In spring 2013, while he was recording Hypnotic Eye, now his final album with The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty was prepping for a tour with the band, and he was bedeviled by the setlist. “The audience always likes it if you play the hits,” he told me. “I feel we have more to offer than that.” The set changed each night on that tour, but for the most part Petty bypassed a lot of his best-known songs, from “The Waiting” to “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Some nights he even skipped his two signature songs, “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
Petty had resolved to stop acting like a human jukebox. It was consistent with the way he lived his life and drove his career: Figure out what you want and do it. Damn the torpedoes.
Aside from musical ability, Petty’s great gift (and occasional curse) was a determination that sometimes turned ruthless. In Runnin’ Down a Dream, director Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 documentary, Petty describes his band’s beginnings in its hometown of Gainesville, Fla. With a mix of pride and shame, Petty says he convinced guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench to drop out of college and play music full-time. Years later, when he needed a bassist, he stole one from his friend Del Shannon’s band, shrugging when Shannon asked him not to do it. He put his career in jeopardy by twice going to war with MCA Records -- winning both times. “When I felt any sort of injustice had been done to me, I could erupt into absolute rage,” he told MOJO magazine in 2010.
Petty earned every inch of his lizard skin. He described his dad, a charming, carousing good ol’ boy, as “very abusive.” As early as fifth grade, Petty was a self-described weirdo because of his obsession with music. In an era when every Gainesville musician was imitating The Allman Brothers and playing long jams, he wrote concise, British Invasion-style songs. By his own account he was a “geeky, artistic kid,” a striver with his eye on the West Coast and no interest in the two local hobbies, hunting and fishing. “In the South, I always felt a bit like a duck out of water,” said Petty.
He was glad to have grown up there, because being surrounded by R&B and country music made his band tougher and sharper, he said. “When we came to L.A., we thought we’d have to come up a few notches to compete. And our first impression of the local groups was, ‘Wow. These guys suck!’” Petty recalled with a laugh. But, he pointed out, unlike the rest of his family and friends, he didn't have a Southern accent. When I suggested he had ditched the accent as a way of shedding the South, he agreed.
Petty was a loose, forthright guy who laughed a lot, but he was also peevish and held tight to grudges. He recalled, and not affectionately, a Los Angeles Times article about the city’s all-time top groups, in which he and his band were excluded because they started in Florida. “That’s kind of a shitty feeling. The Byrds all came from different places. So did Buffalo Springfield. Jim Morrison came from Florida, for Christ’s sake.” It pained him to be shunned as a carpetbagger in the city he had idolized and where he lived for almost 40 years.
If denim could start a rock band, it would sound like Tom Petty. In his songs, he drew heavily on The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield as well as The Animals and The Rolling Stones. His most frequent lyrical tone was a wounded perseverance: “You can stand me up at the gates of hell/And I won’t back down” wasn't just a refrain, it was his mission. His choruses relied on firm, declarative phrases: “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” “Don’t come around here no more,” “You don’t know how it feels to be me.” At first glance, his songs seemed rudimentary, but Petty deployed contradictory ideas and feelings almost like jump cuts in a movie.
Petty was less artful than other songwriters in hiding influences -- has any singer ever been called “Dylanesque” more often or more accurately? -- but he in turn became an influence on anyone who grew up on FM radio in his heyday. Nearly every country or alt-country band was influenced by him, as were John Mayer, The Wallflowers and The War on Drugs. Half of Sheryl Crow’s biggest hits could be Petty songs, as could Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” Like The Beach Boys, The Doors and a few other bands, Petty made California a universal idea.
Petty was adept at playing possum, the Southern tradition of passing yourself off as a simpleton even though you’re not. But it was one of the only things he kept when he left the South. “We felt much more at home, musically, when we got to L.A. If I’m honest, we’re a California band,” he told me. “We’re probably the last link to that long line of bands that came off the [Sunset] Strip. We’re probably the end of the line.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.