How did poor Tom fall into the coma which eventually took his life?

Thankfully, the artists covering for Mr. Petty provided the answer on the Heartbreakers' debut album:

Strangered in the Night
from "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers", 1976
Well it was dark at midnight
There was hardly any moon
And no one really saw much
No one was really sure
But something didn't seem right
Something was kinda queer
A roar turned into whispers
Everyone stood there

  As the sound split the night
  They ran hiding from the light
  Like strangers in the night
  Like strangers in the night

Well I didn't see no shotgun
I didn't see no knife
But I saw this crazy black guy
With the demon is his eye
And I heard him say 'white man'
I've seen that silver cue
You don't remember me well
But I remember you


Well the knife just left his fingers
As the black guy took his aim
White guy's head exploded
The black guy howled in pain
Then everybody scattered
I heard some woman scream
"God damn you old black bastard
You've blown away my dreams"


The above song lyrics clearly tell the story of the unfortunate incident which permanently removed Tom Petty from the realm of consciousness. Tom obviously angered a temperamental "black guy", who was determined to exact his revenge. He confronted Mr. Petty in the middle of the street and shot him in the head, but not before Tom managed to wound him with his trusty knife. As the frightened spectators scurried for cover, Tom's widow-to-be rushed to his side, cursing the ne'er-do-well that took her husband's dignity.

What made Mr. Petty's adversary so irate? One theory is that the conflict had begun in a nearby bar, and that the other man opted to finish it outside. The evidence of this hypothesis can be found in the song "Crawling Back to You" on the Wildflowers album, which states:

"It was me and my sidekick;
He was drunk and I was sick.
We were caught up in a barroom fight
Till an Indian shot out the lights."

In the liner notes of Wildflowers, Mr. Petty's look-alike left a clue pointing to the identity of this "Indian": one picture features him wearing a shirt with a Native American on it. Through careful analysis of the picture, it was possible to track down and interview the actual "Indian" involved in the fight. His testimony supports the theories expressed in this document.

(Editor's Note: The "sidekick" referred to in the above lyrics has not been conclusively identified. The most logical answer would be guitarist Mike Campbell, but many believe it to be Frank Sinatra because of his propensity for starting fights.)

The bar fight theory is further supported by two songs on the recent Heartbreakers album, Echo.  An obvious reference to a fistfight is contained in the single "Swingin'", which states:

"We went down swingin' "

Even more obvious is an excerpt from "Billy the Kid," which, in addition to further explaining the gunfight, introduces some provocative questions that Tom--if he'd been able to do so--might very well have asked his attacker:

"They say be careful who you believe,
Be careful who you trust.
Did you smile when you pulled the trigger
That dropped me in the dust?
Well I went down hard,
Like Billy the Kid."

The lines about trust and belief raise a new question:  Was Tom's assailant a former friend?  It certainly would seem so, and Tom may have seen the betrayal coming, according to the song "Counting on You":

"Oh, little girl, don't misunderstand me,
Cuz there's a rumor going 'round:
Somebody's gonna let me down.
And I don't know what it's all about,
Or if it's true;
I'm counting on you."

Even if Tom saw the conflict coming, he certainly didn't want to fight, as the Heartbreakers blatantly announce in the appropriately titled song, "I Don't Wanna Fight":

"I don't wanna fight;
I'm a lover-lover-lover."

For better or worse, Tom Petty survived the fight in a comatose condition. 



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