shape by a variety of means, including kick-boxing, “because no one wants a fat Tom Petty.”

It’s a long day living in Reseda
There’s a freeway running through the yard
I’m a bad boy cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breaking her heart

And I’m free
I’m free fallin’

From “Free Fallin’”
By Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne

When Tom first met those who had been the early idols of his own existence – such as Harrison and Dylan – he learned to dampen his own tendency to deify them. It’s the reason he’s not only a beloved artist but also, like George, a famous friend. Those who loved him knew a warmth and loyalty that was the essence of the man. He was, above all, real. And for that reason, even those that became rock gods before him became best pals with Tom Petty.

This included even the guy Tom considered the cagiest and most mysterious of all. Bob Dylan. George Harrison and Dylan had become good friends and co-writers years earlier, and both warmly welcomed Tom into their fold. Tom said he realized, both from getting to know Dylan and also reading his book Chronicles, (which Tom loved, and said was like a great epic poem) that even Bob was human, and like him, needed people in his life who knew that.

“I saw a lot of people running circles around Bob and being afraid of him,” Tom said. “I always found that if I asked Bob a direct question, I would get a direct answer. So maybe our friendship wasn’t that difficult, because I made up my mind that I would treat him like anybody else, though I was certainly in awe of his talent. But people are just people.”

The single aspect of Dylan that most impressed Tom  was his essential honesty, and lack of pretension about himself. “One of the nicest things about Bob,” Tom said, “is that he’s an honest guy. Really, really honest. Not someone who would ever lie. Not someone who would blow his own horn … He has insecurities like everyone else has. When you’re that famous, people just don’t give you that benefit of the doubt. They kind of just assume that you understand how great you’re supposed to be. But the truth is, you’re only a human. And you still go through everything that humans go through.”

But being human isn’t always easy, and many times Tom projected a perpetual yearning to transcend his own daily discontent. He touched on this most poignantly in his beautiful song from Wildflowers, “Crawling Back To You,” a rarely performed ballad that he included in his final tour:

I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things that I worry about
Never happen anyway

From “Crawling Back To You”
By Tom Petty

As those who knew him knew, Dana was his saving grace. She arrived like an angel in his life at a time he so needed one, and helped him turn his car around forever. They met at one of his shows in Texas, described by Tom as love at first sight. “I never believed that was true before,” he said. “But it was.”

Soon after that first meeting, long before they got to know each other, he dreamt of her face. It was a vision which surprised him, because he knew what it meant. It was a dark time in his life, having recently left his family to move into the Chicken Shack, a little cabin off of Sunset Boulevard. It’s there he wrote “Angel Dream,” a song of love and redemption which he said she inspired “word for word.”

I dreamed you
I saw your face
Caught my lifetime
When drifting through space
I saw an angel
I saw my faith
I can only thank God it was not too late

From “Angel Dream”
By Tom Petty 

Dana’s love, both for the man and his music, went a long way in giving Tom that peace for which he yearned. When they first started spending time, he let her know that he never listened to his own music. She told him that was a problem because she loved those records and played them a lot. He said, “That’s fine. Just don’t play them anytime I’m around.” He tried to explain that it was impossible for him to hear them without painful analysis of every aspect, especially all the imperfections.

She wouldn’t have it. In time she gently eased his resistance, and helped him appreciate the true and positive impact of his music in the lives of so many. It was an awareness that initially threw him, so entrenched was he in his thinking. But after listening to his classic albums with Dana, a weight was lifted from his soul. “I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by it,” he said. “I hear [the music] and go, ‘God that wasn’t a waste of time. We really did do something that is pretty good.”

Sure, “pretty good” is a serious understatement for what he did. But it speaks to her profound impact on his life and spirit. Not only did she give him a more expansively generous estimation of his own work, she kept reminding him everyday, in gentle ways, of the true magnitude of the blessings in his life.

“She reminds me,” he said, “that I shouldn’t’ take for granted what’s happened to me, the life I live … My life is no easier than most people’s lives. Success doesn’t solve all your problems … So it’s good to have someone who can bring you around and remind you that we’re okay, we love each other, and everyone’s healthy, and the bills are paid. So why are you upset?”

Her daily impact on him, forever brightening his spirit anytime she was near, was touching to witness up close. While working on the book, she frequently appeared with a warm smile and maybe some smoothies – or delicious home-made chili she’d just cooked up – and his aspect would be instantly eased, and that sparkle would return to his eyes. It was true love.

A world without Tom Petty in it. It’s not something that we, his fans forever, are prepared for in any way. But the music remains. He left us behind a bounty of songs and records so timeless, true and inspirational that they will enrich our lives forever. He gave us way more than anyone has any right to expect. Had he written only one song at the level of “Free Fallin” or “Insider” or “Southern Accents,” he’d be an artist we’d revere forever. But he did so much more. He devoted nearly forty solid years to writing and recording the purest, truest rock & roll he could coax out of his soul. And not once did he let us down.

He found great joy and took genuine pride in writing songs. Asked how long that heady glow of satisfaction from writing a great one lasted, he said, “It can last for years.” Being a songwriter in the world, he knew, was an important job, and he felt lucky that he had a natural instinct for it, and the ongoing capacity for being a constant receiver over the years. To enunciate one’s world view in a way both poetic and musical, as he put it, was a great and rare blessing. “It’s a gift,” he said. It’s not something you learn, or get out of a manual. It’s just a gift.”

Few gifts ever made him happier. He loved the way a song could suddenly come alive after never existing. And though it was something he rarely expressed, it also gave him solace and some measure of joy to know that his music would live on beyond him.

“It always feels good to finish an album,” he said, “because I’ve done it long enough to know these things are gonna be around a lot longer than me. It’s something that wasn’t there and now it is … I love that about art. You just created something and now it’s here and it could be here longer than you.”

You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free.

From “Wildflowers”
By Tom Petty

Behind the Song: Little Big Town, “Pontoon”