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Tom Petty dedicated most of his life to being a musician. Music was a hugely important part of his life, but he didn’t think he should take it too seriously. He explained that he found it insufferable when musicians were too serious with their work. He shared why he thought musicians had to be careful about this.

American musician Tom Petty wears a green shirt and vest and strums the guitar.
Tom Petty | Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Tom Petty wanted to be a musician from an early age

As a child growing up in Gainesville, Florida, Petty saw music as an escape hatch. He dove into Elvis’ discography, but he truly began to take music seriously when he first heard The Beatles.

“Suddenly the road was clear; you could see what to do,” he told the Independent in 1994. “You were coming up to 14, faced with getting a job and wanting to avoid that at all costs. They looked like they were having so much fun playing this rock’n’roll music, and really not answering to anyone. So in every neighborhood, there were kids with electric guitars forming bands. And I just got on with it.”

He rose to prominence in the Gainesville music scene before moving to Los Angeles in the hopes of getting a record deal. 

Tom Petty didn’t like it when musicians took their work too seriously

Petty took the value of music seriously. According to the book Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes, Petty had an epiphany when he first took LSD, long before he was successful. “Petty saw it clearly: he was nothing and would be nothing if he wasn’t in a rock-and-roll band. It all seemed to come together in his head. It was as good a feeling as he’d ever known.”

Despite its importance in his life, Petty didn’t want to be a serious musician. 

“There’s nothing worse than a serious pop singer,” he told the Vancouver Sun in 1991.

He explained that many of his contemporaries lacked humor in their lyrics.

“You can still say things while you’re lightening up,” he said. “But I think we’re all weary of people who come on for an entire LP … and give you the impression that this person is trying to tell you real serious things that they couldn’t possibly have an impact on. A lot of lyrics that I hear on the radio these days sound pompous. I’m not against people being serious with their work, I just think they have to be careful that it doesn’t come off as pretentious.”

Tom Petty liked the freedom that the Traveling Wilburys afforded him

When Petty joined the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, he experienced more musical freedom. Harrison felt the same way.

“[The group] gave us a bit more freedom than we’d have had individually … Well, I’m talking about us three, not really Bob,” he said. “He always did what he wanted when he wanted all the time.”


Tom Petty Wanted a Comment He Made About Bob Dylan Taken Out of His Biography

Because of this, Petty learned to infuse his work with a sense of humor.

“I think that last album [the Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever] was more like me, more honest in a lot of ways, than a lot of them I’ve made,” he said. “I feel like I’m more comfortable being myself than I have been in a while. Because I’ve always had a sense of humor, but I used to feel that if I used it, that it would perhaps give the impression that I was throwing away things or just fooling around.”