There comes a point in every famous rock star’s career where security guards become a necessary part of the equation. Tom Petty first began living with tighter security in the early ’80s, and even though he was slightly reluctant to accept the new reality, he wound up befriending his security guard and writing a song about him: “Nightwatchman.”
“This guy used to sit outside of the door in a little cage – like a little security gate behind that and the front door,” Petty said in Paul Zollo’s 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty. “And he sat in this cage every night. It was cold as hell out there. It was the wintertime, and I used to look out the window at him, and I’d feel really bad that there was this guy sitting out there, guarding the door.”
Somewhat of a nocturnal creature himself, Petty couldn’t help but talk with the man whose job was to protect him should anything go awry.
“That particular guy would show up right about dark and go home at dawn,” Petty noted. “And I was always up all night. So I would wind up going out there and talking with him a lot. Really, he was the only other person awake in the house.”
Their interactions would inspire the lyrics for “Nightwatchman,” which appeared on Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1981 album, Hard Promises.
Listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Nightwatchman’
At the time, Petty wasn’t too keen on the idea of having such rigid security, calling it “kind of disgusting and amusing at the same time.” One particular lyric of the song – “Yeah, I got a permit to wear this .38, but listen, my life’s worth more than minimum wage” – revealed how Petty really felt about the matter.
“That’s what I used to say to the guy: ‘You know, if somebody comes here, are you gonna shoot them?’ ‘Cause he had a gun,” Petty recalled. “I’d ask him, ‘Would you get into a firefight with somebody here? For what we’re paying you?’ And he’d say [in a low voice], ‘Well, you know, it’s my job, you know, I take my job seriously.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I hope you never have to shoot a teenage girl. … ‘It seemed like overkill to me.”
Petty may have reconsidered the idea of security when a fire set by an arsonist destroyed his Encino home in 1987. He later said he was “shaken for years by it.”