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Tom Petty performs on stage during a 1981 Irvine, California concert. George Rose/Getty Images

Tom Petty

‘Free Fallin”

From his stage presence to his fashion, Tom Petty electrified audiences for decades. Celebrated rocker Tom Petty died at age 66 after suffering cardiac arrest at his California home on Monday. Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is now gone, his music, his charisma, and his one-of-a-kind presence will live on.

After 40 years in the music industry, Tom Petty consistently stayed at the top of the charts.

But while his success never faltered, the “Free Fallin’” singer’s personal life wasn’t quite as smooth sailing. From suffering abuse as a child to going through a difficult divorce and subsequent addiction to heroin, Petty, fought through intense personal troubles to find ultimate happiness with his second wife Dana York.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recently completed a summer tour with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The trek marked the band’s 40th anniversary and found him playing rarely played deep cuts like their first album’s opener, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” and a selection of Wildflowers cuts. It was intended to be his “last trip around the country.” He said though, that it wasn’t his intention to quit playing. “I need something to do, or I tend to be a nuisance around the house.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing in 2017.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2002, praised them as “durable, resourceful, hard-working, likeable and unpretentious”. Petty was originally part of country rock band Mudcrutch, which gained regional popularity in Florida but did not attract a mainstream audience. They split after Petty and other members joined the Heartbreakers, later reforming in 2007. In 1977 the new outfit gained success with the song Breakdown, but it was their second album You’re Gonna Get It! that became a Top 40 hit. Throughout the 80s, the band enjoyed major hits including You Got Lucky and Change of Heart, collaborating with Bob Dylan as well as Stevie Nicks. Petty continued to work with Dylan as part of the Traveling Wilburys, alongside Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne.

“It’s shocking, crushing news,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in a statement. “I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.” Petty also enjoyed solo success but always returned to the Heartbreakers, releasing their final album in 2014. “I don’t see that I have anything to offer as a solo artist that I couldn’t do within the group better,” he told the Sun. “We get along so well it’s embarrassing really. It’s a love fest!”

The band had been on a 40th anniversary tour since April that finished last week at the Hollywood Bowl. In an interview with Rolling Stone in December, he suggested it would probably be his last. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s,” he said. “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.”

Throughout his career, he sold more than 80m records worldwide.

He escaped his dysfunctional home life by watching television and dreaming of going to Hollywood. Petty caught the rock’n’roll bug after he was introduced by his uncle to Elvis Presley, who was shooting the picture Follow That Dream on location in Florida in 1960. He said he began working on music in earnest after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. He would speak of being consumed by rock music since childhood, to the point where his father, 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 said 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.”

April 1974, Mudcrutch. After forming his earliest bands, the Sundowners and the Epics, in Gainesville, Petty finds himself in an Epics offshoot called Mudcrutch. By the mid-seventies, that band includes Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, both future members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. On this date Mudcrutch heads west to California in search of more and better.

Amid his successes, Petty also suffered dark periods during a career spanning five decades.

Tom Petty was born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida to Earl and Katherine Petty, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood. Petty was a Southern crap kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan to producing Del Shannon; backing Bob Dylan; putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne; making records with Johnny Cash; and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s life has all the drama of a rock and roll epic.

But beneath it all, there were personal and professional struggles that Petty, mostly kept out of the public eye. He had a contentious relationship with his father, Earl, who once beat him for shooting a slingshot at a passing Cadillac.

Petty opened up about suffering abuse at the hands of his father in Petty: The Biography, written by his friend and fellow rocker Warren Zanes.

Petty on being abused by his father

“I remember it first happening when I was probably 4,” recalls Petty. “Four, maybe 5, because it was a ’55 Cadillac. I had this crappy slingshot my father had given me, a plastic thing, the first one I ever had. I was in the yard shooting this slingshot. And cars are driving by. I’m just like, ‘I wonder if I can get a car.’ And whack! This big Cadillac. It was going by pretty slowly, and I just nailed the fin on that thing. The car came to an immediate stop. The driver got out, and he was so mad … I felt kind of weird; not ­knowing what was coming next. But when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt, and beat the living shit out of me. He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well. My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.”

Del Fuegos and Tom Petty. Photo: Alison Reynolds.

Born the son of an insurance salesman his father beat him and he didn’t perform well in school, but he found solace in music. Petty seemed destined for a future in rock and roll from the age of 11.

He met Elvis Presley when the King of Rock and Roll came to Gainesville in 1961 to shoot the film Follow That Dream. “[Presley] didn’t have much to say to us,” Petty recalled “but to a kid at an impressionable age, he was an incredible sight.” The next day young Petty traded his slingshot for a friend’s collection of Presley and Little Richard records. “And that,” related Petty, “was the end of doing anything other than music with my life. I didn’t want anything to fall back on because I was not going to fall back.”

Petty learned to play on a guitar purchased from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue, and by 14 he was playing with various Gainesville bands, including a bar band called the Epics and, ultimately, a country-rock band known as Mudcrutch. Part of the Mudcrutch line-up—guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench—would later become members of the Heartbreakers.

Tom Petty poses on March 10, 1977. Michael Putland/Getty Images

As a young teen, Petty liked art, clothes and wearing his hair long after the Beatles arrived on the music scene. His parents thought he was gay, but it wasn’t so – Petty had an eye for the ladies. If a girl in junior high school didn’t show him the same attraction he felt for her, he was traumatized and felt paralyzed.

‘When I got my feelings hurt, I really couldn’t have felt worse. It was physical. My throat clamped up, and I just wanted to die’.

‘As a young man and as a child… I was very sensitive, too delicate. When it came to emotional stuff, I could break like a twig’. Petty met Jane Benyo, his first wife, when they were both in high school.

Stevie Nicks, who had a longtime friendship with Petty, once asked Jane when she’d met him. ‘She said, “I met him at some point during the age of 17” ‘But I thought she said, “The edge of 17.” I said, “Jane, can I use that? Can I write a song called Edge of Seventeen?”‘ The young couple lived together in Gainseville as Petty’s band evolved and his ambitions grew.

Smoking cigarettes and ‘herb,’ playing songs and talking about how to make a record demo was a daily ritual with band members. The plan evolved to head for the promised land – Hollywood. Jane insisted they get married before they left Florida. Tom didn’t want to, but honoured his mother’s request to do ‘the right thing’. California was everything he dreamed it would be.

Petty rented a small house in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley and Jane started having babies – two girls – but this wasn’t the life that she envisioned.

It was a lonely existence with Tom rarely home. So she got high and drank to ease her loneliness and isolation. Tom’s music was drawing other artists to him and one of those seduced by the music was singer Stevie Nicks, from Fleetwood Mac, who suggested even before she met him that she would leave her monumentally successful Fleet group and joined what was by then Petty and the Heartbreakers.

There was a chemistry that Stevie called ‘intense, fiery’ as they worked and played together.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The band in 1977. From left: Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, Tom Petty, Stan Lynch, and Benmont Tench.

Tom Petty 1982.

She was doing a lot of drugs when she first showed up and indulged Jane who embraced it. Petty’s friendship with Nicks would finally be one of the few human constants in his life outside of his band, management, and crew. She’d come in and out over decades.
‘She came into my life like a rocket, just refusing to go away,’ Petty has said. Even Stevie realized there was a deep sense of connection in Tom and Jane Petty’s marriage – but it was a troubled dream that was falling apart. Petty arrived home from recordings session to find Jane passed out in the hallway – not from liquor alone. Touring on the road doing a lot of coke and then back home only briefly before hitting the road again and consuming more coke, Petty was now a rock ‘n’ roll star but his family life was decimated. By 1984, he knew he was leaving his marriage. Tom considered cancelling an eighteen-month road tour with Bob Dylan in 1986, because Jane was losing a fight with mental illness at their home in Encino, but Stevie convinced him to go. Stevie went along as well, ‘having a great time’ and joining them on stage.

Back in Los Angeles and off the road, Tom left his wife, moved into a house in the Pacific Palisades and suffered terrible pain and guilt over leaving his family.

Bob Dylan and Tom Petty pose at Farm Aid on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

November 1976. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After the break-up of Mudcrutch, Petty considers a solo career, if only for a moment. Feeling that he needs to have a band, he finds one at a session put together by Mudcrutch member Benmont Tench. The band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is born. On this date the group’s first album is released.

Tom Petty’s life was in shambles. His latest album, She’s the One, had bombed commercially, and he’d just fired his long-time drummer, Stan Lynch of the Heartbreakers, after years of acrimony. Even worse, his 20-year marriage had just come to a bitter end. Living in a tiny house he calls a “chicken shack,” he found a new way to deal with his pain: heroin. Before long, he was hooked. “Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work

Jane would call regularly, obsessively, and threaten suicide if he said he was hanging up. With his life changing and the emotional walls that Petty had formed in childhood, he was sinking into a deep depression. He entered therapy before getting divorced. A life of hell in Gainesville had segued into an abusive marriage. Nobody realized though that Tom was now using heroin – not even Stevie.

In the ’80s, a doctor warned Stevie Nicks that if she did one more line of cocaine, she’d have a brain hemorrhage. ‘I would never imagine, not in a million years that Tom Petty would start using heroin’, Stevie said. ‘I mean, we used to sit around and drink, and we did coke and smoked pot – and that was hard enough on us.

‘But if you’d have said to me that Tom Petty was doing that, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second’.

Bob Dylan and Tom Petty perform together on stage during their “True Confessions” tour in San Francisco in the summer of 1986. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Petty spoke about the death of his mother in 1980, right as he was reaching a new level of fame. By that time in the Damn the Torpedoes touring, the fans would be waiting for [The Heartbreakers], in hotels, at gigs, after shows. The group’s daily itinerary may as well have been a public matter. It was a part of rock’n’roll success that, fun at first, got old faster than other aspects. So Petty was happy to see that the hospital grounds seemed relatively quiet as they pulled into the parking lot that morning. A few people looked their way as he came into the building, interested but giving him space. Petty and [roadie Alan “Bugs”] Weidel got onto an elevator without commotion. As they would see, Kitty Petty was all but gone from this world, little more than a body. But that wasn’t what Petty saw first. Arriving in her room, looking at his mother, Petty saw himself. Several of himself.

“Someone had laid all these magazines with pictures of me on my mother,” remembers Petty. “On her chest and across her body. She was just lying there, beneath these clippings from magazines and newspapers. I walk in and … it was the strangest thing. I thought, ‘Even this moment, even this someone had to corrupt with some reaction to fame, or whatever this was.’ A nurse had gotten it into her mind that this would please the famous son of the hospital’s dying patient. It was a misguided gesture, innocent but stupid, that left him hollow.

The start of the 1980s found him working with others. Connecting with Stevie Nicks for a track on her Bella Donna record, the pair enjoyed a smash with 1981’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” That year he also produced Del Shannon’s comeback, Drop Down and Get Me. In 1982, “You Got Lucky” (Number 20) from Long After Dark, reiterated the veteran strengths of the Heartbreakers, but they suffered a bump in the road with bassist Ron Blair departure. It made room for the arrival of ex–John Hiatt sideman Howie Epstein. They instantly began work on a new disc. Three years in the making, Southern Accents was hard going; frustrated by the creative process, Petty punched a wall in the studio and broke his left hand. The album, co produced by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, found Petty achieving a new lyrical maturity and, with neo-psychedelic “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” scoring a Number 13 hit.

1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a breakthrough smash for Petty, but it almost didn’t happen: He, co-writer/producer Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and co-producer Jimmy Iovine made it in a recording session for Stevie Nicks.

“Tom had come down, and he liked what we were working on,” explains Nicks. “I was writing madly. I had my little book, and I was just writing, writing, writing. Tom, Jimmy and Dave were sort of talking. But it was five in the morning, and I was really tired. So I said, ‘I’m going to go. I’m leaving you guys, and I’ll be back tomorrow.’ I left, and when I got back the next day, at something like 3 p.m., the whole song was written. And not only was it written; it was spectacular. Dave was standing there saying to me, ‘Well, there it is! It’s really, really good.’ And they go to me, ‘Well, it’s terrific, and now you can go out … and you can sing it.’ Tom had done a great vocal, a great vocal. I just looked at them and said, ‘I’m going to top that? Really?’ I got up, thanked Dave, thanked Tom, fired Jimmy and left.”

Tom Petty performs on stage. 1982. Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In 1986, right before Petty and the Heartbreakers embarked upon a world tour with Bob Dylan, Petty’s house burned down (arson was suspected). His wife and two daughters escaped, but most of his belongings were destroyed.

Following a 1987 arson-induced fire that destroyed the Petty family home in California’s San Fernando Valley—a case that was never solved—Petty’s fortunes began to turn around when he became part of the Travelling Wilburys. A chance meeting with former Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne in Los Angeles led to Petty’s involvement in a gathering of rock legends that led to the creation of the Wilburys, which included Petty, Lynne, Dylan, former Beatle George Harrison, and the late Roy Orbison. The group got together to record strictly for fun under fictitious names and produced Traveling Wilburys, Vol. One, complete with wacky liner notes penned by Monty Python alum Michael Palin. The collection of acoustically based, good-time music won widespread critical acclaim and earned Petty a Grammy Award. The Wilburys reunited in 1990 to record their whimsically titled second album, Traveling Wilburys, Vol. Three.

In between the two Wilburys releases, Petty recorded his first solo effort, Full Moon Fever, which became the most popular of his career, selling three million copies in the United States alone and staying in the Top Ten—where it peaked at Number Three—for 34 weeks. The album spawned hit after hit, including“Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Hailing the album as an “infectious fever,” Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the Top 100 albums of the 1980s.

In 1991 Petty reunited with the Heartbreakers for the band’s ninth record, Into the Great Wide Open. Despite mixed reviews, the album sold one million copies within a month of its release and produced the radio hits “Learning to Fly” and the title track. The work also included the spirited “Makin’ Some Noise,”which revealed that Petty, despite the trials and tribulations of his traumatic rise to superstardom, has retained the inner urge to rock that moved him after his boyhood Elvis encounter.

In 1992 Petty signed a $20 million, six-album deal with a new label, Warner Bros. ’The deal was made [in 1989] at a time when Petty’s MCA albums weren’t selling well, “according to Rolling Stone.” Ironically, on the heels of the secret agreement [between Petty and Warner Bros.], his next album for MCA, Full Moon Fever, went triple platinum, and [Into the Great Wide Open] has sold more than a million copies.”The magazine also reported that Petty’s first album for Warner Bros, was not due to be released before 1995. Plans were underway in the meantime for a compact disc box set of the musician’s work.

Lifesaver: Tom Petty credits second wife, Dana York, with saving him after sticking by his side during a time when he was addicted to heroin and in a deep depression.

Tom met Dana York, who would become his second wife, at one of his concert in Texas in the early 90’s, but they didn’t reconnect until 1996 when Dana’s first marriage was over. Tom and Dana both felt as though they had known each other their entire lives and were fast falling in love. Tom was using heroin, but didn’t want Dana to know and kept it from her for a long time – while Jane called obsessively and threatened suicide. ‘I’d stepped onto a fast-moving train, but we were having moments of tremendous happiness. Chaos and darkness and all this happiness at the same time’, Dana Petty said.

But the elephant in the room was heroin. Petty’s therapist told him that ‘People with your level of depression don’t live. ‘They kill themselves or someone else’.

He was a man playing at the edge of death. It was Dana who saved him, Petty admits.

Petty revealed that he abused heroin in the 1990s. The drugs played what Petty calls their “dirty trick” on him, initially relieving his depression and then compounding it. “You start losing your soul,” he says, obviously troubled by the memory and ashamed to have found himself there. “You realize one day, ‘Shit, I’ve lost myself. I’m hanging out with people I wouldn’t be seen with in a million years, and I have to get out of this.’ I wanted to quit. Using heroin went against my grain. I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything. So I was always trying to figure out how to do less, and then that wouldn’t work. Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work. It’s an ugly fing thing. Really ugly. I fear that if I talk about it, people will think, ‘Well, I could do it and get off.’ But you can’t. Very few people do.”

Tom Petty photographed by Joe Pugliese in his Malibu studio on June 26, 2014.

Dana’s own father struggled with addiction most of his life so she understood the complications and was willing to stand by him. Tom was hospitalized when he admitted to his therapist that he was a drug addict.

‘They shoot this drug into you that literally drives the heroin out and your body goes into spasms. It forces the detox process.’ Two days later, he woke up.

Back home, a doctor came daily for months to administer a medication that blocked the effects of an opiate. Dana was there waiting when he came through it all and Petty put his relationships with his daughters back together after being emotionally absent for years.

Petty kicked the addiction under doctors’ supervision and with “a hardcore blood transfusion.” The heroin period, was in the rear view mirror. The condition was once he beat it, he beat it.

A 2015 biography of the singer, Petty: The Biography, revealed his heroin addiction in the 1990s. Author Warren Zanes said in an interview, Petty succumbed to the drug because he “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, channelling his pain into 1999’s Echo, during which he was also dealing with a divorce. In 2002, he married Dana York and said 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.

Petty’s youth in rural Florida — it was not bucolic, nor privileged — and his desire was to use rock ‘n’ roll as an escape. Petty maintained his band’s existence in the face of intra-band struggle and difficult personal decisions. Petty channelled most of his emotion and passion into his music, sometimes at the expense of real life relationships. Although they were married or 16 years, Petty and Dana York never had children together. Petty’s two daughters Adria and AnnaKim Violette are from his marriage with Benyo. Dana has a son named Dylan from her previous marriage, who was often seen at events with his mum and stepdad.

“The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems,” he told Billboard in 2014. “You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods.”

Before embarking on his final tour earlier this year with the Heartbreakers, Petty told Rolling Stone it would likely be his last “big” tour. “I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” he said. “We’re all on the backside of our 60s.

Petty’s oldest daughter Adria may have summed up her father’s psyche best. “She was saying that she learned that the world of songs is a place that he went and that he wanted to take her to. It’s enormously significant in his story that here’s this guy who’s suffered childhood abuse, the loss of his mother, a lot of stuff during the formative years, and song writing becomes this place of being beyond the reach of that which otherwise pulls him down. He went there for a kind of safety and as a result he was very consistent in his output. He kept needing to go to this place he identified as safety and the offshoot is his songs.”

Tom Petty Originally Wrote ‘Free Fallin” Just to Make Jeff Lynne Laugh. Tom Petty posed in New York in 1976 (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a singular phenomenon in the story of 20th century. Something incredible happened after The Beatles were on ‘Ed Sullivan’ in that garage band era, the era from which Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and so many others were born. That never really happened again and may not happen in that way in the future.
It really shaped the youth culture that was to follow and the youth culture that was to follow shaped all of life. This is a facet of culture that begs more attention. Everybody knows the songs, they’ve got ‘em on their internal jukeboxes, but they still fail to see that in that period, when all these bands came up and all these young people felt so empowered, something happened. And that is worth remembering.

Petty: The Biography: Amazon.co.uk: Warren Zanes: 0889290489357 …

Tom Petty – Music Producer, Guitarist, Songwriter, Singer – Biography …

How Tom Petty’s wife Dana York saved him from a life of heavy drug …

Tom Petty | Rolling Stone

Tom Petty’s True Confessions: Inside Revealing New Book – Rolling …

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

Tom Petty Biography and Life Story – Aceshowbiz

How Tom Petty Overcame an Abusive Childhood … – People

What It Was Like Writing Tom Petty’s Life Story | The New Yorker

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Tom Petty was a heroin addict in the ’90s. Here’s why he’s finally …

How Tom Petty’s dark childhood and marriage breakdown drove him …

Extraordinary Facts from Tom Petty’s Life | Vanity Fair

Stevie Nicks, George Harrison and Tom Petty’s dad: The 10 best – Salon

Warren Zanes Tells The Lesser Known Story Of Tom Petty’s Life In …

Tom Petty divorced his first wife Jane Benyo with two children and …

Tom Petty’s daughter Kimberly Violette shares memories of her dad …

Tom Petty Tribute: How He Changed American Music Forever | Time …

Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks: Remembering their decades-long friendship


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