Tom Petty, whose no-nonsense rock ’n’ roll endeared him to several generations of fans, has died at age 66, his family confirmed in a statement.
According to TMZ, Petty was taken to the hospital Sunday night after he was found in cardiac arrest. (CBS News reported on Monday that the LAPD had confirmed Petty’s death, but it later retracted the report.)
Petty was on stage as recently as last week, wrapping up a 40th anniversary tour with his longtime backing band, the Heartbreakers, at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 25. It was announced as their last major tour, although Petty had already begun discussing a subsequent tour centered around his 1994 album Wildflowers.
With and without the Heartbreakers, Petty’s music was simple without being crude, so elemental it was functionally timeless. As critic Steven Hyden wrote in Grantland in 2014 upon the release of Petty’s last album, Hypnotic Eye, “Tom Petty’s music doesn’t necessarily demand a value judgment. It’s like having an opinion on tap water or concrete. Why bother? It’s just there, reliable to the point of invisibility. If it went missing, you would notice. But it’s never going missing, because Tom Petty has existed since the beginning of time, and will continue to exist until time is extinguished.”
In 2015, Warren Zanes published a biography of Petty that revealed the singer had been addicted to heroin in the 1990s, during the period when his solo album Full Moon Fever generated some of the biggest hits of his career. He also joined forces with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne for two albums as the Traveling Wilburys, whose first album, Vol. 1, sold over 3 million copies in the U.S. alone. In all, he sold over 80 million albums across the 40-plus years of his career, although Hypnotic Eye was his first album to top the Billboard charts. (Two previous albums stalled in the number-two spot.)
Petty said of Glen Campbell, who died in August, that his music was “such pure, good stuff that you had to put off your prejudices and learn to love it,” but his own required no such adjustment. Its virtues were immediate, like the chiming guitar chords and insistent drumbeat that open “American Girl,” the last track on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ self-titled 1976 debut. When Jonathan Demme wanted the audience of Silence of the Lambs to form an instant bond with the serial killer Buffalo Bill’s would-be victim, played by Brooke Smith, he introduced her with a shot of her belting out the song in her car, banging along on her steering wheel in time with the music. If you’ve heard one of Petty’s songs behind the wheel, you’ve done the same.
Now Demme is gone and Petty has followed, but that moment when their paths overlapped to create an iconic moment shows both Demme’s canny humanism and Petty’s irresistible appeal.
Update, Oct. 3, 2017, 12:20 a.m.: This post was updated with Petty's family's statement and confirmation of the singer's death.
Update, Oct. 2, 2017, 5:20 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect that CBS has retracted its confirmation of Petty’s death.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the band Traveling Wilburys.