On October 1st, 2017, heartland rock singer, Tom Petty, went into cardiac arrest, prompting a slew of media outlets to proclaim he’d flown to that great big stadium in the sky. While initial reports of his passing proved premature, Petty’s death was officially confirmed later that evening, igniting a groundswell of goodwill towards the legendary front man.
Petty and his band, The Heartbreakers, rose to prominence in the late ‘70s, thanks to their third LP, Damn the Torpedoes. The album contained rock staples, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” sold over three million copies, and kickstarted an impressive run of hits that ran through the ’80s and into the early ’90s.
In tandem with the band’s sustained success, Petty struck commercial gold when he went solo on 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and again with super-group, The Traveling Wilburys.
But for a certain generation of music fans, he’s best remembered for his music videos. Though not an obvious MTV superstar like Madonna or Michael Jackson, Petty was an early champion of the format, transitioning from rock star to video god with ease, and eventually winning the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard in 1994.
To celebrate his legacy, here’s a look back at five of Petty’s most iconic music videos.
Don’t Come Around Here No More: This Alice in Wonderland inspired video is frequently cited on all-time “best of” lists, and for good reason. Co-written by the Eurthymics’ Dave Stewart (who cameos in the video as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar), the song’s booming psychedelia perfectly matched Alice’s madcap adventure, with Petty expertly cast as the Mad Hatter. The minor (and ridiculous) controversy involving a scene where Petty and the band eat a cake version of Alice proved inconsequential, as the video scooped up Best Special Effects at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards.
Running Down a Dream: Based on Little Nemo in Slumberland comics, this animated music video found Petty on the run, as he slid down staircases and dodged cliff-eating clowns in surreal, nightmarish scenes. The video’s frenetic pace complemented the song’s windows-down/radio-up vibe in a fun, irreverent, and perfectly Petty way.
Into the Great Wide Open: Although the song wasn’t a hit (it limped to #92 in the charts), the six-and-a-half-minute video was a treat. The song’s cautionary lyrics were brought to life thanks to Johnny Depp as Eddie Rebel and Faye Dunaway as his cougar-ish Svengali, plus cameos from Matt LeBlanc, Chynna Phillips, and err…Terence Trent D’Arby. But the real fun was spotting the various parts Petty played: narrator, tattoo artist, roadie, reporter. The video was nominated for Best Male Video in 1992 (losing to Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”) and for Best Video That Should’ve Won a Moonman in 2009 (losing to Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”).
Mary Jane’s Last Dance: Recorded for Petty’s first Greatest Hits collection, this somber, faux-drug-promoting rock ballad was showcased by its lush, sapphire-tinged video, with Petty playing a morgue assistant enamored by a beautiful corpse (Kim Basinger). The video walks a fine line between creepy (dressing Basinger in a wedding gown and seating her at a dinner table) and cool (the candle-lit, Great Expectations-inspired slow dance), and won Petty Best Male Video at the 1994 VMAs.
You Don’t Know How It Feels: Petty’s last top forty single is best remembered for its distinct harmonica solo and a censored lyric about rolling joints. But it was the music video—shot in one continuous take—that shined brightest, with Petty in performance mode as he slowly revolved around a microphone. The deceptively-simple, medium close-up focus blurred the ensuing chaos (a bank robbery, circus performances, a wrecking ball smashing through a couple’s bedroom) behind him, creating instantly memorable imagery that scored Petty his second consecutive Best Male Video trophy.