Here’s What Tom Petty Wrote as His Epitaph

The rocker grew pensive during an interview in 1981: “When it’s all over, all you’re gonna leave behind is the records”

Tom Petty in concert
Getty Images

“I used to have these soul searching nights where I’d lie awake and think, ‘When it’s all over, all you’re gonna leave behind is the records,’” said Tom Petty. “That’s all the f— you’re doing.”

That’s not a recent quote from Petty, who died on Monday at the age of 66 only a week after performing his final show with his band the Heartbreakers. Instead, it came from a reflective 30-year-old Petty in the spring of 1981, as he was preparing to release his fourth album, “Hard Promises.”

During a series of interviews he and I conducted for a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine, Petty grew pensive as he talked about making music that would last. “You can talk about money or fame or whatever gets you off, but all that’s left is the records,” he repeated. “You’ve been given that chance, and if you don’t do what you want, then you’re a real fool, no matter how they sell or what people say.”

At the time he said this, Petty had already released several of the songs that would last and become his signature hits, “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Breakdown” and “American Girl” among them. He was on the verge of releasing another big hit, “The Waiting,” but had yet to come up with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin,’” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and others.

Between the hits, he’d had a couple of fights with the record company, declaring bankruptcy at one point as a tactic to prevent his contract from being transferred without his permission from a now-defunct small record label to the giant MCA label, and then waging a fight to prevent his upcoming album from being sold for the then-exorbitant price of $9.98.

“Fighting the record industry — that ain’t romantic, man,” he said during the interview. “That’s survival … And it may look romantic, but I really ain’t Robin Hood, man. I hope we’re not remembered as the band that fought the record company.”

Maybe the fights put him in a reflective mood and got him thinking about his legacy even at that early period in his career. During the time I spent with Petty on that story, he was usually lighter and more casual – but during one afternoon on a soundstage where he and the Heartbreakers were rehearsing for their upcoming tour, he began musing about the big picture, and about the end.

I didn’t remember this conversation when Petty died, and when I wrote my initial appreciation for TheWrap. But a Twitter user, @annie_zak, dug it up and jogged my memory – including the fact that Petty tried to come up with his own epitaph, and decided he could only settle on one: “He really liked rock ‘n’ roll.”