Tom Cruise, Liz Phair, Lucinda Williams and more share personal stories of Tom Petty’s friendship and influence.
“He made me think, ‘Maybe I can do this’”
I opened for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in 1999, right after Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was released. People didn’t know who I was much back then, and it was clear his audience was impatiently waiting for Tom Petty to come out. There was a banana peel thrown onstage at one point. It was pretty brutal! But after two or three nights of this, Tom came out and introduced us: “Guys, I want you to listen. This is an important artist, and you need to be respectful of her and pay attention.” That’s what won my heart. I had opened up for Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and it could feel really disconnected and weird. But going out with Tom was like, “Wow, these guys seem to be enjoying themselves!” He made me finally think, “Maybe I can do this.”
When I was invited to open for these last Hollywood Bowl shows [in September], it was like everything had come full circle. On the last night, I’d done my set and I still hadn’t seen Tom. I went down to his dressing room, stuck my head in, we gave each other a big hug. I said, “Well, I got ’em all ready for you, Tom. We rocked, they’re ready to go.” And as I turned to leave, he gave me this big smile and said, “I bet you did,” with that twinkle in his eye. He seemed so good.
“He was very humble, beautifully shy”
By Kim Basinger
I did the “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” video [in 1993] for one reason: Tom Petty. I didn’t even care what it was about — I was just blown away when he called. Then I heard the music, and I was so in love with the song.
The director [Keir McFarlane] was a gruff guy; it was kind of like, his way or the highway. And I always found Tom to be incredibly sensitive and sort of a backseat guy. He was just very humble, beautifully shy. I’m not the most outgoing human being in the world, and I thought, “I’m shy; he’s shy.” But as the story really unfolded and this director kept saying, “Look, you have got to really play dead–all your weight,” we laughed so hard. I just honestly couldn’t keep it together sometimes! Tom had a great sense of humor. I remember getting out of the pool that day and just being so glad it was over, but so proud that I had worked with him.
By Bill DeYoung
The Gainesville Sun arts editor, 1982-2002
When I got to The Gainesville Sun, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ meteoric rise was happening. They were the coolest thing to ever come out of Gainesville, and I made it my mission to make sure the world knew where they came from. I mean, he was an L.A. rock star for sure. But if you just scratched the surface a little, the good old Florida boy was still there. He was a man without pretension–it’s just the way you grow up down here.
At the end of the day, the [speaking manner] never changed; the laconic humor never changed. I can do his voice pretty well at this point: a little bit of a slur, you don’t move your teeth much, you talk through very tight lips.
Everybody you meet of a certain age here has a Tom Petty story: “I knew Tom at Bishop Middle School,” “He dated my sister,” “He was the weirdo kid who smoked a lot of pot.” He’s part of the shared cultural heritage of Gainesville. People are still very proud that you can look at him and say: “Here’s a guy who’s just like me — and it actually worked!” It wasn’t luck, it wasn’t some Svengali. This guy was just fucking talented and it all happened, and he came from here, and he never forgot that.
‘He got to my sexuality before I really understood it’
By Liz Phair
My love for Tom Petty was pure teen idol love. I can name at least three guys who had shades of Petty going on, and that was a tipping factor in whether I dated them.
His voice went right through me. You didn’t expect such a low, deep, authoritative voice to come out of a fair-haired guy. He looked sensitive, but I’ll tell you this — he disturbed me. He got to my sexuality before I really understood my sexuality. He was one of the first pop idols I would have dreams about. It wasn’t like, “Oooh, Luke Skywalker!” where you’d kiss the TV. There were parts about him that were not Prince Charming. Like, “God, this is uncomfortable! I don’t understand your teeth!” You could tell that if you dated him, you’d be like, “Are you ever going to call? Where are you?!”
And yet somehow you just trusted him. Like, if you were hanging out in his house, he’d probably have a lot of books and be shy about it. It was clear he was 100 percent aware of what you were feeling as a woman. He just wasn’t going to give you what you wanted. In “Free Fallin’,” if you think about it, he’s kind of being a douche, but he’s also being honest. He’s singing very soulfully about not being willing to change.
“His music is filled with intelligence, history, humor, nostalgia, heartache, love — he captures life experience with his songs.”
By Tom Cruise, who sang “Free Fallin’ ”in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.