Rock superstar Tom Petty dead at age 66
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rock superstar Tom Petty has died at age 66.
Spokeswoman Carla Sacks says Petty died Monday night at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles after he suffered cardiac arrest.
Petty, usually backed by his longtime band the Heartbreakers, was known for such hits as “Free Fallin,”’ “Refugee” and “American Girl.” The Gainesville, Florida native with the shaggy blond hair and gaunt features drew upon the Byrds, the Beatles and other musicians he loved while growing up in the 1960s. He was also a member of the impromptu supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, which included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.
Only a week before his death Tuesday night after suffering cardiac arrest, Petty and the Heartbreakers finished a triumphant 40th anniversary tour in his adopted Southern California home. His sturdy compositions built a discography so strong he couldn’t get to all of his hits. “The Waiting,” ″Listen to Her Heart,” ″Here Comes My Girl,” ″Refugee,” ″You Got Lucky,” ″Don’t Do Me Like That,” ″Even the Losers,” ″Don’t Come Around Here No More.” And so on. All are fist-pumping favorites.
It was melodic rock ‘n’ roll built with the solid structures of his favorites from the 1960s. Petty had an impish grin and playful drawl, and in concert he raised his arms to direct both his band and the thousands of fans singing along from the audience.
“‘Rock and roll star’ is probably the purest manifestation of the American dream,” Petty said upon his 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s a blessing beyond belief.”
As Petty and his band performed “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “American Girl” to the well-heeled audience, his daughters stood up and danced.
The Heartbreakers stood with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as one of the all-time great rock backup bands. Petty wouldn’t give ground: he added an expletive to his declaration on that night that the Heartbreakers weren’t just one of America’s best bands, they were THE best. Being able to stand onstage next to guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench made Petty the envy of many bandleaders.
Still, two key periods of his career came without the Heartbreakers.
“Full Moon Fever,” Petty’s first solo album in 1989, stands as the apex of his career. Working with producer Jeff Lynne, Petty fashioned a cleaner sound and created the classics “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” ″I Won’t Back Down” and, most indelibly, “Free Fallin’.”
He sings about “a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend, too.”
And the narrator admits, “I’m a bad boy, ‘cause I don’t even miss her. I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart.” He had his own problems.
Petty was also a member of the temporary supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Lynne. Pulled together by Harrison to record a B-side to a single, “Handle With Care,” they soon realized that the song, and their sound, was too good to bury. It felt like a night at a Hollywood party, a bunch of rock legends break out the guitars, pour a few drinks, and maybe a few more, and trade lines with each other.
It’s a good life.
“It was a gift I was given and what it means I don’t know,” Petty said in a 2009 interview with The Associated Press. “Johnny Cash once told me, he said, ‘it was a noble job.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Well, it makes a lot of people happy.’ … It does. It makes a lot of people happy. You can lose sight of that. People come up to me on the street and tell me how some song played a role in their life or how it got them through a hard time or this and that and I just think, ‘Damn, that’s what it is about.’”
Like everyone’s, Petty’s path wasn’t always smooth. Biographer Warren Zanes’ book revealed that Petty slipped into heroin addiction in the 1990s. He recently told Rolling Stone that his use of a Confederate flag as a prop while promoting a 1980s album, “Southern Accents,” was a stupid move he regretted. He was frustrated when the passage of time took him out of the spotlight when he actually deserved it: the 2014 album “Hypnotic Eye” was excellent, but the pop world had moved on.
Last December, as he was about to embark on the anniversary tour, Petty told Rolling Stone that it would likely be his last big jaunt with the Heartbreakers. He had a granddaughter he wanted to spend time with.
It was easy to dismiss it then. Heck, they were too good and not that old, not really. His old buddy Dylan is 76 and constantly on the road.
Sadly, it turned out to be true.
[Editor’s note: A local favorite cut by Tom Petty is “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and its Indiana references. Here is one explanation from Songfacts about the song’s creation and meaning.]
Mike Campbell is lead guitarist with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He’s renowned for his skills as a guitarist, but he’s also a tremendous songwriter, composing the tracks for many of Petty’s hits and a few for Don Henley.
The Campbell/Petty partnership dates back to Mudcrutch, the band they formed in 1970 in an unlikely music hotspot: Gainesville, Florida. This makes them one of the longest continuously-running songwriting/recording tandems in rock; even when Petty recorded as a solo artist, Campbell played on his tracks.
Like every Heartbreaker, Mike is a sought-after musician. He’s appeared on tracks by Stevie Nicks, Dixie Chicks, Lone Justice, Neil Diamond, and two generations of Dylan (Bob, and also Jakob’s group The Wallflowers). In many cases, he’s also part of the songwriting process, racking up an impressive list of composer credits. Here, he takes us through some of his biggest hits.
Songfacts: One song that our readers are often asking about is “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” One story is that you made Tom play the guitar part.
Mike: That is true. That song took on a few shapes. It was written in my garage. I didn’t write it, but we were jamming in the garage and Tom was playing one of my guitars. It was called “Indiana Girl.” The first chorus was “Hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.”
We liked the song and Rick Rubin suggested we cut it. It had actually been around for a while, just the basic riff and that chorus. We cut the song and he was singing the chorus, and he decided he just couldn’t get behind singing about “Hey, Indiana Girl,” so we went back and about a week later he came in and said “I’ve got a better idea,” so he changed the chorus to “Last dance with Mary Jane.” In the verse there is still the thing about an Indiana girl on an Indiana night, just when it gets to the chorus he had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning.
My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.