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Rock's Rebel: 9 Things That Make Tom Petty Such a Badass

After nearly four decades of making music together, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have just released one of their best albums ever. Hypnotic Eye, the band's 13th studio album, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and is the first chart-topper in the Heartbreakers' history, despite a long string of hits. The new album marks a return to form for Petty, recalling his early aggressive albums, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976) and You're Gonna Get It! (1978).

Petty has a reputation for being scrappy, and he doesn't disappoint on Hypnotic Eye, sounding off on the Catholic Church (on a song called "Playing Dumb," which is included as a bonus cut on the vinyl release), the unchecked greed of the One Percent and the corruption of power. The following are nine occasions that attest to the audacious spirit that makes Tom Petty one of rock's feistiest—and coolest—icons.

Tom's incorrigible nature manifested at an early age. By the time Tom was four years old, he was already showing a rebellious streak. According to his father, the young boy found a quarter on the coffee table and decided to go into town to spend it. When his father told him he couldn't go, that he wasn't big enough to go alone and that he had to wait until his mother could take him, Tom headed off to town anyway, an act of defiance that earned him a spanking and his dad's admiration.

Tom met the King. A seminal moment in Petty's life came when he was 11 years old and met Elvis Presley on the set of the movie Follow That Dream in Ocala, Florida. Tom's uncle processed film in Gainesville, where Petty was born and raised, and happened to be working on the Elvis film. "When I met Elvis," Petty said in an interview with Esquire, "we didn't really have a conversation. I was introduced by my uncle, and he [Elvis] sort of grunted my way. I had never seen a real mob scene before. I was really young and impressionable."

Petty recalls a long procession of white Cadillacs rolling in and guys in mohair suits and flashy sunglasses getting out, their pompadours so black they were blue. Petty says Elvis didn't look real, that he seemed to glow. He says Elvis was astounding and called the meeting "a semi-religious experience."

Tom stayed and watched them film throughout the day. At one point a crowd was handing records over the fence for Elvis to sign. I was like, "Damn, if I had an Elvis record I could get an autograph." Tom returned home that day a changed boy. The next day he traded his slingshot for a friend's collection of Presley and Little Richard records, and thus began Petty's obsession with music.

Tom waged war on the record industry. Fast forward a few decades. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had two records under their belt and were on a roll when Petty became mired in a legal battle after trying to renegotiate his contract with Shelter Records. Petty was unhappy with the terms of his contract with Shelter and seized upon the sale of the label by ABC to industry giant MCA as an opportunity to declare himself a free agent. Tom said he would not be "bought and sold like a piece of meat." This move prompted a lawsuit against him by MCA and Shelter that prevented him from signing with another label.

Petty refused to allow his next album to be released, even going so far as to bear the cost of recording it personally, leaving him some $500,000 in debt. So he filed for bankruptcy in mid-1979, hoping to gain leverage in the brewing legal dispute by having the bankruptcy court declare null and void an extremely unfavorable contract that Petty felt he had signed under duress. At the time of the filing, Petty had little to show financially for the two albums already behind him: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (featuring the hit singles "Breakdown" and "American Girl") and You're Gonna Get It!

After nine months of litigation, MCA agreed to release Tom from his existing contract and re-signed him to a $3 million contract with Backstreet Records, a new MCA affiliate. Petty's triumphant return was Damn the Torpedoes, with its hard-driving cuts "Refugee" and "Even the Losers" and the moodier yet radio-friendly tunes "Here Comes My Girl" and "Don't Do Me Like That." The album hit #2 on the album charts, went double platinum with 2.5 million copies sold, and propelled Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into the stratosphere.

And he waged war again. With their battle over Tom Petty's contract behind them, MCA executives planned to capitalize on the popularity of the band and their fourth album, Hard Promises, by raising the price to $9.98, a full dollar more than the standard retail price for an album at the time. An angry Petty, who always had a populist view of rock, got into another scuffle with his record company in 1981 by challenging MCA's intention to issue his new disc with a higher price tag. After a month-long standoff that saw Petty threatening to withhold the LP or retitle it $8.98 and organize fan protest letters, the company relented. Led by its lead single, "The Waiting," Hard Promises came out at $8.98 and went on to platinum sales status. As for Petty, he forever became a friend of the record buying public. Said Tom at the time, "If we don't take a stand, one of these days records are going to be $20."

Petty defied doctors who said he was through playing guitar. The infamous wall-punching incident that broke Tom's left hand happened during the Southern Accents sessions in 1984. It was 4:00 in the morning, and Tom was in his recording studio listening to a playback for "The Best of Everything," a song he'd been trying to finish for weeks. Realizing the song's demo was better than what he'd recorded drove him crazy. As he was walking from one room to the next, Tom slammed the wall with his hand and broke five bones. "Pulverized it," he says of the injured hand. "Broke it to powder."

When Petty's doctor said that he may not be able to play guitar again, Tom balked. "I wasn't going to quit," he says, "and I wasn't going to accept that I couldn't play the guitar. I wasn't buying that." Surgeons rebuilt Tom's hand with wire and metal studs. Nine months of painful therapy followed, and by the spring of 1985, Tom had proven the doctors wrong and was back playing his guitar.

Tom survived a house fire that was an apparent attempt on his life. At 10:00 on the morning of May 17, 1987, Petty's house in Encino, California, went up in flames with Tom, his wife, one of their daughters and their housekeeper in it. The raging fire burned his housekeeper's hair and hands. Trapped in the house after hustling his family out a side door to the pool, Tom escaped the flames and thick black smoke by crawling out the front door on his belly. He lost everything except the jeans and t-shirt he was wearing.

The blaze that took ten fire companies nearly an hour to extinguish had reduced Tom's house to a smoking ruin. The only room spared by the fire was his basement recording studio. After an investigation, it was determined that a staircase behind the house had been doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire. To date, the arson case has neither been closed nor solved. Two days after the fire, a shaken Petty was back out on tour.

Tom narrowly escaped losing everything again in a second house fire. Lightning almost struck twice when Petty's current home in Malibu, California, was caught up in the devastating wildfires that hit the region in October 2007. Two decades after his Encino house burned to the ground, Tom woke one night to the odor of smoke. He immediately roused his second wife and a friend in a nearby building and had time enough to grab only one item as he fled the so-called Canyon Fire. "It was a Hohner bass that I've used on every record, and you can't find another one," Petty told Billboard. "I grabbed that and I went, 'Hell, is this going to happen to me twice in my life where everything I own is just wiped out?'" But the rocker admits he learned a valuable lesson by surviving the first fire. As long as everyone escaped unharmed, Petty was fine with having all his worldly possessions taken away and having to start all over again.

Tom tells Uncut magazine the blaze reached the garden patio of his property. "That's how close the fires came," he says. "The smoke was so thick, if you went outside you couldn't breathe." Though the Malibu house was ultimately spared, the emotions of that event seared a memory that Petty writes about on "All You Can Carry," from Hypnotic Eye, which recollects the fear and the lessons of that traumatic night.

Tom was friends with a Beatle. Tom was a close friend of the late George Harrison. He spent quite a bit of time with Harrison and sang with him in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. In an interview with NPR, Petty says he and George were friends for decades. "I don't like to bring it up that much, because The Beatles are so special that people might see it as boasting or something. But he actually became my friend, past being a Beatle to me. It was like having an older brother that had a lot of experience in the music business, someone who I could go to with my troubles and questions." His friendship with George was deeply meaningful to Tom as it was the Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that awakened the notion in him, as it did in so many others who witnessed that famous broadcast, that he, too, might actually be able to play music.

Friends and family describe George as a kind of spiritual aspirant. He had a deep fascination with meditation, mantras, gardening, and Indian music. The greatest gift Petty says he received from Harrison was a sense of spirituality. "He gave me a way of understanding a higher power without it being stupid, or having tons of rules and books to read."

The most important thing Petty wants people to know about George is that he was everything you'd imagine him to be and then some. "He was a very funny man," Tom says. "He could just kill me with his humor. He was a great guy and I miss him terribly."

Petty's Miraculous Music. Many people turn to music to help them weather a rough patch. Speaking again with NPR, Tom says music is a real magic with healing powers. He says he's had two people in his life who have contacted him to recount how they woke from a coma when family members played one of Petty's songs that they'd liked before they were injured and lapsed into a coma. These people credited Tom's music with having something to do with that.


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are currently touring behind Hypnotic Eye. Check out tour dates here.

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