In May 1987, Tom Petty was having breakfast with his family when he caught the whiff of smoke. It was soon apparent that something was on fire, and before he knew it, the entire house went up in flames. He and his family managed to make it out, but the entire two-story house was burned to the ground, minus his basement studio. Petty was shaken, but even more so when he was informed that it wasn’t an accident: an unknown arsonist had attempted to kill him.
“We were shaken for years by it,” Petty said in the book Conversations With Tom Petty. “It’s sort of like being raped, I would imagine. It really took a long time. And it was ten times as bad, because you knew that somebody just went and did it. Somebody tried to off you.”
The arson could not have come at a worse time for Petty. He and his trusty backing band, The Heartbreakers, had just released Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) to mixed reviews and lowered sales compared to their previous work. The band was booked to go out on tour with Bob Dylan, and Petty had little choice but to take his family along due to them being virtually homeless.
The 1980s were a time of trial and error for The Heartbreakers. With the widespread success of Damn the Torpedoes in 1979, Petty and the band released three more albums that showed their increased acknowledgement of the changing musical landscape around them. Whereas the classic petty sound combined punk, new wave, and heartland rock into a sort of undefinable stew, Long After Dark and Southern Accents saw a greater integration of synthesisers and drum machines into the band’s sound. That latter was a muddled half-formed concept album that saw Petty make brief flirtations with the confederate flag on tour, a use that he would later recant.
More than anything else, Petty was confused about his path forward. He clearly didn’t fit into the synth-heavy corporate rock that most of his peers had fallen into, and his attempts to both stay ahead of the curve and completely go against it had led to mixed results. Petty needed an escape from his current life, and he would find it on the road with his new tour mate.
Less than a year later, George Harrison began assembling a group to record his new song ‘Handle With Care’. Jeff Lynne was producing, Roy Orbison was singing on the bridge section, and the recording would be happening at Bob Dylan’s garage studio at his house in Malibu. Harrison arrived on Petty’s doorstep looking to reclaim a guitar he left on his last visit, and the Beatle extended Petty the invitation to join the session. In short succession, the Traveling Wilburys were born, allowing Petty to enjoy performing in a new band while not having to be the centre of attention.
It was around this same time that Petty began writing songs for a solo LP, one of which was explicitly based on the arson from 1987: ‘I Won’t Back Down’. With a renewed sense of determination, Petty invited nearly all of the Heartbreakers (the lone exception being drummer Stan Lynch) to help record Full Moon Fever, complete with some of his Wilbury friends, including Harrison, Orbison, and Lynne, who co-produced along with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell.
Petty had come from his lowest, nearly escaping death and losing almost all of his possessions in the process, and come out triumphant. Even better, he had a platinum album with both the Wilburys and on his own to prove that he was still in control. Petty came out of the fire like a phoenix, reborn with a new drive to reclaim his status as one of America’s most essential artists.