The Music Blog: Heartbreaker

When I was 15 my parents divorced and for a short very troubled time in my life I lived with my dad which culminated in me running away before moving in with my mom. My dad is a great guy but I was rebelling against everything and he was single for the first time in a long time. My dad loves music but we don’t generally agree in music much. He could listen to Willie’s Place on Sirius XM all the time. He always loved to go to the music store back in the day and one day he bought something because the store was playing it and he liked it only to find when he got home that he didn’t like it at all so he gave it to me. It was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I didn’t like it either. I can’t remember if it was the first or the second album both of which I love now but then I hated it. That colored how I felt about Petty for a long time. To me Petty is like David Bowie. I love the hits but when I would go and buy music there was absolutely always another artist or artists that I wanted to spend my money on more. So for the longest time I didn’t have a lot of Petty albums. I have gone twice to buy music where I was looking for Tom Petty, once to buy his first solo album and again for what I think is his best album Into the Great Wide Open.

I have two friends, two best good friends (Gumpism) who both love Tom Petty. In fact they revere him. I asked them both to share a story or some thoughts about Petty. The first is from my friend Scott who is like me in so many ways when it comes to music. It’s such a huge part of our life that most of our memories revolve around music.  So this from Scott:

June 1st, 1987. The lights went up.

I had always been a Tom Petty fan. I wasn’t a “late arriver” but it was during a time when I wasn’t buying much music. No steady cash flow.  That is until 1981 when I went away to school. My cash flow consisted of what I could embezzle from my parents. They thought, while on campus, I was paying for necessities, but what I was really doing was paying for long distance phone calls to my girlfriend and buying vinyl. Every time the end of a semester rolled around and I sold back my books and I would walk the two blocks from the book store down to the Sound Warehouse. One day I walked in while they were having what was known as a “midline” sale; lots of albums for less than five dollars. While perusing the big blue bins I struck gold in the form of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers’ first five albums. Immediately they were in my arms. That vinyl sounded so sweet on my hand-me-down Electrophonic stereo system with built in 8-track and shitty speakers. Many hours were spent with headphones on, being entranced by and memorizing the words to all the songs I had never heard before. Up to that point I had only heard what was on the radio and up to that point the radio satiated my rock and roll lust. It would be three long years before Petty put out another record and I bought it brand new on the day of release.

In June of 1986, Petty rolled through town with Bob Dylan. Having never seen Dylan before, I purchased tickets for my before mentioned girlfriend and myself, and we hauled it up to Reunion Arena. What truly blew me away about the performance that night was not Bob Dylan, but his “backing band” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It sounded so good, so free, and so right. At the end of their warm up for Dylan, Tom said they would be back and I set my sights on this “next time.”

One year later in June of 1987, Tom and the Heartbreakers came back around. Once again my wife to be and I took our pony to Reunion Arena and we waited for the show to start. If there was an opening band, I can’t tell you who it was. I didn’t care then and I still don’t now.

The lights went up.

What I remember most about the presentation that night were the lights. It wasn’t some big elaborate lighting show/production. There were no whirling lasers or huge screens, just a band under the warm glow of strings of drop lights. They looked like strings of Christmas lights stretching from the stage to the audience. No glitz, no pizzazz; just an honest and humble rock and roll performance, like you might see in someone’s back yard. The lights reached out to the fans and even though we were probably pretty high up in the arena, they made you feel like you were part of something intimate. It was just a cozy show by your favorite home town band. The first few notes of Breakdown were heard and the crowd roared. Tom started the song but the crowd soon took over. That was the first time I heard him utter the words “Man, you might put me out of a job.” The rest of the night was spent playing classics along with a couple of new singles. My heart poured to every note. Nothing was lost on me.

That night encrusted me as a devote Petty-ite. I knew the magic of his words and I felt them every time I heard them. Not near enough was heard from him. He experimented with his sound but in the end there was always that foundation, those roots, and that honesty.

I still turn it up. This is what it’s supposed to be.


Thank you Scott. Good story huh? I remember when I heard the news that Tom Petty had died how shocked I felt. It compared to the death of Prince to me in how shocking it was. I had no doubts that it was an accident. After the shock wore off I thought about my friend Wayne who I knew would take it very hard. Like Scott, Wayne was more than just a fan and I knew how he felt about Petty. Some artists’ death we take harder than others. I knew Wayne would also want to share his thoughts on Petty.

This was something Wayne wrote after Petty’s death.

Monday, Tom Petty died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. When I heard the news I was devastated. Here’s why.

I have been an avid fan of Tom Petty since I was a teenager in the 1970s. For 40 years he just refused to go away. He kept cranking out fantastic albums filled with great songs. His music has been with me during every major period of my life.

But there is another reason I have admired Tom Petty so much. Among musicians he is probably one of the best leaders the rock music industry has ever known. He has given us examples of leadership that all of us can apply to our own careers.

Here are 5.1 Leadership Lessons I have learned from Tom Petty’s 40 year career. 

Lesson 1.0 Build a Team.

If you’re going to build something great, don’t go solo. Build with a team. Early on, Tom Petty made it clear the he wanted a “band.” He didn’t want to be a solo artist with a revolving door of session musicians and hired touring bands. That is why when the record label in the mid-70s insisted his records be “Tom Petty” records, he pushed back and insisted they be “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.”

In business, you can never accomplish anything of significance alone. Whatever you are trying to accomplish, form a team.

Lesson1.1 But, Lead the Team.

But if you form a team, be the leader of that team. Petty was not a dictator with the Heartbreakers. He understood their genius. Everyone contributed. Everyone had their say. But in the end, Petty knew he had to be the one to close the deal, push out the finished product, and have the final say. You should be the same way with your team.

Lesson 2.0 Build a Team with People you can Love and Care About.

If you’re going to build a team, find people you can love and care about, and who love and care about you, and the mission of your team. Petty was originally from Gainesville Florida. His guitar player, keyboardist, drummer and bass player were all fellow southerners like him. I am not suggesting you need to restrict yourself to working with people from your home town, but you do need to build a team with people that you would feel comfortable taking home to meet your family. Petty and his band were friends. When he died on Monday, most of the band was there in the hospital room with Petty’s wife and daughters.

Lesson 2.1 But, Be Willing to Make Tough Decisions with your Friends.

You build your team with friends and people you love, but if they can’t do the job or don’t share the team vision, let them go. Be nice about it. Help them find a new opportunity if you can. But do it.

Early on, Petty went to California looking for a record deal with a band named Mudcrutch, that was made up of his home town friends. After trying out for several labels, he was finally told his band was not good enough to get a deal, but Petty was. Petty made the tough decision to disband Mudcrutch. He then formed the Heartbreakers. He said it hurt to send his friends packing, but he had to make the tough decision to see his vision become true.

Also, after the Heartbreakers hit super star status, their original drummer Stan Lynch decided he didn’t like Petty or the Heartbreakers anymore. He became a chronic complainer and trouble maker for the band. Petty fired him.

Petty would later find ways to honor and help his friends from Mudcrutch. And he always spoke well of his former drummer Lynch. He even invited Lynch to rejoin the Heartbreakers for one night when they were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame.

When you work with your friends you have to be ready to let them go. It’s the hard part of “business friendships.” But we spend most of our awake time at work, might as well spend it with people you like, love, and care about.

Lesson 3.0 Don’t Back Down.

Before Petty had become a superstar he got into a huge fist fight with his record label MCA. He went as far as to file for personal bankruptcy to get his way. It was unheard of for a young up and coming musician without a platinum record to go up against his record label. But Petty did and won. It reshaped forever how record deals were done in rock music. Petty would have other disputes with his label, and always got his way.

I am not suggesting you sue your employer or get into fights with everyone. But there is something to be said for having a laser focus, and a commitment to fairness, and to doing things the right way.

Lesson 3.1 But, Be Nice When you’re not Backing Down.

The music industry is a rough and tumble world. Your industry probably is also. There are many stories of Petty standing his ground but being nice about it. One that comes to mind is when the George W Bush campaign started using Petty’s song, “Don’t Back Down.” He didn’t make a huge deal about it, but Petty did have his people send the Bush campaign a letter that essentially said, “I am not political, and I don’t want my songs being coopted by politicians. I am respectfully asking you to stop using my song for at your political rallies. I can’t make you stop playing my song at your rallies, but if you don’t I will endorse your opponent and come out against you.” Firm, but polite. Bush backed down. Petty went away and was not heard from again in that election.

There are other examples of people using Petty’s music. Several times other artist took a Petty song and kept the music, but changed the words. Petty’s response was always the same. “No hard feelings. These things happen. List me as the coauthor of the song and include me on your royalties.”

In your business life you face similar challenges. Someone oversteps their bounds and needs to be confronted. Sometimes it’s easy to let others run you over. And sometimes, pushing back hard, and roughing people up seems to make sense. Petty showed a middle ground. Tough lesson, but one we need to follow. Try to take that middle road. Don’t back down, but don’t overdo it.

Lesson 4.0 Embrace Change and New Technology

Petty’s first platinum record hit in 1980, just as the music world was going through its biggest change up to that point. Petty came up in a music industry where the formula for success was built around record sales, radio hits, and touring the country playing convention centers. MTV changed all that. The music video, and television interviews became as important, and some would argue, more important than radio. With his gawky appearance and funny southern accent, few predicted Petty could survive this seismic shift in the music industry. But he did. If fact he was hugely successful with it. Many would argue that of all the rock bands who found their start in the 1970s, Petty made the most of MTV and the Music Video genre.

Lesson 4.1 Don’t just Embrace New Technology, Be Really Good at it.

The 1980s are littered with horrible, cheesy, rock videos put out by really talented and accomplished bands. Many musicians saw the rock video as an expensive nuisance, and a distraction. Not Petty. He was not an early adopter, but when he started making videos for MTV, they were innovative and interesting. He also did something else no one had done yet. He hired actual known actors like Johnny Depp and Kim Basinger to star in them.

Today you are confronted with social media, crowd sourcing, ride sharing, and much more. Like Petty, your goal must be to not only engage these new technologies, but to be the best at them.

Lesson 5.0 Collaborate, Collaborate, Then Collaborate some more. 

The list of musicians Tom Petty collaborated with is breathtaking. From George Harrison, to Bob Dylan, to Roy Orbison, to Johnny Cash, to Stevie Nicks, and many more. The list just goes on and on and on. His most famous collaboration was the Traveling Wilburys with the aforementioned Orbison, Dylan, Harrison and Jeff Lynn. In your career you may not be offered many chances to work outside of your circle. So instead of waiting for opportunity to be offered to you, go out and find them yourself. The Traveling Wilburys didn’t call Petty, he called them, before they were even formed. There are several legends about how the band came to be, but the fact is that Petty had stepped out of his comfort zone to hang around some of the greats in is his industry. As a result, he was there to seize the Willbury opportunity when it arose. You should do the same.

Lesson 5.1 When Collaborating, Don’t be Afraid to Take a Backup Role

Twice, after becoming platinum selling super stars, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers became someone else’s backup band. The first time was in the late 80s when they spent a year touring with Bob Dylan as his back up touring band. They played Bob Dylan music, and Petty sang back up to Bob Dylan songs. Petty said they did it because Dylan asked them to do so, and Petty and the Heartbreakers thought it would be fun. But Petty later said the experience made him and his band better musicians. He also said it helped them get out of a creative slump. Petty was not wrong about that. In the years to follow, his music career would reach a new peak as he put out some of his best music ever.

The second time Petty and the Heartbreakers played back up, was for one of Johnny Cash’s last, and best records. They received little notice for this collaboration, but said they did it as a tribute to Cash whom they all considered a music hero and friend.

In your business world you are probably surrounded by people far more successful than you. Don’t be afraid to become friends with them. And don’t be afraid to collaborate with them. Be their equal if you can, or be their back up if you must. But be around greatness as often as possible.

Final Thoughts:

Most of us will probably never play a guitar or write a song as well as Tom Petty. But all of us can take away some leadership lessons from his remarkable life.


Wayne gave me permission to edit that and take excerpts but in the end I felt that would not be fair. I am not going to ask someone to share their thoughts on an artist they love and then cut it to pieces.

One more thing about Tom Petty, here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area we have a Tom Petty cover band called Petty Theft. They are terrific and I have been lucky to see them a few times all with either Wayne or Scott.  The first time I saw them was with Wayne. At the time I had maybe five Petty albums and generally he was an artist I liked but as I said not one who I went in search of his music. I went that night mostly because I wanted to hang out and hear Last Dance with Mary Jane. I was surprised to hear so many Petty songs I knew and some I didn’t, what you might call deep cuts. They did play Two Gunslingers which is my favorite song on Into the Great Wide Open. I came away with a new found respect for what Tom Petty had done. I started collecting his music and discovering an artist I had mostly ignored. I will never love Petty the way my two friends do but that isnot the point. It’s never really too late to discover an artist. Thanks Tom Petty your music carries on.

I want to thank my friends Scott and Wayne for sharing their thoughts on an artist they really love.

Mike out



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