ROCK legend Tom Petty was five when he hit a passing Cadillac with his plastic slingshot. The driver was annoyed, but his dad was furious.
“He took a belt and beat the living s**t out of me,” said Tom. “I was covered in raised welts.”
Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, with his abusive father, Earl, taught Tom many things, including how to escape into music, which was his “safe place”.
One of the best-selling artists ever, he was performing right till the end, finishing a big 40th anniversary tour last week.
Friend Bob Dylan said: “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
But behind his musical genius, lay a troubled life of abuse and addiction.
That incident with the slingshot was not the only time insurance salesman Earl Petty got handy with his fists. He had often taken out his booze-fuelled aggression on wife Kitty and their children — Tom and his younger brother Bruce.
Tom told biographer Warren Zanes: “I got the f*** away when he was around.”
Tom was ten when a chance meeting with Elvis Presley put him on the road to rock ’n’ roll. His uncle was working on The King’s 1961 film Follow That Dream and took young Tom along.
He said: “That was the end of doing anything other than music with my life.”
‘We were free as birds’
At 14, he formed his first band The Sundowners, then The Epics, Mudcrutch and Heartbreakers. Mum Kitty, who died in 1980, encouraged Tom’s interest in music. But Earl, who died in December 1999 aged 75, remained distant.
Tom said: “Maybe he was disappointed. Or maybe he thought I was gay . . . I grew my hair long — he hated that.”
In his early twenties Tom headed to Los Angeles with the Heartbreakers.
He said: “It was the land of milk and honey. It was Shangri-la. And we had an adult portion of it — we took a big dose of LA. The audiences were just great, and we were free as birds.”
But the relationship was rocky. He was often away and Jane turned to drink and drugs out of loneliness.
Tom said: “There were times when we . . . fought like f***ing Apaches.”
During their 22-year marriage, Tom’s career went stellar. He notched up two platinum-selling albums and was part of George Harrison’s Eighties supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, alongside Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne.
But in 1996 Tom divorced Jane and his life spiralled out of control. As she threatened suicide, he turned to heroin.
In Warren Zanes’ Petty: The Biography, published in 2015, Tom referred to the drug as an “ugly f***ing thing” and said: “You start losing your soul . . . I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything.”
He hid his addiction from those closest to him, including good friend Stevie Nicks and new love Dana York, who he married in 2001.
But he finally went into rehab, beat his demons and was soon back in the studio and on the road.
In July he played his only European gig this year, at London’s Hyde Park, and last week he ended his tour with three sell-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl.
Last December Tom said: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one . . . I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”
England gave us our first shot . . . thanks
By Simon Cosyns
“OK man, you’re very welcome. All the best to you.”
With those few polite words delivered in a lazy but engaging drawl, the line to Malibu went silent.
For an hour, Tom Petty regaled me with his insights into being one of rock’s elder statesmen.
Enthused by what turned out to be his final album with his beloved Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye, he sounded full of energy.
I guess because he’d crammed so much into a life less ordinary, he quipped: “I told my daughter the other day that 60 is the new 80!”
There’s a great line in one song, “Take what you can and leave the past behind.”
For Petty, it summed up his forward-looking approach.
“I take all I can carry,” he said. “I never pictured myself doing this at this point in my life, but it’s very rewarding and still lots of fun.
“I’m just in love with recording. We probably wouldn’t do it if we’d become an oldies jukebox. I don’t want to go down that way.”
With rare candour, he added: “I built a studio at home and I’m hardly ever out of it. I look at these records as the most important thing we do because I won’t live long enough to see if they’re around for ever.
“They’re going to last longer than me and I want them to be right. It’s probably the same for a painter or any artist really. We’re much better at making records now than we were as kids.”
One reviewer of Hypnotic Eye suggested Petty, then 64, had even got his snarl back, that he had somehow summoned the New Wave zeal of his earliest work.
This can be explained by a familiar Petty trait coursing through the album . . . sticking up for the underdog in an America where the rich/poor divide has continued to widen.
“Snarl is actually a pretty good way to put it,” the singer agreed.
“Mike Campbell (Heartbreakers guitarist) said, ‘Man, I swear to God that your singing sounds like the first two albums’.”
The thing about Petty’s music with the Heartbreakers is that it comes over as classic, radio-friendly adult rock. But if you immerse yourself in The Waiting, Refugee or I Won’t Back Down then something cooler, sharper, deeper emerges. Perfectionist Petty was a hard taskmaster, extracting every ounce of concentration and dexterity from his supremely talented band.
“I sometimes drive people crazy,” he told me. “All I can go by, especially these days, is, ‘Do I like it?’ You know, better to fail with something you like.
“The last thing you want to do is go down in flames with something you knew was s**tty.”
But he was full of praise for Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench. “I don’t even know if I would want to go on playing live or making records without them.
“Forty years, Mike, Ben and I . . . you get very intuitive with each other. That band is a magical gift right now to me. I feel really blessed.”
One artist Petty remained in awe of was Bob Dylan, his fellow Traveling Wilbury along with Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne.
“Well, none of us can compete with him, even more so today,” he said.
Though Petty rarely played the UK, he had much affection for these shores.
“England gave us our first shot and we’ll always be grateful for that. I have so many friends over there.
“We got to come a couple of years back and we were so high on it that we’re still talking about it. We loved every English band that crossed the Atlantic and some that didn’t.
“We were the people trying to get a Who record before you could get one in the US.”
He also spoke about Florida – setting of his turbulent childhood. “I don’t go there much. I don’t have that much family left in Florida.
“I have my brother, who doesn’t even live in Gainesville any more, his family and a couple of cousins.
“I would love to go back and just walk around the old places, on my own, just for the nostalgia of it, but I’ve never had that much time.
“Honestly I feel more like a Californian. I’ve lived more of my life in LA than I did in Florida. I run a pretty fast-paced life. I always have a project to do and I hate to be bored.”
He ended by saying: “The best music is timeless. If it feels honest and timeless, then you’ve done your job.”
You did your job, Mr Petty, and then some.
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