Tom Petty’s Death: One Year Later
Tom Petty always had a stubborn streak about him, friends, family and colleagues noted.
That’s why no one could talk him out of undergoing hip surgery when he was supposed to be on tour. Sadly, his decision turned out to be a major contributor to his death on Oct. 2, 2017.
His final show had taken place just days earlier, the last of three concerts at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles that marked the conclusion of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour. In retrospect, the video shows a tired man who can be seen to be enduring some discomfort with movement, while also appearing to be loaded with positive energy through his music.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” he’d said after the band took their bows. “God bless ya. Good night!” He’d then leaned into the crowd and signed two or three autographs before walking off.
Watch Tom Petty's Last Minutes Onstage
There were a blizzard of tributes – not just in personal messages but in an upsurge of artists performing Petty songs at their own shows, and a fan-organized “vampire walk,” inspired by a lyric in classic track “Free Fallin’.”
Among the highest-profile covers were Bob Dylan’s version of “Learning to Fly,” and Mike McCready and KT Tunstall’s take on “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty was also hailed at the UCR Fan Choice Awards, at the Grammys by Chris Stapleton and EmmyLou Harris, at the Oscars by Eddie Vedder and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony by the Killers.
His old friend Stevie Nicks spoke of him as Fleetwood Mac received the MusiCares Person of the Year Award, saying, “The loss of Tom Petty has just about broken my heart. He was not only a good man to go own the river with, as Johnny Cash said, he was a great father and he was a great friend, and he was one of my best friends. My heart will never get over this."
Three months after his death, his family confirmed that he’d succumbed to an accidental overdose of painkillers, and that the fractured hip had become a full break in the hours before. They assumed the additional pain had led him to up his dosage to a fatal level. His daughter AnnaKim dismissed the suggestion that he’d become an opiate addict.
“His recent death is tragic, yet he died from doing what he loved and what will continue to keep his spirit alive," she said. "Touring with a broken hip because he would have it no other way. He loved performing. There are no hypothetical questions I love my dad and feel he is an immortal badass. The amount of pain his hip caused was beyond a normal surgery."
Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench later reported that a tribute box set, An American Treasure, was under production. “I always say I’m an evangelist for Tom, because I think the world needs to know just how great he was," keyboardist Tench said.
Videos followed, including for “Keep A Little Soul” that featured previously unseen footage of the band, and one for “You And Me” with fan-contributed clips. Speaking of plans to release further archive material, Petty’s widow, Dana, said she hoped fans wouldn’t think greed was the motivation.
“It’s not about the money – it’s about getting the stuff out there for the world to love,” she explained, noting that putting together An American Treasure "was not an easy process for any of us. It was very emotional, and, especially at first, hearing the songs was brutal. But music is healing. It got easier. It felt like Tommy would be so proud of this.”
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Keep A Little Soul' Video
As time healed wounds, Campbell accepted that the possibility of the Heartbreakers reuniting. “I just couldn’t think about doing that,” he said. “I thought it would just be too sad since we’d be missing our older brother.” But, he added, “Of course we’ll play again someday. We love each other too much not to do that.”
It had been reported that Petty was considering a tour based on 1994 solo album Wildflowers (which was also the potential subject of an expanded re-release), leading Campbell to speculate, “It would be a great tribute to Tom just to do that album. We’d probably have four or five different guest singers with us. We don’t know who they might be, though, or when this might happen.” He stated that the idea of touring with a new frontman, arguing that “nobody can fill those shoes.”
With An American Treasure having arrived in the days leading up to the first anniversary of Petty’s death, Dana revealed that her husband had believed the 40th anniversary tour was to be his last road trip. At the time he was told about his hip injury, he’d also been told he had emphysema.
“He would do anything to help anyone -- his bandmates, the crew, the fans – and that's why he did the last tour with a fractured hip," she said. "He was adamant. He found out a few days before the tour was gonna start – and that he had emphysema.” She added that he’d been “insane in pain, but he was stubborn. He’d had it in mind it was his last tour and he owed it to his long-time crew, from decades some of them, and his fans.”
Campbell, who joined Fleetwood Mac earlier this year (much to his surprise), reflected on his feelings on the turn of the anniversary. “It still seems unreal to me,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’m past the point where I’m living with grief every minute, but sometimes I’ll be driving and one of our songs come on and it’ll hit me.”
He recalled attending an ELO concert, where Heartbreakers tracks were played over the PA before the show. “Hearing them in a big room like that just shut me down,” he said. “We wrote those songs together. We lived a dream together. You can’t just snap your fingers and get over something like that.”
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'Gainesville' Video
Referring to the fact that new bandmate Nicks had said the last Heartbreakers tour should have been canceled, Campbell said, “She wasn’t there. Once Tom made up his mind, nobody was going to talk him out of anything. If you said, ‘Oh, you should go to the hospital,’ he’d be like, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing the tour.’ Nobody forced him to do it. … All I know is he did what he wanted to do, and we backed him up. We were there for him. And he was having the time of his life. I’m not jiving you. He was loving that tour.”
He hoped the circumstances surrounded his old friend’s death wouldn’t become the focus of too much attention. “So what if the guy had a mishap?” he demanded. “Tom was a human being. Whatever happened happened. What’s important is the music. That’s what they are going to remember.”
Dana argued that her husband had gone out in a bright moment of his career. “The day before he died, he was pounding his chest going, 'I'm on top of the world!'" she recalled. "Never had he been so proud of himself, so happy, so looking forward to the future – and then he's gone.”
Remembering Tom Petty