LOS ANGELES – Tom Petty, an old-fashioned rock superstar and everyman who drew upon the Byrds, the Beatles and other bands he worshipped as a boy and produced new classics such as Free Fallin,’ Refugee and American Girl, has died. He was 66.
Petty suffered cardiac arrest and was found unconscious at his home in Malibu early on Monday morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived, his long-time manager Tony Dimitriades said in a statement.
“We are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” Dimitriades said on behalf of the family.
He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. local time surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.
Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers had recently completed a 40th anniversary tour, including stops in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa this past summer. He had hinted the tour would be their last.
“I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” Petty told Rolling Stone last year. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”
‘Likeable and unpretentious’
Usually backed by the Heartbreakers, Petty broke through in the 1970s and went on to sell more than 80 million records.
The Gainesville, Fla., native with the shaggy blond hair and gaunt features was loved for his melodic hard rock, nasally vocals and down-to-earth style. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2002, praised them as “durable, resourceful, hard-working, likeable and unpretentious.”
“I’m shocked and saddened by the news of Tom’s passing, he’s such a huge part of our musical history, there’ll never be another like him.” Eric Clapton wrote in a statement.
Bob Dylan called his death “shocking, crushing news” in a statement to Rolling Stone magazine. Dylan said in his statement that Petty was “a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Musicians and celebrities pay tribute to Tom Petty’s ‘legendary career’
Petty’s albums included Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises and Full Moon Fever, although his first No. 1 did not come until 2014 and Hypnotic Eye. As a songwriter, he focused often on daily struggles and the will to overcome them, most memorably on Refugee, Even the Losers and I Won’t Back Down.
“It’s sort of the classic theme of a lot of the work I’ve done,” he told The Associated Press in 1989. “I think faith is very important just to get through life. I think it’s really important that you believe in yourself, first of all. It’s a very hard to thing to come by. But when you get it, it’s invaluable.”
Didn’t back down
Petty didn’t just sing about not backing down, he lived it.
In 1979, he was enraged when his record label was sold and his contract transferred. Stating that he would not be “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” he self-financed what became Damn the Torpedoes and declared bankruptcy rather than allowing his label, MCA, to release it. He eventually reached a new deal with MCA, for better terms.
In the early 1980s, he was again at war with MCA, this time over the label’s plans to charge extra money, a dollar higher than the standard $8.98, for his album Hard Promises. He again prevailed.
Petty was both a musician and obsessive fan, one who met his childhood heroes and lived out the fantasies of countless young rock lovers. He befriended Byrds leader Roger McGuinn and became close to George Harrison, who performed on I Won’t Back Down and joined Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the impromptu super group the Traveling Wilburys.
Consumed by rock
Petty inducted Harrison into the Rock Hall in 2004; two years earlier Dylan’s son Jakob inducted Petty. In the 1980s, Petty and the Heartbreakers supported Bob Dylan on a nationwide tour.
He would speak of being consumed by rock music since childhood, to the point where his father, whom Petty would later say beat him savagely, thought he was “mental.” Awed by the chiming guitars of the Byrds, the melodic genius of the Beatles and the snarling lyrics of Dylan, he was amazed to find that other kids were feeling the same way.
“You’d go and see some other kid whose hair was long, this was around ’65, and go, ‘Wow, there’s one like me,”‘ he told The Associated Press in 1989. “You’d go over and talk and he’d say, ‘I’ve got a drum set.’ ‘You do? Great!’ That was my whole life.”
By his early 20s, Petty had formed the group Mudcrutch with fellow Gainesville natives and future Heartbreakers (guitarist) Mike Campbell and (keyboardist) Benmont Tench. They soon broke up, but reunited in Los Angeles as the Heartbreakers, joined by bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. Their eponymous debut album came out in 1976 and they soon built a wide following, fitting easily into the New Wave sounds of the time.
‘Kind of a music historian’
The world changed more than Petty did over the past few decades. In 2014, around the time he received an ASCAP Founders Award, he told The Associated Press that he thought of himself as “kind of a music historian.”
“I’m always interested in the older music, and I’m still always discovering things that I didn’t know about,” he said. “To be honest, I really probably spend more time listening to the old stuff than I do the new stuff.”
Petty gained a reputation for having an uncompromising vision. He severely damaged his hand after punching a wall in frustration over the slow progress of recording Southern Accents, which came out in 1985.
He also frustrated some of his bandmates, limiting their musical input and releasing Full Moon Fever as a solo offering.
In the book Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes, Petty revealed he struggled with a heroin addiction in the 1990s following the breakup of his first marriage. Bass player Howie Epstein, also struggling with a longtime addiction, parted the band and later died of a heroin overdose in 2002.
Zanes said in an interview with The Washington Post Petty had succumbed to the drug because he “had had encounters with people who did heroin, and he hit a point in his life when he did not know what to do with the pain he was feeling.”
Petty also suffered from depression, channeling his pain into 1999s Echo, during which he was also dealing with a divorce.
In 2002, he married Dana York and told Reuters that he had been in therapy for six years to deal with depression.
“It’s a funny disease because it takes you a long time to really come to terms with the fact that you’re sick — medically sick, you’re not just suddenly going out of your mind,” he said at the time.
The Associated Press