The soundtrack of your life no doubt includes a cut or two from Tom Petty. Maybe “American Girl” (1977). Perhaps “Refugee” (1980). Or “The Waiting” (1981), “Free Fallin’” (1989), “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993) … and that’s leaving out “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981), his hit duet with Stevie Nicks, and his two-album stint with The Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he formed in 1988 with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. It’s a beloved set list he leaves behind, 40 years in the making, 80 million albums sold.
With music so ubiquitous, on records, across the airwaves, in videos, and repurposed (no one who hears “American Girl” in 1991’s Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs, ever forgets it), the musician can be undervalued. We sing along without really listening. But pay close attention to one of his early albums with his mainstay band, The Heartbreakers—say, Damn the Torpedoes, the one that broke them wide, in 1979—and you hear the birth of a sensibility, ragged, adrift, questioning, tender. “If Bruce Springsteen was tracking down the specifics of place and a particular class experience, making little movies in song, Petty was making music that, on the surface, seemed far less ambitious,” commented Rolling Stone, which enshrined the album as one of the greatest ever made in 2004. “But he created modest scenes that listeners could identify with in deep, lasting ways.”
His was music that American girls and boys took with them as they aged into adulthood. Interviewed by Esquire in 2006, he offered simple advice for anyone drawn by a passion, as he was when he met Elvis Presley in his native Florida, in 1960. The King was filming the aptly titled Follow That Dream, and Petty was starstruck. “Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent,” he counseled. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.”
Growing up in Gainesville, success seemed out of reach for the Elvis and Beatles worshipper. His father, an insurance salesman, disapproved, and there were fights. He quit high school at age 17 and joined a Southern rock band, Mudcrutch, playing bass. (Don Felder, another son of Gainesville and a future member of The Eagles, taught him how to play guitar.) The band also included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, a couple of budding Heartbreakers. And heartbreak there was, as Mudcrutch foundered and their eponymous debut album, recorded in 1976, flopped. But it, and they, were enough of a success in England (where they toured with Nils Lofgren) to give them a bit of traction at home.
So began a boom, bust, and bankruptcy cycle, chronicled in Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary about the band, Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007). Record label drama provided unhappy accompaniment to their more successful followup albums and early chart-toppers like “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “The Waiting.” Producing 1985’s Southern Accents proved so frustrating that Petty punched a wall and busted his left hand; worse, suspected arson destroyed his home, though his wife and two daughters escaped. The famously weird “Mad Hatter” video for one of the album’s singles, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” seemed to reflect the tumult. (Then again his videos had a macabre side; he played a morgue attendant romancing Kim Basinger’s corpse in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which won an MTV Award in 1994.)
But membership in the Wilburys, which netted him the first of his three Grammy Awards, and his first solo album (1989’s Full Moon Fever, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard chart and yielded the popular “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down”), consolidated his stardom. 1994’s solo album, Wildflowers, was another triumph. But heroin got the better of Petty, and ate its way into the Heartbreakers, killing bassist Howie Epstein in 2003. As the music industry changed, and the albums darkened in tone, the hits dried up. “I couldn’t exist nowadays,” he told Esquire. “I could never have built a career like I’ve had if I were just starting out now.”
For Petty, however, there was always the road (and, sometimes, the camera, or at least the soundstage; King of the Hill fans will recall him as the voice of Lucky on the long-running animated sitcom). There were also surprises—he re-formed the long-faded Mudcrutch (“It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous,” Campbell commented), and, with The Heartbreakers, scored their first No. 1 album with 2014’s Hypnotic Eye.
The band’s 40th anniversary tour this summer had just concluded, with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl, when Petty fell ill in his Malibu home Sunday. What he called a “last trip around the country” proved fatefully that. It ended, however, with him at peace with his artistic legacy, and how he may have figured in your life. As he told Esquire, “The man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work—the ‘soundtrack to his life,’ as a lot of them say.”