Tom Petty Watched His Dad Knock Out an Alligator: 'I Was Kind of Scared of Him'

As a kid growing up in Florida, Tom Petty dealt with a “turbulent” atmosphere that his dad created at home. Petty explained that he typically tried to stay out of his father’s way. When they did spend time together, the singer said that his father often took him on fishing or hunting trips. In an effort to make his son “more macho,” Petty’s father would perform dangerous acts in front of him. On one occasion, Petty watched his dad knock out an alligator with one hand. 

The Heartbreakers’ frontman said his parents were very different from each other

Petty’s mother and father were opposites in their parenting styles. He explained that while growing up in Florida, his father was “very charismatic and well-liked by a lot of people.” At home, though, he was a violent, looming presence, particularly when he’d been drinking. 

“I learned to absolutely f***ing disappear,” Petty told Men’s Journal. “I got the f*** away when he was around.”

His mother, however, was a supportive force for her children.

“She tried to keep an element of civilization in the house to show us there was more to life than rednecks,” he explained. “She read to me a lot. And she liked music: She had a record player and would play Nat King Cole and the West Side Story soundtrack. I think of her every time I hear those songs.”

Tom Petty said his dad was difficult to be around

Petty’s father took issue with the fact that his son was quiet and artistic. When they did spend time together, he tried to make Petty more “macho.”

“My dad was a hard man to be around,” he told American Songwriter. “He wanted me to be a lot more macho than I was. I was this real sort of tender, emotional kid, more inclined to the arts. I didn’t want to be trapped in a boat all day.” They also went hunting, which Petty described as “awful. It was sitting in fields, really cold, to shoot a bird. I remember birds stuffed in bags, and cleaning the birds, picking all the feathers off. It was gross. I hated it.”

His father also pulled “masculine” stunts in front of his son. These were often dangerous.

“One day this small alligator came up by the boat and I actually saw my dad take his forefinger and his thumb and punch the eyes in on the alligator … to show me that he could knock the alligator out … and the gator rolled over in the water,” Petty said. “He was just nuts. But he wasn’t afraid of anything. I once saw my dad grab a rattlesnake by the tail, swing it round his head and pop his neck. That’s pretty wild, you know? So I was kind of scared of him.”

Tom Petty used music as a way of escaping Florida, and his dad

Petty described his home life as “very turbulent” and turned to music as an escape. 

“The minute I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, there was the way out,” he said. “There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. This really spoke to me. I had been a big fan of Elvis, but I really saw in The Beatles that … here’s something I could do. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place.”

Through TV, he realized there was a world of possibilities outside of Florida.

“Los Angeles — television city,” he said. “That became my way out.”

Petty moved to LA in 1974 in pursuit of music. He remained in California for the rest of his life.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788.

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