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Tom Petty's Songs Served As Anthems For Many Generations


A moment now to remember one of rock music's most-beloved musicians.


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) She was an American girl.

SIEGEL: "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down" - Tom Petty's songs are part of a rocking playlist for several generations. Many people are listening to them again today following news of Petty's death last night at the age of 66. He'd suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu. In 2014, after releasing a new album with his band, the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty talked with NPR's Melissa Block. They covered a lot of topics, including his humble background in Gainesville, Fla., and how he felt about his success.


TOM PETTY: I guess I did live the American dream, getting into something I loved and working really hard at it, and there were financial rewards. Even to this day, I don't think that's ever been the guiding light of our band - nice, really, but (laughter)...


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) See those fault lines laid out like landlines.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: I want to talk to you about the Heartbreakers.


BLOCK: When you listen to Heartbreakers songs, you can tell from the very first notes what song they are. I mean, those chords - those opening chords are iconic. And millions of people - it takes one note for them to know exactly what they're going to hear. And I do wonder what that's like for you just knowing that there's this direct tie from the very beginning of a song to what people know and remember about that song.

PETTY: Well, that's lovely compliment. It's a tremendous thrill. I mean, if I think about it very long, it frightens me. I...


BLOCK: Really? Why?

PETTY: Well, you know, because it's kind of like, well, did I do that?


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) Listen; it don't really matter to me, baby. You believe what you want to believe. You see you don't have to live like a refugee. Somewhere, somehow somebody must...

BLOCK: When I think about Tom Petty songs, I think they're - you know, they're songs that you want to play with the windows open and the top rolled down and driving really fast. And I wonder when you're recording a new album if you ever do that, if you take a demo or take a rough recording and take it out for a drive, see how it sounds on the highway outside the studio.

PETTY: Yeah, well, I have done that.

BLOCK: Yeah?

PETTY: You know, we used to mix records sometimes and take them right out to the car to see how they sounded in a car as opposed to the studio.


TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: (Singing) Whoa, let me tell you the truth.

PETTY: When you get something that works, you know, in a particular way, it's kind of like mixing two colors together and getting a new one. And it's - am I getting a little too esoteric?

BLOCK: In the best way (laughter).

PETTY: I probably sound like a pretentious ass here, but I'm - that's kind of the way I see it. I just look at it like, you know, between the speakers when you come in, there's a blank canvas. And when you go out, there's actually something on it. Simple as that sounds, it's a tremendous rush to this day to me to just make something happen.


TRAVELING WILBURYS: (Singing) Well, it's all right...

SIEGEL: Singer-songwriter Tom Petty, who was also part of the '80s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Petty died yesterday evening in Santa Monica surrounded by family, friends and bandmates. He was 66.


TRAVELING WILBURYS: (Singing) You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring at the end of the line, waiting for someone to tell you everything at the end of the line. Sit around and wonder... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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