Tom Petty‘s life is the stuff of rock’n’roll fantasy. As a child, he met Elvis Presley and saw The Beatles play The Ed Sullivan Show. A superstar with a five-decade career, he has sold millions of records solo and with The Heartbreakers; collaborated with Johnny Cash and Stevie Nicks; and formed a supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. But beneath it all, there were personal and professional struggles that Petty, now 65, mostly kept out of the public eye, which is partly what makes Petty: The Biography (published Nov. 10 by Henry Holt) so invaluable. Author Warren Zanes, who toured and recorded with Petty as a member of rock band The Del Fuegos in the 1980s, got the singer, his family and his colleagues to open up like never before. In between deep dives into the making of classics like Damn the Torpedoes and Full Moon Fever, the book examines Petty’s sometimes painful relationships with loved ones, bandmates and drugs, revealing that Petty abused heroin at one point. Billboard presents five exclusive excerpts from the must-read biography.
The book details Petty 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 f—ing 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.”
Petty also speaks 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.
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.”
1989’s Full Moon Fever, Petty’s biggest album, was initially rejected by his label, MCA, leading him to sign a secret deal with Warner Bros.
Petty had made what he felt was a great record, only to have the doubters at his record label be among the first to hear it and pass judgment on it. The rejection knocked him down. It hadn’t ever happened that way. That anyone at MCA felt they were in a position to respond as they did left Petty stunned. At a dinner at Warner Bros. Records chief Mo Ostin’s house, with Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker and some others in attendance, Harrison started fooling around with “Free Fallin’ ” on guitar, then insisted that Petty play the song for the group. Under the vaulted ceilings in Ostin’s living room, it sounded transcendent. Hearing that this was among a collection of songs that had just been rejected by MCA, Waronker said on the spot that he’d sign Petty to Warner Bros. However good the idea sounded to Petty, he still owed MCA several albums. Waronker told him they should do it anyway. And they did. Years before Petty would make Wildflowers, his Warner Bros. debut, he was a Warner Bros. artist, with a signed contract hidden away in a vault for almost two years. MCA knew nothing of the deal.
Petty reveals 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 f—ing 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.”
Listen to Tom Petty and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of Billboard.