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Tom Petty, rock iconoclast, dies at 66

The legendary musician was known for such hits as “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl,” and “I Won’t Back Down.”

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary Tour - Nashville, Tennessee
Tom Petty performing in April 2017.
Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Sacks & Co
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Tom Petty, the legendary rock musician, has died at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest, according to the New York Times. Petty’s longtime manager, Tony Dimitriades, confirmed the death after conflicting reports about Petty’s condition led to widespread confusion on Monday afternoon.

Petty was the lead singer and guitarist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as a successful solo artist, known for such classic rock hits as “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Free Fallin’,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” His career spanned more than four decades, starting when he was a teenager.

Born in 1950 and raised in Gainesville, Florida, he was drawn to the rock lifestyle early, citing a childhood meeting with Elvis and the inspiration of the Beatles’ legendary 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show as formative influences. Among Petty’s early guitar teachers was future Eagles lead guitarist Don Felder, who in 2010 described the ‘60s rock scene in Petty’s hometown as being intimate and populated by rock greats like Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon, and Duane Allman, all of whom influenced each other and in turn influenced Petty.

Petty dropped out of high school at 17 to join a short-lived country-rock outfit called Mudcrutch, with whom he would produce two albums. The band ultimately evolved into the Heartbreakers, who kicked off their much more successful career in 1976 with the gold-certified album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The album contains several memorable songs, including the famous single “American Girl.”

Over the course of Petty’s career, he sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and was nominated for 18 Grammy awards, winning three, including Best Rock Vocal Performance – Male in 1996 for “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Petty reached a late career milestone in 2014 when, after releasing 11 top-10 albums, he and the Heartbreakers finally hit No. 1 with their album Hypnotic Eye.

Petty also co-founded the Traveling Wilburys, a Grammy-winning group of musical all-stars that toured throughout the ‘80s and featured Petty himself alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison.

Petty was known for his versatile musicianship, playing lead guitar, bass guitar, and harmonica, as well as for his talent as a songwriter. He penned nearly 90 songs over the course of his career, and reportedly wrote one of his most famous songs, “Free Fallin,’” — iconically featured in the 1997 Best Picture nominee Jerry Maguire — just to make his fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne laugh.

Petty’s musical themes came to embody the spirit of classic ‘70s rock and its ties to Southern-country roots

Petty was a core part of the late ‘70s Southern rock vibe that grew out of bands like the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynrd, and more. Much of his music is infused with nostalgia and a heavy sense of respect for rural and small-town settings, often suggesting that Petty as the singer is longing to return to a simpler time and slower way of life — which is in turn being threatened by corruption or decay from external influences.

“Free Fallin’,” released in 1989, is in many ways the quintessential Petty song, in that it combines a distinct portrait of down-home Americana meeting and clashing with modern ideals — usually represented by an urban influence, in this case the city of Los Angeles. Petty portrays himself as the shadowy “bad boy” who “want[s] to glide down over Mulholland,” a “vampire” who broke the heart of the classic American girl he sang about earlier in his career: a “good girl” who’s “crazy about Elvis” and “loves horses,” “Jesus, and America, too.”

In 1993’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the titular American girl, Mary Jane, “grew up tall and grew up right with them Indiana boys on them Indiana nights” — only to end up “standing in her underwear,” cold and alone in Indianapolis while Petty, now “tired of myself, tired of this town,” makes his escape.

His songs also frequently reference movement between these two impulses. His 1985 song “Southern Accents,” which he described as was one of his best, echoes this longing for country home along with this sense of migration:

There's a Southern accent / where I come from /

The young’uns call it country / The Yankees call it dumb ...

Now that drunk tank in Atlanta's / just a motel room to me

Think I might go work Orlando / if them orange groves don't freeze

I got my own way of workin' / but everything is run /

With a Southern accent / where I come from

Additionally, Petty’s songs often flirt with veiled drug references, notably “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and “Learning to Fly.” Petty opened up in a 2015 biography about his own struggles with heroin addiction during the ‘90s. Though “I’m mostly just a reefer guy,” he told Men’s Journal that same year, claiming to have had “a pipeline of marijuana since 1967.” Perhaps it was this maverick spirit combined with his lyrical themes that sealed his image as a rock rebel. (To say nothing of his 1985 song “Rebels.”)

What’s surprising is that Petty managed to maintain this iconoclastic image despite his insider status within the music industry. His frequent collaborations with megastars like his fellow Traveling Wilburys, the Eagles, and Stevie Nicks (with whom he shared a Grammy nomination for 1981’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) ensured that by the mid-’90s, Petty was universally recognized as a rock great. The Heartbreakers’ 30th anniversary tour in 2006 featured guest appearances from Nicks, the Allman Brothers, and Pearl Jam, and culminated in a four-hour concert filmed as the documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream by legendary director Peter Bogdanovich.

Petty and the entire Heartbreakers band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 in a moment of somewhat bittersweet reunion. Petty himself was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016.

The week before his death, Petty had just concluded the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour on September 25, capping off a 24-state tour with a sold-out three-day run at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

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