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What Tom Petty meant to music and Los Angeles

Tom Petty performing at Arroyo Seco Weekend in Pasadena, California. Petty passed away last night due to a heart attack, he was 66.
Tom Petty performing at Arroyo Seco Weekend in Pasadena, California. Petty passed away last night due to a heart attack, he was 66.
Jessiqa Pace

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Legendary musician Tom Petty, who rose to fame in the 1970s with his band the Heartbreakers, died Monday after a heart attack. 

Music critic Steve Hochman joined A Martinez to remember Petty and to share some of his personal stories about working with and befriending him. 

Here are his thoughts: 

Just a week and a half ago, at the Hollywood Bowl, after Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers closed their 40th anniversary tour, he seemed in a tremendously good place — elated, energized, happy to share his remarkable song catalog with his hometown fans.

He and the band have their roots in Gainesville, Florida, but they moved out to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. This is where the Heartbreakers formed, with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench in the band from the beginning, and bassist Ron Blair, who left in the ‘80s but returned to the band in the early 2000s.

I was drawn in from the very start with the song “American Girl” released in 1976 on their first album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Here he is in 1985, performing the song at the Wiltern Theatre. 


What a great rocker, looking back to the ‘60s and such bands as the Byrds, the essential L.A. band. This is the song that's been going through my head almost constantly, particularly one line, as he paints a portrait of this young woman standing on her balcony, listening to “the cars roll by / like waves crashin’ on the beach,” yearning and searching for “something that’s so close / yet still so far away.”

"Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things." -Tom Petty

In 1989, Rolling Stone sent me on the road with Petty and the band in their native Florida to write a “Tom Petty Tour Diary” feature with him. It is still one of the highlights of my career. I became part of the inner circle and remained close friends with him and his family for several years, as well as the band members.

Around the same time, he became part of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison — real heroes of his.

What I saw in that time was a man dedicated to his music and to his fans, grateful for what he’d been able to achieve. The song that still sums up that tour for me and that time around him is one that was new at the time: the ecstatic “Running Down a Dream.”

Petty's legacy is as a regular-guy rocker. “Breakdown,” “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” A populist with a stance. That is the legacy, but there’s more to it, something much deeper than the sing-along choruses. Last year, he launched a satellite radio channel, and on his show called "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure," he displayed his love, knowledge and excitement for great rock, blues, soul, folk and country music. It was music that spoke of and spoke to regular folks, earthy roots and values, struggles to make a life and make it meaningful, even on a small scale.

That small scale is something Petty made epic, from the characters he wrote about and, at times, embodied.

The thing that comes through it all, though, is a sentimental side. The heart of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. That was what really struck me during the Hollywood Bowl show, most profoundly in one song that is less noticed. “Walls” was not on a Petty album, but it was featured in the soundtrack of the 1996 movie “She’s the One.” “You got a heart so big / it could crush this town,” he sings in his slightly melancholy drawl. “And I can’t hold out forever / even walls fall down.”