Tom Petty Once Thought His Fans Were Trying to Kill Him: ‘I Honestly Thought I Was Dead’

Tom Petty was a celebrated musician for years, so, naturally, he had a large fan base. He valued their support and worked to ensure that his music was accessible to them. At one point, though, his fans’ excitement at seeing him went a bit too far. During a concert, the excited crowd pulled Petty off the stage. He explained that he genuinely thought he was going to die at that moment.

Tom Petty holds a guitar and reaches out to touch his fans' hands.
Tom Petty | Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Tom Petty said his fans believe in some myths about him

Petty had a strong fanbase in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida. He explained that they created a local tradition based on his upbringing.

“I’ll meet students from Gainesville. And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we party in your old house on Halloween,'” Petty explained in the book Conversations With Tom Petty by Paul Zollo. “There’s this tradition that they go to my house, whoever’s renting it at the time, and have this big party.”

The trouble with this tradition was that it wasn’t based on fact.

“I never lived in a house in Gainesville. I lived in apartments,” Petty said, adding, “I lived in my mom’s house, where I know they’re not throwing a party. So that’s also a myth. Someone got a house and said, ‘This is where he lived.’ That tradition has gone on and on. And every time I tell them it’s not true, they go, ‘Aaah…’ [Laughs] I almost am tempted to go ‘Oh great,’ because I don’t want to pop their balloon.”

The singer once thought his audience was going to seriously hurt him

Petty had a far more frightening fan experience in 1978 when the audience pulled him offstage during a concert. 

“I honestly thought I was dead,” Petty told Playboy in 1982, adding, “I know they loved me, but they were trying to kill me. I watched a video tape of the whole thing later, and though it didn’t take so long on tape, I thought I was down there for an eternity.”

He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back to the stage.

“My roadie, Bugs, dived in — ‘crowd swimming,’ he calls it,” he explained. “I could see him about five layers of people away. Our eyes met for a moment, and he gave me an ‘I don’t know if I can get you’ look.”

Petty said he couldn’t get as close to the crowd as some other musicians. 

“I’ve noticed that I can’t get near an audience as Bruce Springsteen does,” he said. “They rip me up. Bruce can walk through them. I think they look at him as their buddy. With me, there seem to be some violent or sexual vibes. I’m the last guy on earth to be violent. But there is a definite sexual thing to the show. Girls enjoy it tremendously.”

Tom Petty worked to make sure his music was accessible for his fans

Petty always wanted to make sure that his music was accessible for his audiences. When his label wanted to raise the price of an album, Petty fought them, wanting to make sure his music remained affordable. He also listened to albums on inexpensive speakers to understand how they would sound to fans. 

“Music is a real magic: It affects human beings, it can heal, it can do wonderful things,” Petty told NPR. “I’ve had two people contact me in my life about coming out of comas to their family playing a song to them of mine, that they had liked before they were injured. They credited the song having something to do with that. I find that fascinating. A lot of people have told me, ‘This music got me through a really hard time,’ and I can relate to that.”

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