Tom Petty: Through the Looking Glass

Free falling from a high place, yet no one caught on when he lost his footing

The author Karen Blixen once said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him? — STEPHEN GROSZ

The house was different from any Tom Petty had ever lived in. It was in Pacific Palisades, just off Sunset, nothing a man without money could consider; but neither was it a home typical of those the rich and famous are looking for out there in the land of trophies. There were chickens in the yard. It was like a thing ripped from an Adirondacks postcard and dropped into a redwood grove by the Pacific. There were no pastels, no Corinthian columns signifying wealth and, however inexactly, taste. It was dark, all knotty pine, with cracks of light visible through some of the logs.

Not too long after he moved in, an itinerant cleaning lady walked up the driveway — anything is possible in LA — and he hired her. She stole what she could before he caught on, more than a month in. Things like that happened in this place. But, finally, what made it most unlike any other home he’d lived in was this: he was alone in it.

Petty found himself in the “Chicken Shack” right on the heels of a remarkable string of successes. There wasn’t much glory left to dream up that he hadn’t already experienced. It had been years since he’d passed through the various phases that begin when kids sign record contracts: the excitement, the expectations wide and high, the astonishment that, yes, it was really happening, the seemingly endless waiting, opening slots on tours with the wrong headliners, the hotels blending one into the next, some fun with loose cash, cars, women, houses, a song on the charts, adventures in Winnebagos and buses, some disappointment, monotony, interactions with both the wise men and the clowns of the record industry, and — for the privileged few who actually begin to taste stardom — the unexpected isolation. This had gone on for long enough to normalize into something he could expect to find waiting for him each day when he awoke.

Tom Petty had taken up residence in a situation that even the most hopeful musician has to set aside as fantasy. And he’d honored what he’d been given by doing what he could to make the best possible records, one after another. He held himself to that. Every song had to count. When he wasn’t on the road, he was in the studio. His family knew the deal, and suffered for it. By the time he really entered manhood, he was locked into the album cycle and knew little about life outside of it. On the music side, the results were pretty straightforward: in a culture of argument and friendships lost because you couldn’t see eye to eye on what acts meant the most, Petty was the guy most everybody agreed on.

His story has a whiff of Horatio Alger and at least a little Elvis to it: a shitkicker from some two-bedroom ranch down in North Florida got out. And once he was out, he walked, without a lot of fanfare, into the room where the big dreams are kept, where he was given a place to hang his hat and coat. It had happened. Yet there he was, so many years into it, alone in a strange house in Pacific Palisades, staying in bed most days. Getting high was the last thing that seemed to be working. The songs had all but stopped coming.

[photo: Red Slater]

None of us knew this. We saw the guy with well-worn and hard-earned rock-and-roll success, the nod of approval from his heroes, a wry, slightly twisted smile on his face — a musician who, apparently, wouldn’t know how to fuck up a hot streak if he had to. And he’d been on one for a long time. Even his inner circle, small by most standards, had not adjusted its view of the man. No one was fully aware of what was going on out there in that house, how low Petty had gone. Or how much lower he would go. He was falling from a high place, and no one caught on when he lost his footing.

A little more than a decade before, after touring with and behind Bob Dylan for almost two years, a formative if sometimes strange, sometimes euphoric, sometimes maddening collaboration arranged by Dylan himself, a chain of creative high points raised Tom Petty, already a platinum-selling artist, to the status of rock-and-roll elder statesman. He was young for the job but few filled the position better.

At the outset of that run, Petty stood alongside George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne as a Traveling Wilbury. And he was there at a Beatle’s request. Then, despite the lukewarm, even harsh initial response of MCA, his label at the time, he released his first solo recording and found himself with the biggest record of his career. “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were playing everywhere. He followed that with another major release, this time done with his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, which generated two hits, including “Learning to Fly.” Then, as if by that time the whole thing had a momentum that couldn’t be slowed, a greatest hits package came out that yielded another hit in the form of a bonus track, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Greatest Hits ended up going past the ten times platinum mark. In its wake, Petty looped back to solo territory and created Wildflowers, the recording he still considers his best. From that album, another hit, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” won the Grammy, somewhat casually. A deeper collection, six CDs deep, entitled Playback was then released. Intended only for the listeners fanatical in their devotion to Petty, it caught everyone off guard and went platinum itself. The timeline was like a pileup of good fortune.

But it was with all of that accumulated success and stature lending a golden sheen to his name that Petty came back down through the clouds. He had acted on what some considered an overdue decision and ended a long marriage that had started where many do, in possibility and promise, before growing complicated, and then going dark. True to the nature of divorce, no one in his family was quite prepared for what would happen on the upper floors when the foundation was ripped out. Petty included. All that had fueled his mind and spirit since he was a young man dreaming his way out of Florida, the grand ambitions, the visions of glory, the self-made character of his success, the drive to write songs — it all seemed like cartoons screened on a monkey’s back.

When making a follow-up to Wildflowers, Rick Rubin noticed that when Tom Petty did make it into the studio to work, he was often hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, sometimes even walking with a cane. Entertainment wasn’t a world in which you asked a lot of questions. So Rubin didn’t.

Petty closed himself off from the world he’d built. Visitors came to see him: Stevie Nicks, his manager Tony Dimitriades, a few bandmates. But even that traffic slowed. And when it was still coming, most guests didn’t get too far past the front door. Some speculated that he’d given himself over to drug addiction. Others felt sure that he was having a midlife breakdown of some kind. For a while there, he was behaving more like an animal that had gone off to die than a man at the peak of his career.

Back among the redwoods, Tom Petty felt like he was at the end of something. And though he wasn’t, he would have to pull himself up to see the vague outline of a future worth sticking around for.

Excerpted from Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes. Available now from Henry Holt & Co. at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and other fine retailers.

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