Classic Rock Corner

Tom Petty, One of America's Last Great Rock Stars, Is Gone at Age 66 [Updated]

Tom Petty's outwardly casual "What me worry" attitude masked a musician who took his work very seriously.
Tom Petty's outwardly casual "What me worry" attitude masked a musician who took his work very seriously. Photo by Jack Gorman

If Sunday night’s horrific Route 91 festival shooting in Las Vegas wasn’t bad enough, America has lost arguably the last man it was possible to call a red-blooded rock star without a wink of irony — and not without one last bit of deathbed drama worthy of one of rock's great storytellers. Tony Dimitriades, Petty's manager for decades, confirmed his death to The New York Times shortly after 11 p.m. Houston time. A message from Dimitriades followed on the Heartbreakers' Facebook page about 20 minutes later.

On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty.

He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived.

He died peacefully at 8:40pm PST surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.

It started Monday afternoon, when Rolling Stone and multiple other news outlets reported that Petty, lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, member of Mudcrutch and the Traveling Wilburys, and all-around badass human being, had passed away at age 66. First came the TMZ report that Petty had been found unconscious at his Malibu home and had been rushed to UCLA Medical Center, where doctors were unable to find any brain activity. For hours, the confusion of an already chaotic day was heightened by conflicting reports about the exact condition of the singer and songwriter behind "American Girl," "Refugee," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and so many other rock hits.
click to enlarge
Tom Petty's outwardly casual "What me worry" attitude masked a musician who took his work very seriously.
Photo by Jack Gorman

CBS News, which originally reported Petty had passed away about 3 p.m. CST, later clarified that the LAPD had declined to confirm the singer's death, but admitted "initial information was inadvertently provided to some media sources." As of 5 p.m., Rolling Stone was standing by TMZ's latest update, which said Petty was "not expected to live through the day, but still clinging to life." Petty lost the battle hours later.

A 2009 CBS profile noted Petty had sold more than 60 million albums. That was nearly a decade ago, before the albums Mojo and Hypnotic Eye, and several additional tours.

Petty did a lot of great things and wrote a lot of great songs over a career that spanned nearly 50 years. Conservatively, the author has seen the Heartbreakers at least a half-dozen times since 1999’s tour supporting Echo, and most recently this past April at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour. From the Houston Press's review:

Within the well-deserved hosannas toasting America’s most dependable, indispensable rock and roll band making yet another lap of the nation that loves them so lay the concealed, bittersweet implication that there may not be many more like it. Petty may be more aware of this than the rest of us; “take me as I come ’cause I can’t stay long,” he once sang — coming up on 24 years ago now.

Certainly Petty, who is 66, seems the type of musician who will keep playing until either his fingers or his mind betrays him. Saturday night, in front of a full house at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, he and the Heartbreakers gave no indication whatsoever such an outcome is likely to happen anytime soon.

And then today. Turns out it was his heart, which beats so robustly throughout his discography. The Heartbreakers had just concluded that tour late last month with a three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl. Infamous music-biz insider and gadfly Bob Lefsetz saw it this way:

click to enlarge
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, rocking the Woodlands Pavilion back in April.
Photo by Jack Gorman
He's the last rock star.

And he's finally comfortable in his own skin.

He used to have attitude, a chip on his shoulder. He kept his distance. He needed to express his anger.

Now he knows what he's achieved and he can accept our love and the end result is satisfaction and transcendence.

I'm not like my fellow baby boomers. I cannot go see the aged acts again and again. I saw them when they were new, when they were in their prime, on the comeback tour, the one after that...

And now I'm done.

Oh, there are exceptions. But when I see the usual suspects at the shed I wince. This is commerce, not art.

But Petty's different.

What is a rock star?

Someone who doesn't fit in, who has to do it his way, who labors in the trenches until he finally breaks through.

And refuses to sell out.

That's one of the reasons rock died. Everybody's taking money from the corporation, doing privates, hoovering up cash. And that might make you rich, but it leaves you empty inside, and the audience can tell, because those on stage are our hopes and dreams, our best selves, we need not only something to believe in, but something to direct us. We've gone off the rails but want to get back on. They kept chugging down the line.

But now the only one left is Tom Petty. The rest have dyed their hair and gotten plastic surgery and are selling nostalgia. It's no wonder one of the best tracks last night was the new one. Because you've got to grow or die. You've got to hone your chops or lose them. If you see the tour as an endless grind to make your nut you're really no different from a factory worker, and there aren't that many of them left. You can do the same thing night after night, tour after tour, or you can change it up.

A lot more could be said, and will be, but the thing that sticks out today is after the Heartbreakers finally broke through to become one of America’s biggest rock acts after 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes – a pedestal that, changing tastes be damned, they never really left in the subsequent four decades – Petty was perhaps the only artist who fought his record label to lower the price of his albums; he was certainly the only one who was selling so many at the time that the label was forced to give in.

Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to find many prominent musicians who aren’t somehow honoring Petty on social media today, even as the world continues to grieve for the victims of the Route 91 massacre.

Today sucks.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray