Tom Petty was never afraid to incorporate his own life experience into his lyrics. While songs like ‘American Girl‘ took on a more vague and poetic storytelling structure, and ‘You Got Lucky’ distilled an entire youth of love won and lost into a playful reprimand, tunes like ‘Southern Accents’ and ‘Only a Broken Heart’ took the hardships and emotional ebbs and flows of Petty’s real life as a basis for their sprawling, hyper-specific imagery.
Petty is unfortunately passed, but in 1987 he had a near-death experience that informed one of his greatest songs. An unknown arsonist set fire to his house while his family was eating breakfast. The flames engulfed all of Petty’s possessions, leaving them virtually homeless. The only room saved was Petty’s home studio in his basement, which contained a number of priceless demos, master tapes, and instruments.
With a tour ahead of him with The Heartbreakers backing up fellow Traveling Wilbury, Bob Dylan, Petty took his family on the road with him and began picking up the pieces. “We were shaken for years by it,” Petty said in the book Conversations With Tom Petty. “It’s sort of like being raped, I would imagine. It really took a long time. And it was ten times as bad, because you knew that somebody just went and did it. Somebody tried to off you.”
Petty ultimately summoned his internal courage and determination, happy for the fact that his family was safe and grateful for the opportunity to continue his passion for music. What came forth was a direct and unmistakable creed that would guide him into the future, solidifying his reputation as an unshakeable presence in the world of music: ‘I Won’t Back Down’.
Due to the relatively straightforward nature of the lyrics, and how personally they were attached to his real-life situation, Petty initially had doubts about the song. “That song frightened me when I wrote it,” Petty told HARP Magazine in 2006. “I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song.”
It was the support of those around him, which included his Heartbreakers bandmates as well as legendary contributors George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, who convinced Petty of the song’s merits.
“But everyone around me liked the song,” Petty continued, “and said it was really good, and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little three-minute song has.”
We can only agree.