The Tragic Childhood Of Tom Petty

Nobody just appears on the scene, fully formed, an instantaneous phenomenon with no back story and nothin' but good times ahead. Everybody brings a past, for good or ill, and everybody brings baggage and history. It's not unusual for an artist to tap life experience to create something bigger, even better. Mark Twain turned his childhood memories of life on the Mississippi River to create one of the great American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Laura Ingalls Wilder turned her memories of growing up on the American frontier into the Little House books.

Sometimes that life experience provides more than an artistic narrative. Sometimes it fuels ambition, drive to rise — sometimes to rise above. Sometimes, art is catharsis. That seems to have been the case with rocker Tom Petty.

Petty was a Florida kid, born in 1950 in Gainesville, the first son of Earl and Kitty Petty. As a child an uncle introduced him to Elvis, kind of.

Music became a refuge during a hellish childhood

"He sort of grunted my way," Petty told Esquire in 2017. According to The Delite, Petty said Elvis "seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. ... That's what kicked off my love of music," said Petty. "And I'd never thought much about rock 'n' roll until that moment." The encounter lit a spark in the 11-year-old, and as The Sun wrote, music turned into a refuge — a shelter against the storms at home.

Petty openly discussed his father's alcoholism. Petty's mother wouldn't allow her husband to drink at home, and so he'd go out, come home late, and be drunk, looking for a fight. Sometimes he took his anger out on his wife. Sometimes it was his children. "He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can't imagine someone hitting a child like that," a child who was all of four years old at the time.

"Hopefully, it pays the rent"

Petty added, "My mother and grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body."

He came to terms with his past, but not before suffering through a painful marriage — "I was used to living in hell. My parents' marriage was hell. I lived through being terribly abused as a kid, and then I found myself in an abusive marriage" — and overcoming a heroin addiction. Yet somehow, he kept going, creating and performing music on his own and with various bands, including his Heartbreakers and The Traveling Wilburys (Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan), until just a week before his death of cardiac arrest at the age of 66.

Despite it all, he told Esquire, "I like to be an optimist, but I like to be a realist, too. ... Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent. As far as I'm concerned, that's success."