For the past three years, I’ve been impressing people—hell, impressing myself—with the fact that I’ve been to Tom Petty’s house. I’d gone to Malibu to interview him for UNCUT magazine about Hypnotic Eye. Admirably raucous and rancorous, it proved to be his final studio album with the Heartbreakers, the band that he fronted for the better part of 40 years. So that album’s mostly what we talked about in a room next to his studio, which he’d built next to the rambling, Spanish-style, and thoroughly unpretentious home he bought after an arsonist set fire to his place in Encino in 1987. This one nearly burned down too, thanks to the massive wildfires in the area in 2007—as we chatted before sitting down, he pointed out the window to the spot a little higher up the hill where the fires stopped short of his property and the Pacific Coast Highway just below. The house is where he was found unconscious and not breathing after his cardiac arrest early Monday morning.
I remember the room in the studio as homey—I could imagine Bob Dylan here with his boots up on the sofa, checking out the tasteful black-and-white framed photos on the walls. (Tom was onstage with his hero Roger McGuinn in one; with his fellow Wilbury Roy Orbison in another.) Petty served us coffee from a big stainless steel urn into oversized southwestern-style mugs that I imagined he washed himself because he didn’t want the pottery to get fucked up in the dishwasher. Throughout the interview, he puffed on a vape pen before rewarding himself at the end with a genuine smoke from a pack of American Spirit. Sporting a big bushy beard along with his usual straggly blond hair, Petty had the tanned and weathered face of an old Florida beach bum, but his bright blue eyes made him look younger by 15 years. He was friendly and a little crotchety—in other words, he was as cool as you could’ve hoped. We were supposed to have an hour but he gave me two. Then he walked me back to the front of the house and got on with his day.
So that’s the scene I’ve been replaying in my head since I heard the news. Somehow, our afternoon together—and its complete lack of the audience-with-a-rock-star bullshit you might expect—speaks to the Everyguy/no-bullshit/scrappy-kid-from-Gainesville thing that Petty always exuded. He was a man of the people in a way that Dylan and Springsteen couldn’t be, because they just seemed too oversized, too mythic, too huge from the get-go. Like the characters he tended to write about, Petty was always somewhere between underdog and self-made outcast. Yet the chip on his shoulder was the rare and beautiful kind that seemed to make him more empathetic to people rather than less so. Anyway, that’s what I hear in the songs that I go back to most—some are hits and others are deeper in albums that didn’t quite get as much love as they should’ve (like the Heartbreakers’ final two albums, Mojo and Hypnotic Eye). Petty’s pair of albums with the reconstituted version of his proto-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch proved that the man never lost his songwriting chops even if the snarling, punk-ass Petty of 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It and 1979’s sublime Dawn the Torpedoes was always gonna be hard to outdo.
When we spoke, Petty talked about his plans to do an expanded version of his Rick Rubin-produced solo masterpiece Wildflowers from 1994. He didn’t get a chance to realize that ambition but in 2015, he did a preview of sorts by putting out a previously unreleased song from the sessions called “Somewhere Under Heaven.” A deceptively simple vignette that movingly portrays the bond between a “working-man” dad and the daughter who’s too young to know how bad the world can be, it’s arguably as fine as anything he ever wrote. In the last verse, the father has this to say to his little girl: “One day you’re gonna fall in love/ One day you’re gonna pay the rent/ Hold on to what love you find/ You’re gonna need all you can get.”
Feels like good advice right now for all kinds of reasons.