How Bob Dylan and Tom Petty challenged and inspired each other
Dylan and Petty got each other’s mojo back through writing, recording, and touring
Tom Petty was more than just a Heartbreaker. He didn’t act like a superstar, although he certainly was qualified to do so. Under the radar, Tom Petty was also a collaborator, a supporter of young acts, and subversively political. A child of the 60s, he believed in the power of music. Petty and the Heartbreakers appeared at the major charity concerts of his era, including No Nukes, Live Aid, Farm Aid, Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, and 2001’s America: A Tribute to Heroes. After the 1992 L.A. riots, Petty released a single, “Peace in L.A.,” and quietly continued to support numerous charitable causes. Recently, he expressed regret at using the confederate flag to promote his 1985 album, Southern Accents. Early on, he fought his record companies to keep the price of his records down.
Petty was not easy to categorize. Like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, among others, he was weaned on mid-1960s popular music, yet he wasn’t a mythical anthemic songwriter from Jersey, nor a New Wave rocker, although he was sometimes lumped in with that crowd. Luckily, he was never a “new Dylan.” (A new Byrd, maybe.) Petty always seemed like the kid in the room, churning out hit after hit. He never stopped being a fan, even when standing next to such music giants as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, or that Dylan guy.
In the mid-1980s, both Petty and Bob Dylan were at musical crossroads. Dylan was spinning his wheels, feeling like a 60s relic, the reluctant former voice of a generation lost in a haze of Reaganomics, MTV, programmed radio, and perceived nostalgia. For Petty, although still a big concert attraction, album sales were down. To add injury to injury, he punched a wall in frustration and broke his left hand, and then his house burned down, reportedly a victim of arson.
Live Aid and Farm Aid
In July 1985, Dylan had the honor and pressure of closing the U.S. portion of Live Aid. Perhaps hoping for a repeat of the sympathetic collaboration he experienced at 1971’s Concert For Bangla Desh, Dylan mistakenly invited two drunk Rolling Stones – Keith Richards and Ron Wood – to accompany him on out-of-tune acoustic guitars. Although Dylan’s set was the only one to directly address the cause at hand – starving children – it did not translate well. Bad sound, broken guitar strings, and the distraction of the superstar finale set-up behind the performers, did not do much to help Dylan’s flagging reputation. However, Dylan’s mention of struggling American farmers led to Farm Aid a couple of months later.
As Dylan realized he needed a career boost, he invited Petty and the Heartbreakers to back him up for a short set at the first Farm Aid. They did not disappoint. It was such a success that Dylan invited Petty and company to tour with him the following year, and the one after that. It was Petty’s last minute idea to add his friend and influence, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, to the final leg of the tour.
Dylan and Petty in concert: “True Confessions” (1986) and “Temples in Flames” (1987)
An early Dylan/Petty gig was filmed in Australia, and later released as Hard to Handle. It was directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), and debuted on HBO. While on tour, the Heartbreakers backed Dylan while recording the title song he had written for the film, Band of the Hand. The track, produced by Petty, was released as a single on his label, MCA, as some sort of trade agreement. That same year, Dylan took an unreleased Petty track, “Got My Mind Made Up,” rewrote and sang new lyrics over it, and released the final version on his 1986 album, Knocked Out Loaded. Additionally, Dylan, Petty, and guitarist Mike Campbell wrote “Jammin’ Me,” a hit for the Heartbreakers. Eddie Murphy, called out in the song, was not pleased to be included. In concert, Petty would often change the name of the celebrities mentioned.
The setup of the 1986 Dylan/Petty True Confessions tour followed the model of the 1974 live album by Dylan and the Band, Before The Flood, with Dylan and Petty taking turns center stage. The following year, during the Temples In Flames tour, McGuinn, Petty, and Dylan each played their own sets. Although Dylan and Petty both relished the challenge of playing before unfamiliar faces, it appeared to be a somewhat difficult collaborative process. While he came alive when performing cover versions like Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart” (soon to be a hit single for Joe Cocker in 1987), Dylan would often sleepwalk through his classic hits, some probably suggested by Petty. Dylan would mumble his way through “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and let his backing singers, the Queens of Rhythm, take the chorus. “Positively 4th Street,” rarely attempted in two decades, would eventually be dropped from the set.
It was a learning experience for Petty as well. He was now in a supporting role, and had to get used to the whims of his mercurial mentor. The Heartbreakers, one of the tightest units around, had to learn to loosen up, since they never knew what kind of curveball Dylan would throw. One of my all time favorite concert moments was when the True Confessions tour stopped in Hartford. While there were some changes in the set lists from night to night, the variations were minimal. During the encore, on this night only, Dylan began playing an obviously unrehearsed version of his 1969 hit, “Lay Lady Lady.” While not a difficult song, it follows an unusual chord progression, so guitarist Mike Campbell would watch the hands of Dylan, who did not help by facing away from the band. Campbell would hold up his guitar so Petty could see how to play the song. Even the Queens of Rhythm looked nervous, trying to sing back up while Dylan changed the lyrics. Afterwards, Dylan, smiling broadly, playfully shoved Petty, as if he just pulled a high school prank. Dylan then announced, “I don’t usually do that song but I did it tonight for a special request. Can’t remember who it’s for!” While introducing the musicians on stage, he also said, “I especially gotta thank Mr. Tom Petty himself. A real gentleman. Should be around a long time.”
Dylan apparently loved the newly opened outdoor concert shed, Great Woods, in Mansfield, Massachusetts. The band played there twice early in the tour, and a third show was subsequently added. I was lucky enough to get tickets up close for that night, where I witnessed the musicians sitting on the risers on the darkened stage after the penultimate song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” some smoking cigarettes, waiting to play the true final number of the main set, “In The Garden.”
During the tour, Dylan and the Heartbreakers also shared the bill on a handful of summer shows with the Grateful Dead. For 1986’s Farm Aid, footage of the Dead, Petty, and Dylan was broadcast live via satellite from Buffalo. Before his tour with Petty in 1987, Dylan played six stadium shows with the Dead as his backing band. All of this cross pollination soon inspired Dylan to reconnect with his muse, and in 1988 launched the so-called “Never-Ending Tour,” which is still going strong.
Back on the road with his own band, Petty incorporated a couple of subtle tributes to Dylan on tour, by adding two subversive cover versions, in addition to “Jammin’ Me.” Dylan’s most recent album at the time, Down in the Groove, opened with Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together,” so Petty covered the updated version, “Let’s Work Together.” Petty also performed the Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider,” written by McGuinn with help from an uncredited Dylan.
Full Moon Fever and the Traveling Wilburys
In 1988, Petty began recording his first solo album, tentatively titled Songs From The Garage. Produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, the album was a break from the traditional Heartbreakers sound. Additionally, hanging about with Dylan clearly inspired Petty’s creativity, expanding (with some help from Lynne) his musical vocabulary. The album went on to become Full Moon Fever, Petty’s biggest seller ever. This led to a creative renaissance, and his next albums took him to new, unchartered territory. Chris Stapleton, who opened up a few shows on the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour this past summer, has cited 1994’s Wildflowers as possibly his favorite album of all time.
The recording of Full Moon Fever was interrupted when George Harrison needed to record a b-side for the third commercial single from his hit comeback album, Cloud 9, a song titled “This is Love.” The story always changed slightly, but apparently since Lynne was producing Orbison, Petty, and Harrison at the time, they all convened at Dylan’s home studio to record a collaborative song, “Handle With Care.” Too good to be relegated to b-side status, it was decided that the accidental supergroup, now called the Traveling Wilburys, should record an entire album. The result, Volume One, was a massive success.
Each member of the Wilburys had an alias. Dylan was “Lucky Wilbury,” and Petty was “Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr.” Petty was the main songwriter for “Last Night” and “Margarita,” while “Lucky” contributed “Congratulations,” the Prince-inspired “Dirty World,” and the Springsteen pastiche “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” When asked if “Tweeter” was a Springsteen parody, Petty dismissed the notion, explaining it was “Americana.” Clearly, he was learning how to not answer questions from the master.
Orbison would die soon after the album’s release, but, at Dylan’s instigation, the Wilburys would reconvene for the successor, Volume Three, in 1990. Petty was now named “Muddy,” and Dylan was known as “Boo.” An underrated album, much rougher than its predecessor and dominated by “Boo,” “Muddy” clearly shines on “Cool Dry Place,” “Poor House,” and a tribute to Orbison, “You Took My Breath Away.” The band also recorded a song by one of Petty’s influences, Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
In October, 1992, I was fortunate enough to attend Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, dubbed “Bobfest” by Neil Young, at Madison Square Garden. The original full page ad in the The New York Times listed only a handful of the artists who would eventually appear, namely Young, Harrison, McGuinn, John Mellencamp, Eric Clapton, and Petty. These are the only artists who would sing more than one Dylan song at the concert. The Heartbreakers doing “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was almost a given, with ridiculously overactive camera work adding unnecessary extra excitement, but nobody could have predicted a cover of “License To Kill,” from 1983’s Infidels album, weeks before the presidential election. McGuinn then joined the Heartbreakers for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” After his short acoustic set, Dylan was joined by Clapton, Young, Harrison, McGuinn, and Petty, for “My Back Pages.” I remember feeling almost numb seeing all of these great artists sharing vocals, defiantly saying they still felt young and vital. It’s the closest we’d ever get to a Wilbury reunion. For the finale, everybody came on stage and sang “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Afterward, Dylan appeared solo again, and sang “Girl From the North Country.”
On August 9 and 10, 2003, Dylan opened for the Heartbreakers at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. On the first night, Petty, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and guitarist Mike Campbell joined Dylan on stage for the encore. Campbell also appeared during the main set for “Honest With Me.” The following night, Dylan sat in with the Heartbreakers, singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and played guitar on a cover of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” Members of the Heartbreakers have appeared at various Dylan sessions since 1981.
The Last DJs
Petty never stopped loving the music that inspired him, and mourned the old days of free form rock radio. His 2002 album, The Last DJ, was inspired by Los Angeles radio personality Jim Ladd. Petty was so impressed with XM (later SiriusXM) Satellite Radio he reportedly bought a few radios for Dylan. In 2005, Petty began hosting his own show on XM Satellite Radio, Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure. It was mostly the soundtrack from Petty’s youth, mixed with more recent material, his laid back, goofy, unpretentious humor holding it all together. From May 2006 until April 2009, Dylan followed suit when he hosted 100 episodes of his own radio show on XM, Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan. There are currently two channels devoted to Petty – One for his music (Tom Petty Radio), the other playing non-stop episodes of Buried Treasure.
When asked to comment on Petty’s death last Monday, Dylan said, “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”