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Tom Petty: October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017

Classic Rock’s Jaan Uhelszki takes a personal look back at the life and times of one of the great American songwriters of the past 40 years

The only person who wasn’t surprised when Tom Petty died from cardiac arrest on October 2, 2017, was Tom Petty. Prescient always – blame it on being part Cherokee – but from as far back as 2006, death had entered the equation for the rangy guy from Florida.

On that Easter Monday in 2006, while reluctantly doing press for the just-about-to-be released Highway Companion, his third solo album, he talked about the future, or what he thought he had left of it. In his airy studio, located in a wing of his baronial homestead about a quarter of a mile above California’s Pacific Coast Highway, there was something chilling about talking about matters so dark and serious in a light-filled room tucked away under flowering wisteria and pepper trees.

“One of my great strengths as an artist when I was young was realising that I had the time to do everything – anything was possible, there was an infinite amount of time,” he said, perched a little precariously on a tall bar stool. “I didn’t sweat things as much. When people talk about those record-company battles and how courageous it was, it was because I knew I had the time to get out of [the deal].

“I wouldn’t want to get into the middle of something like that now. I’m more aware of a limited amount of time. I know baby boomers seem to think they should live longer than anyone: ‘Oh my God, we are the greatest people that ever lived!’ The truth is that I don’t know if I am gonna live that long, and I want to get as much done as I can, so now time is really precious to me.”

Only 55 at the time, he had a sense of urgency in him, a man aware of more road behind him than in front. I pointed out at the time that Ronnie Van Zant had told me something similar 30 years before, and we both knew how that turned out – especially since Lynyrd Skynryd’s plane crashed on Petty’s 27th birthday.

He gave me a funny look and then bent over my tape recorder and told me resolutely: “I want to go out quickly. I don’t want to lie around in a hospital and die slowly.” Leaning even closer to the recorder, he said, “Just for the record, I don’t want to die in a plane crash. Really don’t want to do that.”


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