Likewise, the images Petty's words conjure up are concrete, powerful, and pointed. His songs are great and immortal not for their profound literary or musical content, but rather for the way they strike a universal chord with listeners. Like any timeless storyteller, Tom Petty plays songs that reach deep into our psyches and pull out the rebel, the screw-up, the impulsive kid, the risk-taker, and the dreamer within all of us. Petty speaks directly to his audience in every song. His lyrics seem to say, "Hey, I'm not perfect, and neither are you, but that's OK—as long as you rock hard, learn from your mistakes, love deeply, don't take 'no' for an answer, and never stop chasing your goals and dreams."
When Tom Petty first started out in Gainsville, Florida, he was part of a group called the Sundowners. By age 14, he had formed another group, Mudcrutch, who traveled the famed road to Hollywood and landed a record deal. The group broke up, but many of the original members, including Benmont Tench (keyboards), Mike Campbell (guitar), Stan Lynch (drums), and Ron Blair (bass) formed the Heartbreakers. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers released their first self-titled album in 1976 when Petty was only 26 years-o—old, and the rest was rock history. While the core of the group (Petty, Campbell, and Tench) have remained the same for the whole history of the band, bassist Blair eventually dropped out and was replaced by Howie Epstein. When Epstein died of a drug overdose in 2003, Blair returned. Also, Lynch left in 1994 and was replaced by Steve Ferrone.
Like many other rock n' roll frontmen, Petty partook of his fair share of drugs, women, alcohol, and excessive partying in his day. He abused cocaine for years and the long-term affects of the drug weathered his face and threw him into some serious depressions. After his first marriage ended, he took the idea of a bachelor pad to an extreme and lived in an actual cabin in Pacific Palisades (near Malibu), complete with chickens and very rustic conditions.
Throughout Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' thirty-year career, Petty's self-confidence, stubbornness, and integrity has led him into some gritty battles with the record industry over his creative freedom and money issues. Though the fights were sometimes pretty nasty, Petty usually won in the end. He and his band always insisted on doing things their way. Petty has said, "The Heartbreakers are not that kind of people where you could come in and tell them what to do. [That] would just be a joke to us." In fact, Tony Dimitriades, who has managed him for 29 years, is even barred from entry into the studio: "We told Tony we'd fire him if he ever came to a session."
Tom Petty's induction into the music industry was charmed -- he and his band scored a deal almost immediately after moving to Los Angeles, after handing out demo tapes along the Sunset Strip. Decades later, he realized the amazing luck he and other bands like his had at that time, and has become increasingly bitter at the recording industry. He In a 2006 interview with Esquire, he lamented that "I couldn't exist nowadays. I could never have built a career like I've had if I were just starting out now. Radio doesn't take a chance on anything anymore; they've streamlined the playlists to the lowest common denominator. It's really kind of silly that they think people would rather hear 'Stairway to Heaven' one more time than a new song."
Whatever Petty says, though, we're pretty sure that Tom Pettty & The Heartbreakers could have gotten a record deal in any era—they are just too good to be ignored. This is not a one-hit wonder band; these guys have been churning out hit singles for thirty years and show no signs of slowing down. Of his songwriting ability, Petty says, "It has to be a gift, because why would I be able to write a song instead of someone else? After a while, you come to realize, 'I've really been blessed. I can write these things and it makes me happy, and it makes millions of people happy.' It's an obligation, it's bigger than you. It's the only true magic I know. It's not pulling a rabbit out of a hat; it's real. It's your soul floating out to theirs."