“Unless you’ve done it, you can’t understand what it is,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone of the touring life earlier this year, in what would be his final interview with the magazine. “And if you’re not really experienced, you will fall.” During his four-decade-plus career, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never shied away from the road. But last year even he was starting to see the end of the tunnel. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one,” he told RS. But Petty performed nearly until the very end: He played his last show at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25th, only one week prior to his death. Here’s our rundown of some of his best moments onstage.
Following a tepid reception to their self-titled debut, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers embarked on a promotional blitz following the release of their second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, in many ways their career was on the line. The sessions for the album had been far from ideal – “It was like this incredible apathy invaded the band,” Petty said – but their live performances were tight and fierce. “Listen to Her Heart,” the lone single from the album, was regularly trotted out during promo gigs including on the BBC’s late-night rock show The Old Grey Whistle Test, for which Petty came armed with a pair of aviator shades and a Flying V electric guitar.
Damn the Torpedoes changed everything for Petty: he’d previously been bankrupt and embroiled in legal issues with his record label MCA, but the 1979 triple-platinum album, which reached Number Two on the charts, spawned hit singles in “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.” It also made Petty a global sensation. The subsequent tour behind the album lasted until the following summer, and included a stop on the short-lived Fridays TV show in Los Angeles. There, the band played one of the album’s best deep cuts, “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).” With the exception of the 1986 Bridge School Benefit, in the ensuing years Petty took more than two decades off from performing the song again until he re-introduced it into his set when touring in support of 2002’s The Last DJ.
In the summer of 1985, when he took the stage at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre for a two-night stand that resulted in his group’s first live album, Pack Up the Plantation: Live!, Petty had been through a trying period. Original bassist Ron Blair left the group during the grinding sessions for 1985’s Southern Accents, during which Petty became so frustrated he infamously punched a wall and broke his left hand. The Wiltern gigs though showed no signs of wear and tear on Petty and the band, though: The group broke out obscure covers, brought out Stevie Nicks and tore through whiplash renditions of hits including their early hit “Breakdown.”
Three weeks into their 1986 True Confessions world tour, Bob Dylan and Petty hired a professional camera crew to film a two-night stand at Sydney, Australia’s Entertainment Centre for an HBO concert special. Dylan had first played with Petty and the Heartbreakers at the inaugural Farm Aid, in 1985, but years later he’d look back at their joint tour with dismay. “Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine,” he wrote in his 2004 memoir Chronicles. Petty felt differently: As he noted in the 2005 Paul Zollo book Conversations With Tom Petty, “There was never a night when the audiences weren’t incredibly ecstatic about the whole thing,” he said. Most nights the pair shared the stage for several songs including Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and a rollicking “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Thanks to the gargantuan success of Full Moon Fever, when Tom Petty arrived at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards he was undeniably one of the hottest musical acts on the planet. So were Guns N’ Roses, whose Appetite for Destruction had made a huge impact a few years before. It was a mega-surprise then when at the end of the night GN’R singer Axl Rose joined Petty and the Heartbreakers for “Free Fallin'” before Petty and Rose closed out the night with a legendary rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Having cooked up magic together with Full Moon Fever, Petty wrangled that album’s producer, Jeff Lynne, to join the Heartbreakers in the studio for what became Into the Great Wide Open. The 1991 album’s eponymous tour was captured on the rare out-of-print VHS release Take the Highway Live. As captured during two nights in November 1991 in Reno, Nevada, and Oakland, California, the tour’s set lists were heavy on material from the band’s recent album but also included a healthy dose of Full Moon Fever cuts including a wicked take on “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
“Swingin'” arrived on 1999’s Echo, a depressed-sounding album that followed the collapse of Petty’s marriage and one of his biggest commercial flops to date, but the third single, during which Petty compares a relationship to a boxing match, remains one of the singer’s strongest deep cuts. “Swingin'” appeared nearly every night on the Echo tour, but Petty wouldn’t trot it out again until this past April at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
For their first hometown show in 13 years, and in celebration of their 30th anniversary as a band, Petty and the Heartbreakers brought along a film crew to Gainesville to capture all the revelry for what became the documentary film, Live From Gatorville. The night’s set list spanned their entire career, and included a cover of the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man.” But it was a Stevie Nicks cameo that made headlines. Introducing her as “the band’s little sister,” Petty brought out the Fleetwood Mac singer for several songs, including a cover of the early Mac classic “Oh Well,” the pair’s iconic duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Learning to Fly.”
Rather than trot out the hits like most musicians his age, in 2013 Petty made it his mission over a series of 11 shows at New York’s Beacon Theater L.A.’s Fonda Theatre to build his concerts around rarities. He performed “Rebels,” “Wildflowers” and “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), but one of the biggest surprises was “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” a Traveling Wilburys tune he penned with Bob Dylan. “No one has ever done it. So I just thought, ‘This would be interesting to try,'” Petty said shortly after the gigs. Of its original conception the singer recalled Wilburys bandmates George Harrison and Jeff Lynne thinking the song was “just too American,” so him and Dylan “just sat there for most of the afternoon, and then we edited it down the next day.”
In a sadly fortuitous move, Petty and the Heartbreakers billed this past summer’s 40th-anniversary tour as their last big tour. They certainly made the most of the opportunity: The band, in top-notch form, tore through a monumental set, typically starting out with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song on their debut album, and always ending with an encore performance of “American Girl.” The final gig ended with an extended instrumental coda and a bow. Even to the end, Petty was a consummate showman. “If I was a fan and they didn’t play ‘American Girl’ or ‘Free Fallin,” I’d be disappointed,” he told Rolling Stone.