Tom Petty: The Last DJ

By: Ben Fong-TorresTue, 10/03/2017
Photo of Ben and Tom by publicist Jim Merlis

It’s too easy, because it’s too true: Tom Petty, the Heartbreaker, died of a broken heart and, in doing so, broke a world of hearts, of friends, peers and fans who just assumed he’d be here forever.

Even when he said that the 53-stop tour he’d just finished would be his “last big one,” you knew he’d be hitting clubs and theaters now and again—and again. Through all his ups and downs, he never gave up on music, and for 40 years and more (Hey, Mudcrutch!), music fans never stopped loving him.

Programming and DJing on, I have leaned on Tom’s music—with his bands, with Dylan, with Stevie Nicks, with the Wilburys, and as a solo—as a foundation of the station. He’s the only artist, besides Moonalice itself, that has his own music folder.

When the shocking news came, I looked over all the song titles, thought back to our interview in 2010, and posted a brief note and photo of us on Facebook. That’s when the heartbroken comments poured in. Here’s my note, followed by a review I wrote, here on Qello Concerts, a few years ago.

Tom Petty was one of the most likable people in the music biz, and I liked him a lot, especially for his lifelong passion for rock. He wrote it, he sang it, he played it, and, off stage, he spun it as a DJ on satellite radio. I visited him in 2010 at home in Malibu for a Parade interview, and how cool it was to see that he was only a few steps away from his own radio studio, where he played what he wanted to play and said what he wanted to say. The Last DJ. Fare thee well to a great guy.

And here is my review of the documentary film available on Qello, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream:


Among rock biographies – books, I mean – my favorite is Life, by Keith Richards, with assistance from James Fox.  Incredible stories about the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

But for rock docs, my favorite right now is right here on Qello Concerts. It’ll gobble up a good deal of your time, but it’s a good deal, period: the story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably seen Runnin’ Down a Dream.

If you kinda like the band and love rock and roll, this is a killer of a must-see. This is just great documentary filmmaking, by Peter Bogdanovich, best known for something he did decades before (the fictional The Last Picture Show).

When I first saw this film, I remember being riveted by a simple piece of film, of Petty’s first band, Mudcrutch, on the road from Gainesville, Florida, to L.A., and they’ve been slowed down because one of their crappy old cars breaks down.  The trials of one of the thousands of groups of guys trying to realize their rock and roll fantasy.  

And there was someone shooting this moment, and many others, on an 8mm home movie camera. And that person—Mudcrutch’s lead singer, Jim Lenahan, who would become the Heartbreakers’ lighting and stage designer, saved it —chose to save it. For like 35 years, until he told Bogdonavich about his stash. Of course, it winds up in a film about, if not the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band, certainly one of the finest bands from the late ‘70s on.

Of course, there’s much more than home-movie rarities in this four-hour, marathon of a film, and more than the music you’d expect in such a production. 

As Keith Richards did in Life, Bogdanovich gives you Petty’s voice – singing, talking, dreaming, ruminating, reflecting, deflecting credit to his bandmates, dissecting what happened that made it happen for him and the Heartbreakers.

It’s not easy to run down and capture a dream, but they did it.


Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.

This article was originally published on Reproduced with permission from the author.