The night Tom Petty dropped acid for the first time and finally connected with an old crush proved to be an inspiration for his classic “Even the Losers.”
Although the track wasn’t one of the U.S. singles pulled from 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes – it was released only in Australia that way in July 1980 – “Even the Losers” has become a classic-rock radio staple. But the events detailed in the song took place a decade earlier.
As recalled in Warren Zanes’ Petty: The Biography, the story happened in 1969, shortly after a brief period when Petty’s father had enrolled him in art school in Tampa. Earl Petty was talked into sending his son to the school by a door-to-door salesman, with the unspoken truth being that enrollment in higher education meant a draft deferment at the height of the Vietnam War. Young Tom was hardly an attentive student, but he didn’t object to furthering his education, because it meant he could be closer to Jan Mathews, whom he met at a gig with his band the Epics and had kept a secret from his parents.
Petty’s time in Tampa didn’t last long. He didn’t go to a single class, preferring instead to hang out on the beach and work odd jobs – first as a dishwasher and then at a funeral home run by Mathews’ dad in nearby St. Petersburg. But after getting caught in bed with Jan, Petty headed back to his hometown of Gainesville, Fla.
Upon his return, he and his friend Mike Nixon went to a party at a friend’s place and took LSD. They were in the middle of their trip when Petty spotted a girl named Cindy, who had rejected his advances when they were in middle school together. Seeing Petty with long hair now, something changed with Cindy. As the evening dwindled down, they found themselves smoking cigarettes on the roof and skipping rocks on a lake below an interstate overpass – incidents that made their way into “Even the Losers” — until they were eventually alone.
But Petty’s triumph was short-lived. “She let me know it was just for that night,” the singer told Zanes. “And it scarred my brain all over again. In a matter of hours, I’d let myself believe another story, the one I’d wanted to believe for a long time. I only saw her a few times after that. But finally she took me into a room at someone’s place and said, ‘You keep trying, but you and me isn’t going to happen.’ When I wrote ‘Even the Losers’ years later, that night came back. I obsessed over her so much. She’s probably in a lot of songs.”
Listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Even the Losers’
During the acid trip, Petty came to the revelation that he needed to be in a rock band or else his life was meaningless. He patched things up with the Epics, who had moved on to a new bass player in his absence, and dedicated himself to the band.
Even though the memory of that lysergic-drenched night was still fresh a decade later, Petty had a difficult time coming up with the song’s title until the moment he was recording his vocals.
“I had everything but the chorus,” he recalled in Conversations With Tom Petty. “I had the tune for the chorus. And I had the chords. And I was bold enough to say, ‘Let’s cut this thing.’ But I had no idea what I was going to sing when I got to that point. And boom, divine intervention, it just came out: ‘Even the losers get lucky some time.’ The whole thing. I don’t know if I even told [the band]. I don’t know if they even know that. But I was kind of wondering what I was gonna sing when that came. I was really happy. I’m not even going to question where that came from.”
Petty noted those moments of inspiration happen only because of the amount of work he’d put in ahead of time. “In a spiritual sense, I think they’re all out there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of you getting yourself into a place where you can receive, where you can get your antenna out there where you can get that signal. I think if you get your antenna out there and you get into that space, a lot will come in. You never really get the results it you try to force it that you do if you just let it come in. But it can be frustrating if you’ve got session time booked, and you’ve got to come out with something. It can be tough.”