In the 1980s, Tom Petty lived the horror of his house burning down while he and his family were home. They all escaped unscathed, but the situation became more frightening when they learned that an arsonist had started the blaze. Petty said that, in many ways, it was the most frightening thing that ever happened to him. For a while, he couldn’t even put the word “fire” into his songs. Looking back, though, he said the frightening situation had some positive effects.
Tom Petty lost his house in a fire
In 1987, Petty, his wife, and his daughter were sitting down to breakfast when they smelled smoke. They quickly realized that the house was on fire and were luckily able to escape unharmed. Later, they learned that the fire was not an accident.
“It was arson,” Petty said in the book Conversations With Tom Petty by Paul Zollo. “They found the evidence where someone had cut a hole in the back fence on a hill and had been watching the house. For probably a period of time. And really early one morning they came down and set the house on fire. And it was a wooden house, and it went up really quickly. The whole place, just like a matchbox, it went up really fast.”
In total, the fire caused $1 million in damages.
“He lost everything,” Petty’s publicist Mitchell Schneider told the Los Angeles Daily News at the time.
Tom Petty said the house fire had some positive effects on his life
The fire left the Petty family shocked and frightened.
“It was such a shock. To have somebody try to kill you is a really bad feeling,” he said. “And I never really wanted to talk about it in detail, because it frightened me so bad. I wouldn’t even use the word ‘fire’ in a song or anything. It really frightened me. They didn’t just try to kill me, they tried to wipe out my whole family. And it was a hell of a day. It was my wife’s birthday. We were planning an afternoon barbecue. So as the house was burning, guests were arriving.”
He said that it made him “reevaluate everything,” which in some ways was a good thing.
“I think it revitalized me,” he told Mojo in 1999, per The Petty Archives. “I kind of came out of it in a good spot. It just made me glad to be alive for a long time.”
The fire made him realize that he had to stop touring with Bob Dylan
Petty’s house burned down while he was in the middle of touring with Bob Dylan. He reevaluated whether or not he should continue doing that.
“The fire happened in the middle of the Bob Dylan tour,” he said. “I remember telling Bob, when we were in England at the end of the tour, that we were going to have to stop, as far as backing him up. I had to go back and sort out my life and my family, and find a home, and we needed to get back to just being The Heartbreakers. And we had really enjoyed it, and now he needed to get his own band, because we needed to get back to our own thing.”
Dylan didn’t want to lose the Heartbreakers as his backing band.
“He thought we could do both. And maybe we could have, but we were really tired,” Petty explained. “Because we were still trying to be Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. And we did our own tour in the middle of that, and we made a record. We made Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) . [Laughs] And that title says a lot about that period.”