The October 7th massacre of more than 260 people at a music festival in Israel — which initiated the most recent Hamas attacks — was a disgusting atrocity, striking civilians at their most vulnerable.
Trauma of a different sort informed today’s song.
Tom Petty wrote “I Won’t Back Down” after his house was burned down by an arsonist who apparently wanted to kill him.
On the morning of May 17, 1987, Petty’s family was sitting down to breakfast when they began to smell smoke. Within moments, the home was engulfed in flames. Petty and his housekeeper tried to put out the fire, but the hose melted in his hands and his housekeeper’s hair caught fire (she recovered fully). The fire department did their best, but the only room that survived was Petty’s basement studio.
Petty was shaken. The family spent the next few months driving between hotel rooms and a rented house. It was on these drives that he came up with many of the songs for his 1989 album, Full Moon Fever. The fire was a huge influence on this song, as it became clear after some investigation that the arsonist had murderous intent.
While a motive was never ascertained, 11 days earlier Petty had won a lawsuit against the B.F. Goodrich tire company for $1 million. Goodrich wanted to use Petty’s song “Mary's New Car” in a TV commercial. Petty wouldn’t let them, so their advertising agency commissioned a copycat song the judge felt was too similar. It is the only source of potential anger toward Petty that seemed concurrent with events.
Petty was nervous about releasing “Won’t Back Down,” saying later:
That song frightened me when I wrote it. 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. But everyone around me liked the song 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.
That power is amplified when it is sung at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Petty’s home town. It has become part of the act at every game, as the video below shows.
The song been shielded repeatedly from use by political operations, with the Petty family rejecting most requests. Recently, Lara Trump recorded a cover of the song, the layers of autotune unable to conceal an unappealing singing voice. I will not link to it — you’re welcome.
This would not be the last time fire would figure in a Petty song. His spectacular and underappreciated 2014 and final album Hypnotic Eye features “All You Can Carry,” Petty’s song about abandoning his home as a canyon fire bore down on his LA neighborhood. No damage resulted, and he emerged with another great song.
Music is transformative. Artists can take trauma and find what we need to endure it.
Don’t back down, people unfairly attacked — whether in Israel, Ukraine, or anywhere else.