Last week, one of the most influential and long-running musicians in the history of rock & roll was lost when Tom Petty passed away following cardiac arrest at his home in Southern California. From humble beginnings in his first bands out of Gainsville, FL to performing with some of the most legendary musicians in the world, Petty was truly a rock icon. He has contributed to the “Great American Songbook” with classic songs like “American Girl,” “Free Fallin'” and more while continuing to perform almost right up to his death. Here is a look back at some of the most seminal contributions and moments of Petty’s long and always-stead career:
“Into The Great Wide Open” Video
(Contributed by Erin Vierra)
Tom Petty, the leader of the Heartbreakers and the man behind some of rock & roll’s greatest songs passed away at the age of 66. His death struck hard with fans and music artists alike. His work in the music scene created waves. Fans could turn on the radio and instantly recognize when a Petty song is playing due to his unique raspy voice. His music could transport anyone, making any moment a memory worth holding on to.
Not only is his music recognizable but his music videos are just as familiar and groundbreaking as he was.
In the age of music videos, no one did them like Petty. Some of his memorable music videos includes “Free Falling,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels to be Me,” and the unforgettable and twisted Alice in Wonderland vision that was “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Although the one that stuck with me was the narrative song, “Into the Great Wide Open.” The music video featured a young Johnny Depp during his ’90s craze.
The video starts off like a storybook, opening to the pages of the song’s protagonist, Eddie Rebel (Depp) Directed by Julien Temple, the music video for “Into The Great Wide Open” was filmed during the making of Arizona Dream, which starred Depp, but was currently on hiatus. The video also features Depp’s co-star from the film, Faye Dunaway, as well as Gabrielle Anwar and cameos from Terence Trent, D’Arby, Chynna Phillips and Matt LeBlanc.
With Tom Petty sitting at a table wearing his Mad Hatter hat, he tells the story of Eddie who arrives in Hollywood after high school looking for that California dream of fame and success. There, it goes into the typical cliche plot of any success story. He meets a girl (Anwar) who appears to have the same tattoo as he does, which makes them destined to be together. From there, he gets a job as a doorman to a club while his girlfriend teaches him to play the guitar. Thanks to his landlady and soon to be manager and Eddie’s version of a fairy godmother (Dunaway), Eddie’s life suddenly changes and he becomes a big time rock star. But like with most stories of fame, it goes straight to Eddie’s head. He becomes indulgent, living the rock & roll dream heavily. Thus everything falls apart leaving Eddie’s career in the dust and his girlfriend walking out the door.
The video ends with Eddie returning to the ordinary life and Petty closing the storybook as though this is what it means to live “happily ever after.” Fame isn’t for anyone, and the american dream that people so desperately want may be just in reach but one has to work for it and not lose touch of who you are inside.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
(Contributed by James Schiff)
With so many legendary tracks in his catalog, it’s hard to pin down the genius that is Tom Petty. Ask any fan out there, and he or she will give a different favorite with nearly undisputable evidence as to why that particular track is his best. So many of them evoke the sun-soaked, beach rock lifestyle that the man himself oozed in real life, but none are as fun as “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Released in 1989 as the first single off of his debut solo record, Full Moon Fever, “Runnin Down a Dream” sounds like a long drive along PCH with the top down. It’s warm, rhythmic and easy going with just the slightest hint of adventure. The video for “Runnin Down a Dream” is all that and more thanks to some wacky animation which is impressive, even by today’s standards.
The video for “Runnin’ Down a Dream” follows a cartoon Petty quite literally running through a dream (didn’t see that coming, eh?). It’s a wild ride that feels equal parts Alice in Wonderland as it does general dream wackiness. The moon eats one of his friends, he rides his bed like a horse into the cosmos and climbs buildings a la King Kong. The whole thing is excellent and carefree which feels like the perfect visual representation of his song and ethos.
“Free Fallin'” Duet with Axl Rose
(Contributed by Ashlyn Ramirez)
Arguably one of Petty’s most famous and iconic tracks, “Free Fallin’” is a 1989 timeless classic that just about everybody in the Nation probably low key knows the lyrics to. From the album Full Moon Fever, Petty was nominated for a Grammy for his homage to Los Angeles, California. Rolling Stone rated it #179 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and the song was featured in 1996 blockbuster hit Jerry Maguire, along with being used on an episode of The Sopranos. The song peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in January 1990.
The song makes multiple references to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles (Tom Petty’s adopted home), including the 101 Ventura freeway, Ventura Boulevard, Reseda, and Mulholland.
Petty and The Heartbreakers also performed the song at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1989 as a duet with Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin, according to Rolling Stone. When this happened, Petty was at the top of his game in the music world, just like rock band Guns N’ Roses. The performance was certainly not expected, surprising many and leaving a lifelong impression on Petty fans everywhere. On top of performing the hit “Free Fallin’,” the duo also performed a smashing execution of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Petty and Rose’s vocals are pristine, complementing each other in a way that one might not expect.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
(Contributed by Emerson Oliver)
In 1993, Tom Petty was in the process of recording his album Wildflowers with his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers when he came out with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” These sessions were the last with drummer Stan Lynch before he left in 1994. The track, co-produced by Rick Rubin, originally appeared on the band’s Greatest Hits album. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, which would be Petty’s first Top 20 hit of the ‘90s.
The song is a mid tempo rock ballad about an “Indiana girl.” The lyrics were a subject of some scrutiny with Mary Jane possibly being reference to marijuana and it’s ability to “kill the pain.” The guitarist Mike Campbell put it, “A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”
The music video for the features an interesting story of Petty playing a morgue worker who takes home a beautiful dead woman who is played by actress Kim Basinger. The music video went on to win the MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video in 1994.
(Contributed by Ally Tatosian)
What could be interpreted as a song about a toxic breakup, the building of a relationship or just the idea of giving love a chance, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers “Breakdown” is an all inclusive hit. The 1977 release of the band’s first single off of their first studio album, the self-titled Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, eventually became a U.S. and Canada Top 40 hit. The song also made its way into the 1978 movie FM and TV show WKRP in Cincinnati.
Inspired in part by riffs found in The Beatles 1963 song “All I’ve Got to Do,” “Breakdown” was originally a seven-minute guitar filled anthem that was ultimately cut down to the R&B driven, emotion filled song that we know it as today. Recorded and then re-recorded in the middle of the night, Petty and his Heartbreakers created the song that would change them forever.
The stress-relieving excuse to yell “baby!” at the beginning of the chorus became a karaoke classic all its own. The simple but truth-filled lyrics related to listeners in a comforting way and were part of what made The Heartbreaker’s who they were. If you listened to any song that Petty sang and didn’t feel the incredible urge to sing along, were you really listening?
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Learning to Fly” duets with Stevie Nicks
(Contributed by Tori Adams)
Stevie Nicks, known for her contributions to Fleetwood Mac and her status as the “Queen of Rock and Roll,” was also one of Petty’s greatest friends and collaborators. The two first met almost 40 years ago in 1978, and have been collaborating and performing together ever since. The two iconic performers first came together in the recording studio in 1981. Stevie sang backup for their Hard Promises hit, “Insider,” while Petty and his Heartbreakers gave Nicks their song, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” for her 1981 breakout solo album Bella Donna. Petty and his bandmate Mike Campbell wrote the song and originally began work recording it. Producers thought the song was a better fit for Nicks, so the band recorded the backing track and let Nicks put her spin on the lead vocals. The song landed at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and helped put her solo album on the map. It is filled with bluesy guitars riffs, a groovy bass line and soulful melodies from the two talented singers.
The two would eventually go on to tour together in 1981, 1986 and most notably in 2006 for their Highway Companions Tour. The tour marked a celebration of the band’s 30 year anniversary. While on the tour, the band returned to their hometown of Gainesville, Florida for the first time in 13 years. The band brought a film crew in to capture the historical performance. The documentary film, Live from Gatorville, captures many magical moments between Nicks and Petty. Petty welcomed Nicks to the stage as “the band’s little sister,” and the two went on to sing many duets throughout the night including, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and their 1991 Into the Great Wide Open hit “Learning To Fly.” For “Learning To Fly,” Nicks stepped back to provide expressive but understated backup vocals while Petty sang lead and jammed on the acoustic guitar. The song, written by Petty and Jeff Lynne in 1981, is simple but soulful.
The two had a special musical bond, and personal friendship. Petty helped Nicks out of dark times in her life filled with addiction and heartbreak. Supposedly, his relationship with his first wife Jane Benyo also inspired the title of the infamous Nicks song “Edge of Seventeen.” In an interview with Toronto Sun, Petty noted, “Some of my best musical memories of her are sitting on the couch and just playing the guitar while she sings.” The two played their last performance together this past July in London. According to EW, while on stage, Nicks passionately professed: “You know that Tom Petty is my favorite rock star!” Us too Stevie, us too.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” video
(Contributed by Arthur Shtern)
From the first few seconds of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” it’s apparent that the track was going to be different from anything else Tom Petty ever made.
Written and produced by the Eurythmic’s David Harris, the song consists of an awkward, reverb-heavy drum machine beat, synthesizers, strings, backup singers and even a sitar. This was a far cry from what Tom Petty fans were accustomed to. Even Petty’s vocals take a turn for the strange, with a withdrawn menacing tone, echoing the song’s message of staying away.
The video’s take on Alice in Wonderland was equally weird. Petty was a genuinely creepy Mad Hatter, hardly ever averting his gaze from Alice, even when she is literally turned into a cake and eaten by the entire party.
Yet, despite the song’s odd nature and video’s nightmare fuel imagery, the song was a hit, reaching #13 on the Hot 100. It was proof that Tom Petty could experiment if he wanted to, even if he didn’t need to. It wasn’t a sign of things to come, but rather a fun sidestep that left a lasting effect on a generation of fans.
(Contributed by Drew Pitt)
There’s something special when a big name is from a small town. A host of legends follow them for the rest of their days, the town adopts them as their main commodity. In this way Gainesville, Florida is no different. The hometown of both Tom Petty and the University of Florida are deeply steeped in mythology surrounding them both. No song in Petty’s discography possesses the mythos of Gainesville than “American Girl,” supposedly written about a student who jumped from the University of Florida bell tower, those rumors were never confirmed but the legend hasn’t gone away. Whether or not this is true, the song has long been special to all who hear it, it is ubiquitous, anyone who has ever felt fleeting love on a subway, or considered proposing in traffic immediately understands the song. In northern Florida, there is a town missing its legend, its myth, its American Boy.
Joining forces with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison as The Traveling Wilburys
(Contributed by Caitlin Herrera)
In the late ’80s, Tom Petty along with his friends George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison created the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, each operating under pseudonyms. Petty found himself in the group after George Harrison had come over to his house to retrieve his guitar he left there and invited him to join. Their first and most prominent song “Handle With Care,” which originally was going to be a B-Side for Harrison, became a staple for Petty on multiple tours after the end of the Wilbury’s in 1990. Their first album The Traveling Wilbury’s Volume One has been certified triple platinum and won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. Petty is credited with helping write four songs on the album and his vocals, bass and guitar skills are prominent throughout. After Petty’s death, only two of the Wilburys survive; Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan.
Photo Credit: Boston Lynn Schulz