It was odd seeing Tom Petty's song tied into the Las Vegas massacre, with Jason Aldean playing I Won't Back Down on Saturday Night Live. I suppose it was meant in good faith, but the two are in no way related.
Petty spent much of his life battling the music industry over control of his songs, but with his death I suppose anything is fair game. The Florida Gators similarly used the song during the break between the third and fourth quarters ostensibly as tribute to Tom Petty, but the athletic department said it hopes the song will become a "tradition." Petty had no real relationship with UF other than working as a groundskeeper back in the 60's as a teen. His band Mudcrutch played a few frat houses as well.
Gainesville was a hip place to be in the 60s and early 70s. Not only did the university town produce Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers but Don Felder, who would become a part of The Eagles. The Great Southern Music Hall was a popular venue, closing down in the early 80s. Bands also played The Rathskeller, or more simply "The Rat," and The Eagles descended on Florida Field in 1980 on The Long Run tour. Gainesville remained a happening place in the 80s, but no longer for new sounds. Athens, Georgia, had become the hip place to be.
I saw Petty in Gainesville in the early 80s. Not quite sure whether it was Fall of 82 or Spring of 83, but it was part of the Heartbreakers' Long After Dark tour. In those days, a band went on tour to promote their latest album. Petty was more famous at the time for penning a song for Stevie Nicks that became the signature hit off her Bella Donna album.
Like so many hit songs, Stop Dragging My Heart Around came about purely by chance. It was never intended to be her song. Petty and the Heartbreakers were planning it for their album Hard Promises, but Jimmy Iovine was also producing Stevie Nicks' first solo album and wanted songs to fill it. He recorded a separate track with Stevie's vocals, and eventually had Shelly Yakus mix the vocals together, which resulted in the hit song that dominated the air waves in 1981. Petty and Nicks also sang Insider together for his album, but it was pretty much forgotten.
I can't say I was a big Tom Petty fan at the time. I liked You Got Lucky because the video reminded me of Mad Max, but beyond that I didn't much listen to him. However, I was hooked after that concert, especially with Stevie Nicks joining him on stage near the end for a jamming version of Stop Dragging My Heart Around.
Within a span of a few short years, Tom Petty went from being a local boy who had done good to a rock icon thanks not only to his relationship with Stevie Nicks, but with Bob Dylan, who he met at Farm Aid in 1985. He went on a worldwide tour with Dylan that year but still had time to record Southern Accents, which included a Stevie Nicks-inspired song, Don't Come Around Here No More, written by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics. As the story goes, this is what Stevie Nicks told Joe Walsh after they broke up that year. If all this wasn't enough, Dylan hooked Tom into the Traveling Wilburys, a super group that included Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne.
Petty had moved out to LA in the late 60s hoping to catch a break, but found himself mostly fighting with record companies. It wasn't until he and his Heartbreakers came out with Damned the Torpedoes in 1979 that they found success. The album rose all the way to #2 on the pop charts.
He and Stevie Nicks seemed a natural fit and it is a relationship they would maintain for many years. It didn't seem to affect his marriage, as Stevie and Tom's wife, Jane, were apparently very good friends. Edge of Seventeen even started out as a tribute to Tom and Jane, but evolved into a lament over the death of her uncle.
One finds out these things only after a favorite musician passes away. I picked up Tom Petty albums along the way but pretty much lost track of him after his Wildflowers album. Back in Seattle in 2004, I found a box set entitled Playback at a record shop and got interested in him again. I had completely forgotten how good his early songs were. Turns out Playback was from 1995.
Never got a chance to see him again. Virtually no interest in Tom Petty in Lithuania. Not even a comment on his death in the national news. He was very popular in Britain but mainland Europe acts like it never heard of him. Even the Traveling Wilburys seem lost in the mist of time.
Tom Petty will not be forgotten. He built up a legion of fans young and old. Looking at the faces in the crowd at his Gatorville Concert in 2006, most are young and hanging onto each and every word of his songs. Stevie Nicks joined him once again, singing a number of songs with him including Insider, which still resonates over the years.
I just hope that I Won't Back Down doesn't become an anthem for whatever cause someone is promoting. It was never intended to be used in this way. The song and the album, Full Moon Fever, reunited Petty with Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. It inspired Johnny Cash, who interpreted it in his own unique way on one of his final albums. This is probably the way Tom Petty would like the song to be remembered.