Rock Legend Tom Petty Dies at 66

By Keri Blakinger 10/03/17

The beloved balladeer of rebels and outcasts overcame a rough, abusive childhood and heroin addiction.

Tom Petty

Singer-songwriter Tom Petty, a revered rock icon who struggled with heroin addiction late in life, died Monday. He was 66. 

After the “American Girl” singer was hospitalized in Los Angeles late Sunday night suffering cardiac arrest, a swirl of muddled reports offered conflicting claims about his condition. Finally, late Monday, his longtime band manager confirmed his passing.  

"On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” Tony Dimitriades wrote. "He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends."

A beloved balladeer of rebels and outcasts, Petty overcame a rough and abusive childhood in Florida by picking up a guitar and joining a band. He launched his prolific career with the Heartbreakers in California in the 1970s, breaking through to become a household name with the 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes.

After decades of success on the music scene, in the 1990s Petty came to heroin addiction late in life. 

“Using heroin went against my grain. I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything,” he told biographer Warren Zanes. “So I was always trying to figure out how to do less, and then that wouldn’t work. Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work. It’s an ugly fucking thing.”

After finishing treatment and sobering up, in 2001 Petty married Dana York, years after meeting her at a concert. He got his life back on track, but didn’t go public about his addiction until more than a decade later, when Zanes released his 2015 unauthorized, full-access biography. 

At the time, Petty fretted to his biographer about the possibility of setting a bad example by going public about his heavy drug use. But in the end, he went ahead with the big reveal. 

“The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems,” he told Billboard the year before the bio came out. 

“You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.