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When famed rocker Tom Petty died, he was called "dynamic and iconoclastic" by Rolling Stone . Petty, an uncomplicated, easygoing musician from Florida, would have likely laughed at that, but to millions of fans around the world, his loss was a devastating, unforeseen surprise that saddened the music world. Fans would be touched to know that even during his final year, Tom Petty had plans — lots of them. Even as his health was failing, the musician rocked on with vigor, and it was all for the people who loved his music.
Born in Florida in 1950, Petty endured an abusive home life. In his book, Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes of Rolling Stone quoted Petty as remembering being savagely beaten by his father around the age of four (via The Delite ). His father, he said, "took a belt and beat the living sh*t out of me." Petty was left "covered in raised welts." Looking back, Petty still expressed shock at the incident. "I mean, you can't imagine someone hitting a child like that, " he said. At age 11, he happened to meet Elvis Presley, who was shooting a film near Petty's hometown of Gainesville. The meeting "kicked off my love of music, " according to Petty, who would later say that "I'd never thought much about rock n' roll until that moment." By age 17, he had his own band, Mudcrutch. In 1976, he formed a new band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Tom Petty's last year was crazy busy
Fast-forward to 2016. Tom Petty had been nominated for 18 Grammy awards, scoring three wins (per Grammy.com ). He had a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He had also played at the Super Bowl, went solo for a bit, joined up with other famous musicians to form the Traveling Wilburys, and resurrected Mudcrutch. Early on, Petty had also gained the musical nation's respect when, according to Newsweek, he had the guts to take on record labels who habitually put their musicians into debt. He even formed his own radio channel, Tom Petty Radio, and wrote Runnin' Down a Dream, a retrospective look at his own personal recollections.
By now, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had been around an amazing four decades, a claim few other American bands could make. As he continued touring with Mudcrutch, Petty furthered his plans for the Heartbreakers, and himself. In October, American Songwriter announced a mega-40th-anniversary, remastered vinyl box set that would include all 16 albums by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as Petty's three solo albums (Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers, and Highway Companion). "Many of these albums have been out of print on vinyl for years, " explained Tom Petty's website . The set came in two volumes, each featuring seven albums on a dozen vinyl records, and was released between November and December.
Getting the Heartbreakers back together
With the commemorative set coming out, Tom Petty made other plans, too. In November 2016, he regrouped with the Heartbreakers (pictured in 1977) at their rehearsal space near Los Angeles to contemplate their upcoming 40th Anniversary Tour. The tour was announced in December and would consist of all of the old Heartbreakers favorites. Petty fondly remembered, "We jammed for a few days and had the amps up loud, " according to Hear and Now . Notably, the band hadn't played together for a few years. Keyboardist Benmont Tench told Rolling Stone's Andy Greene that at the jam, "We mainly did cover songs. [...] Tom was also making up songs on the spot. We were shaking off the rust."
In early December, the upcoming tour was announced on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, with Petty appearing in a comical sketch about it via his studio. The Tom Petty website also promised special guests along the tour that would include Joe Walsh and Chris Stapleton. But Petty also hinted heavily that the tour might be his last, telling Rolling Stone, "I'm thinking it may be the last trip around the country, " or at least the last big tour. "We're all on the backside of our sixties, " he said. "I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can." That said, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers prepared for the tour to kick off in Oklahoma City on April 20. It would last several months.
Tom Petty honored at MusiCares Gala
As the band began rehearsals for the 40th Anniversary Tour, Tom Petty received a nice surprise: In February 2017, he received the MusiCares Person of the Year award. Billboard reported on the event, which featured over three hours of performances by such music greats as the Bangles, the Foo Fighters, George Strait, Jeff Lynne, Randy Newman, and Petty's longtime friend, Stevie Nicks. The event "brought in more than $8.5 million for musicians in medical or financial need." Petty was indeed humbled, telling the audience, "Twenty years ago, I would have been way too cynical to do this, but I'm 66 now."
To Stevie Nicks especially, Petty's MusiCares award was well-deserved. Rolling Stone verifies that Fleetwood Mac's lead crooner and accomplished songwriter first met Petty back in 1978 and sang alongside him on the song "Insider" for his 1981 album Hard Promises. In turn, Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell penned "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, " which Nicks sang with Petty. In the years following, the two often performed together and were known to make special appearances at one another's concerts. Nicks also later expressed her concern about Petty that night. After the MusiCares gala, according to People, Nicks said Petty was " talking to me about how important it was to him. And maybe he was talking about it because [he] was ill. He was not well." Nicks was so concerned about Petty that she felt he should have canceled the tour.
Tom Petty's 40th Anniversary Tour
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True to Stevie Nicks' comments about Tom Petty at MusicCares, the musician was indeed suffering from a hairline fracture in his left hip, according to David Fricke of Rolling Stone . There was no time to really deal with it, since the tour was kicking off soon, and Petty, ever mindful of his fans, did not want to disappoint anyone. Petty's manager, Tony Dimitriades, later said, "I don't think he even knew when it happened, " but the rocker's hip was certainly bothering him. "You can't tour like that, " Dimitriades said. "Why not?" Petty responded, "I'll do it in a chair if I have to." Stat News physician writer Lipi Roy verified that surgery would have put Petty down for two months or more.
Petty's wife, Dana, would later reveal that Petty required "powerful medications" to meet the physical requirements of jumping around onstage during the tour. Dana said her husband "insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans." Tom Petty's decision was a huge gamble – Billboard indicates that 637, 671 tickets were sold, grossing $61 million for the tour. And on the band's first night out at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed to a more-than-pleased crowd, according to Jambase . Joe Walsh kicked things off before the band opened with an old favorite, "Rockin' Around (With You), " from their debut album so many years ago. The crowd cheered as they watched the Heartbreakers perform for the first time since 2014.
The Heartbreakers Kick it at Red Rocks
In May, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers spent two nights playing Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, a gorgeous natural rock formation with a built-in outdoor theater which has featured musical entertainment since 1941, according to Colorado Encyclopedia . Dylan Owens from the Denver Post's The Know called the show "a memorable one, " with the band playing from "a seemingly bottomless bucket of hits." Especially pleasing to fans was an acoustic sing-along of "Learnin' to Fly, " with the audience singing out the chorus like "an eerily beautiful choral society" as a crescent moon shone brightly in the night sky and the night lights of Denver glowed far away. "I'd hug every one of you if I could, " Petty told his fans.
As is typical of Colorado in spring, a wicked thunderstorm struck on the second night at Red Rocks, forcing the band backstage as fans (bedecked in "Petty" ponchos), scrambled to take cover. The Tom Petty website recounted that after a full half-hour of rain, the storm passed as the road crew took the stage to uncover the band's gear. Several minutes later, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage once more. "Better safe than sorry, I guess, " Petty told the audience. "Here's one we don't normally do. Thanks for sticking with us through the storm." The band then launched into "Swingin'" from their 1999 album Echo, with Petty adapting some of the lyrics to fit the storm that had just passed through.
Tom Petty's last performance with Stevie Nicks
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Mention of Red Rocks and Tom Petty isn't complete without Stevie Nicks, who has played the famed amphitheater numerous times. Nicks didn't make an appearance at Petty's Red Rocks gig, but she did play alongside him in July at London's Hyde Park. "The friendship between Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks was plain to see when the latter came on stage, " the Independent reported. "You know that Tom Petty is my favorite rock star!" Nicks shouted to the crowd after being introduced. By then, the whole world knew that Nicks and Petty were longtime friends. According to The Sound, Petty would later recall that when Nicks first befriended him, "We were a little wary of Stevie. [...] And then, of course, she turned into one of my great, great friends forever."
That day at Hyde Park, Nicks remembered rehearsing "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" with the band in the dressing room. Later, singer Shania Twain showed up, according to Rolling Stone, and told Nicks, "I'm going to be greedy right now. I need to watch this show with you." So saying, Twain joined Nicks at the side of the stage and watched Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform, and the two sang along "at the top of [their] lungs." Neither knew it was the last time they would see Petty sing. "I look back on that and what a magical moment that was, " Nicks remembered. "Shania got to stand there with me and watch my boys."
Tom Petty's health problems escalate
Just two weeks after Hyde Park, according to the Tom Petty website, keyboardist Benmont Tench came down with a cold. "You don't want to shake my hand today, " he told others. Within a month, Petty was sick, too, suffering from bronchitis and laryngitis. His doctor advised him to take time off, resulting in upcoming performances in Sacramento and Berkeley, California, being rescheduled. "Tom & The Heartbreakers sincerely apologizes for any and all inconvenience and disappointment this has caused, " said the post. As ticket-holders reset their calendars for the new dates, the Mercury News' Jim Harrington "bet my copy of Damn the Torpedos" that the band would be back to play other northern California venues in the future.
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers honored their 2017 dates at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley a few days later, Harrington seemed unimpressed. "Petty stuck to a very safe and familiar set list, favoring the usual assortment of well-known pop-rock ditties despite telling Rolling Stone that he was looking at breaking out some long-neglected songs, " he wrote. But "the crowd definitely didn't mind as it rocked along with glee to such big numbers as 'Refugee' and 'Runnin' Down a Dream.' " But Harrington apparently didn't see what Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, who opened the concert, saw. "He was going through some great pain, " Wolf told Rolling Stone . "I'd watch him coming down from the stage. There was an inner force driving him."
Petty barreled through the last leg of his tour
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The Heartbreakers' last stop on the tour was a three-day stint at the Hollywood Bowl in September. The shows received rave reviews, with Variety's Chris Willman commenting, "Petty and the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour feels like a victory lap, but not a valedictory lap." Willman observed that Petty's bandmates "scoffed" at the idea of the show being the last tour ever. "Should the Bowl just get them on the books now?" he wondered. Even as Tom Petty and his band rocked the house, however, the last two songs on the final night ( via Slate ), September 25, show Petty visibly lumbering across the stage and limping off after signing a few autographs.
Willman did note that Tom Petty "spends a lot of the night hunched over his guitar, as if he means to creep up on us." Although the stance was somewhat typical of Petty in concert, there was definitely more to it that night. Stevie Nicks told People that Petty was visibly unwell. "He should've canceled, " she said later, "and he should've just gone home and gone to the hospital. But not Tom." Indeed, in his last interview, with Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times, Petty remained dedicated to doing even more. "I just have to learn to rest a little bit, like everyone's telling me, " he said. "I need to stop working for a period of time." But retirement, according to Lewis, was not in the man's vocabulary.
The death of a musical icon
In the late evening of October 1, Tom Petty "was found unconscious, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest" at his home in Malibu, California, according to TMZ . The article gave further updates throughout the following early afternoon, including a report that EMTs were able to get a pulse before taking the singer to UCLA's Santa Monica Hospital. There, he lingered on life support, while certain news sources (including CBS News and Rolling Stone, via iHeart Radio ) jumped the gun and reported that Petty had died. TMZ maintained that there was no brain activity and that Petty's family had decided to pull life support.
Later that day, a chaplain was summoned to Petty's hospital room as his family reeled from the early reports that he was already dead. CNN published an alleged Instagram post from Petty's daughter, AnnaKim Petty. The post was aimed at Rolling Stone, reading, "My dad is not dead yet but your f*cking magazine is." As confused friends and fans dug for the truth, Petty did die that evening at 8:40 PM. Tony Dimitriades posted the news on the Tom Petty website : "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." The post further explained that Petty could not be revived, dying peacefully in the presence of his family, bandmates, and friends. He was buried at Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades with his parents.
The truth about Tom Petty's death
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As tributes rolled out across the media, the cause of Tom Petty's death remained "pending" (per Becker's Hospital Review ) as an official autopsy was performed. Three long months later, Rolling Stone reported that the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner had found numerous drugs in Petty's system. Some were for pain, while others served as anti-depression drugs and sleep aides. The news set off a whole new series of alarms regarding the growing opioid crisis among celebrities. Petty's family further explained (via the Tom Petty website ) that on the day he died, Petty was told that his fractured hip was now broken.
Most importantly, Petty died "beautifully exhausted after doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans." Petty's death, the family said, was simply "an unfortunate accident, " adding that "we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis." Most poignant was Stevie Nicks' reaction to Petty's death. "The loss of Tom Petty has just about broken my heart, " she told a crowd at Radio City Music Hall that month, according to People . Nicks applauded Petty's brave decision to finish his 40th Anniversary Tour, concluding with a parting word that was felt by so many who knew and loved him. "So Tom, " she said, "I know you're standing next to me 'cause you always have been for so many years."