Why Tom Petty Was Hard to Kill

This is a guest post, authored by my friend Mark Kaufman. 

[Image Credit: Flickr user Musicisentropy / Mark kaufman]

[Image Credit: Flickr user Musicisentropy / Mark kaufman]

Killing Tom Petty wasn’t easy.

The formidable grunge wave of the nineties couldn’t make him irrelevant. The demise of a 22-year relationship that precipitated an oppressive depression and sent him retreating to an isolated cabin in the woods couldn’t do it. A father that “beat the shit” out of him couldn’t do it. Heroin failed. And an arsonist who burned down his house couldn’t do the trick.

In the end, some biological cowardice snuck up on Petty when he wasn’t looking: cardiac arrest.

Thomas Earl Petty died at 66 at 8:40 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. But the reaper couldn’t take Petty until after he wrapped up his 40th year of touring with rock and roll’s steadfast engine, his band the Heartbreakers. Although they were unaware of it at the time, the band played its final show at the Hollywood Bowl last week, on Sept. 25. 

After some 50 tour dates, Petty ruminated that although the band would never stop playing, this would likely be his last cross-country endeavor. In his usual, humble form, the reason Petty cited wasn’t about him.

“I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one,” Petty told Rolling Stone in December. “We're all on the backside of our sixties. 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."

Petty was a family man, but for those that only knew him from afar, watching him on stage and cranking his music (which is uncannily appropriate for all occasions), Petty’s departure also came at the most inopportune of times: He was getting better.

While Petty’s Greatest Hits album was released back in 1993, his greatest album wouldn’t be released until 1994. Every tune on Greatest Hits is acclaimed and classic, and rightfully so: “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” are a few. But classic rock – mostly – met its demise in the nineties, painted over by the thick distortion of The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Yet as the nineties veered away from Petty’s straight-ahead, everyman rock and roll, he stayed plugged in, and became more relevant than ever. In 1994, he proved his immortality with the release of Wildflowers at the age of 43. Rock and roll, like jazz, is not easy to define, but this is what an authentic rock and roll band sounds like. The guitars, assiduously honed by Petty and his swashbuckling accomplice Mike Campbell for years, sound like you’re standing in the room with them. There’s not a lick of artificial sound. It is stripped down rock and roll played in a big way. 

Back then, at 10 years old, I stuck my nose against the T.V. screen and waited for his songs to pop up on MTV, which were an anomaly nearly drowned in the alternative tide. Here was this sleepy-eyed fellow, with strikingly straight blonde hair, singing words that made as much sense to a boy as an adult, and doing it so coolly, without angst or bravado. In a sea of young rockers like baby-faced Weezer and Green Day, I couldn't help but wonder who this idiosyncratic fellow, as old as my parents, was.

As I got older, Petty only got better, and badder. In 2001, with a nation unsettled by crashing airliners, collapsing towers, and thousands dead, Petty took the stage at a 9/11 benefit show. The Heartbreakers played their gritty, first-curling “I won’t back down,” and Petty stared squarely into the camera for nearly the entire performance, at whoever might be watching. In 2002, Petty and The Heartbreakers released The Last DJ, a concept album about one of the last freeform rock radio DJs still around, Jim Ladd. The band then released its last studio album in 2014, Hypnotic Eye, which, after nearly 40 years of music, landed Tom Petty and Heartbreakers their first number one finish on the Billboard charts. With Campbell and Petty’s vintage tube amps blazing, the Heartbreakers play heavy, crunching guitars and even hit tempos faster than Petty played back when he was a spry 25, around the time when Nixon ordered his cronies to burglarize The Watergate Hotel.

Tom Petty and Mike Campbell on stage at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2012. [Image Credit: flickr user Takahiro Kyono] 

Tom Petty and Mike Campbell on stage at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2012. [Image Credit: flickr user Takahiro Kyono] 

Near Petty’s end, a misstatement by the LAPD resulted in the national media claiming that Tom Petty had died in the early afternoon of Oct 2., at a hospital in Santa Monica, Ca. Petty, though, wasn’t dead, although circumstances sounded grim.

Remember, it’s awfully difficult to kill Tom Petty. Via Instagram, his bleary-eyed daughter, Annakim Violette, reminded Rolling Stone of this, one of many publications that rashly concluded that Tom Petty was already dead: “My dad is not dead yet but your fucking magazine is.”

Petty’s extended time in our realm allowed the Heartbreakers – a band Petty began carefully piecing together over four decades ago when he couldn’t even afford a car – to join their captain in his final hours at a Santa Monica hospital. This included Petty’s now-legendary guitar sidekick, Mike Campbell, who Petty met in a neighborhood of Gainesville, Fla. so rough that Petty’s unnerved driver peeled off, leaving him stranded and alone to jam with Campbell.

Back then, in the sticky panhandle heat, they picked up their guitars, and Campbell proceeded to display a mastery of Chuck Berry licks. It was in that moment that Petty decided he and Campbell would be playing together in perpetuity. Even then, the rocker knew that death would have a hell of a time taking him out: He looked up at Campbell and said, “You’re going to be in my band forever.”