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Tom Petty was born a rebel on Oct. 20, 1950, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer passed away from cardiac arrest on Monday (Oct. 2), just shy of his 67th birthday. His tragic, shocking death came only a week after playing three massive concerts at the world-famous Hollywood Bowl and three months after his triumphant headlining appearance at Southern California’s Arroyo Seco music festival. Clearly, Petty and his road warriors the Heartbreakers’ music transcended generations, right up until the very end.
So what made Petty so agelessly cool? Well, many things. But his decades-spanning videography alone made a pretty strong case for his greatness. At a time when many of his classic-rock peers were pooh-poohing this new-fangled passing fad called “MTV,” Petty enthusiastically embraced the music video medium, often inviting his fabulous friends (Johnny Depp, Kim Basinger, Ringo Starr) to the MTV party. And in one video, he even served some cake — some really creepy cake — at that party. In the process, the grizzled Petty became an unlikely MTV darling, right alongside younger, prettier peers like Poison and Duran Duran.
“Some of my peers were very intimidated by [the video medium],” Petty told Yahoo Music writer Jim Farber in a 1999 interview. “I thought, let’s just dive in. We had the first narrative video [for ‘You Got Lucky’] in the early ‘80s. We were just tired of doing those damn lip-syncs.”
Here, we look back at the MTV Video Vanguard-winner and 10-time VMA nominee’s incredible, indelible video legacy.
“You Got Lucky” (1982)
No ’80s videography would be complete without a Mad Max-themed entry, especially one in which an arcade console gets demolished. This video, which came out only a year after MTV’s debut, made such an impression, even Michael Jackson, the King of MTV, was a major fan. Petty and the band wrote the video’s quirky treatment themselves, according to the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)
This psychedelic, Wonderlandian classic was one of Petty’s first truly epic videos. Along with a splashy opener featuring the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart in a caterpillar outfit, seated on a magic mushroom, and strumming a sitar, there was the optical-illusion scene in which Alice (played by Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch’s then-girlfriend, actress Louise “Wish” Foley) sloshed around in Mad Hatter Tom’s teacup.
…and that time when she gave Petty indigestion…
…and then, of course, the freakiest scene of all, when Alice became a human sheet cake. For the video shoot, only one cake was prepared, so the cake-cutting scene had to be done in one take. Luckily, Petty and his band aced this cake — and this scene.
“Make It Better” (1985)
This wasn’t one of Petty’s biggest hit singles or videos. But it did depict him crawling into the papier-mâché earhole of a side-ponytailed, totally-’80s woman (again played by the long-suffering Wish Foley) and getting attacked by a giant American Gladiators-looking Q-Tip, so it deserves a mention.
“Jammin’ Me” (1987)
Tom got very meta in this clip, reaching into a TV screen WHILE ON A TV SCREEN to pull out a brimming fistful of green-screened, static-y goop. Sure, the effect looks cheap and cheesy now, but in 1987, it blew people’s minds. As for its subject matter, the song was about a man “overwhelmed by the volume of disconnected news generated in the disinformation age,” so it’s as relevant now as it was 30 years ago.
“I Won’t Back Down” (1989)
If there’s anything cooler than impressing Michael Jackson with a music video, it’s getting a couple of Beatles to appear in one. And that’s just what Petty did for his first official solo video, which featured cameos by one of his fellow Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison, as well as Ringo Starr. “Wow,” indeed.
“Free Fallin'” (1989)
Tom was born and raised in Florida, but he later became a California man. And it didn’t get any more Californian than “Free Fallin’,” with its couplets about the San Fernando Valley, skater-girl video babe (find out more about her here), and scenes shot at the trendy Westside Pavilion mall. Petty could even make even mall-walking look cool. Ironically, Petty later revealed that this single almost never came out at all, but it ended up being one of his most beloved signature songs.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” (1989)
Petty was partial to trippy video imagery in the ’80s. When he wasn’t climbing into new wave girls’ craniums or playing with nuclear television waste, his cartoon likeness was being chased by evil steroidal rabbits inspired by the turn-of-the-century comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Definitely not typical MTV fare.
“Into the Great Wide Open” (1991)
Petty hit the Hollywood big-time with this Julien Temple-directed mini-movie, not only enlisting the silver-screen elite to be his video stars, but also stepping into multiple roles himself, including the “roadie named Bart.” He also notably portrayed the grumpy tattoo artist who inked Johnny Depp…
…and he played the dorky newspaper reporter who interviewed Depp’s alter ego rock star, Eddie Rebel — with Faye Dunaway by nasty Eddie’s side.
And did we mention that Terence Trent D’Arby made a cameo in this video, for reasons still unknown? Obviously, 1991 was a truly great year.
“Last Dance With Mary Jane” (1993)
No one could accuse Petty of making warm and fuzzy Disney videos. When he wasn’t cutting up cake-girls, he was dancing with corpse-girls. This MTV Video Music Award-winner for Best Male Video starred future Oscar-winner Kim Basinger as a dead lady who ends up being taken home by a lonely morgue employee (played by an Oscar-worthy Petty) for the weirdest, most Dickensian dinner date ever.
And yet somehow, even in this icky context, Petty managed to be charming — although watching this death-themed clip now doesn’t quite elicit the wry chuckles it once did. However, there is no denying that Petty and Basinger (who understandably declared this one of the coolest moments of her career) made a cute onscreen couple.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” (1994)
Speaking of cute couples, Petty and the mystery woman who shared the mic with him in this video looked great together. Who was she? No one knows for sure. Even a phone call to Petty’s camp elicited the odd reply, “Her name’s not in the production notes.”