The Story Behind the Most Difficult Song Tom Petty Had to Write That “Went on for Weeks”

“It came in piece by piece,” said Tom Petty of his 1981 hit “The Waiting.” Petty already had a chorus in place, and kept playing it on repeat for weeks, but the verses and bridge took even longer to find. “I knew, when I had gotten that chorus, that I was definitely onto something very good,” added Petty. “And I just couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out where to go with it. Eventually I did.”

Released as the lead single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers‘ fourth album, Hard Promises, which went to No. 5 on the Billboard 200, “The Waiting” went to No. 19 on the Hot 100 and topped the Rock Tracks chart, but it was a song Petty struggled to complete.

“I remember writing that one very well,” said Petty of the song in 2014. “That was a hard one, went on for weeks. I got the chorus right away, and I had that guitar riff, that really good lick—couldn’t get anything else. I had a really hard time. And I knew it was good, and it just went on endlessly.”

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[RELATED: 7 Songs You Didn’t Know Tom Petty Wrote for Other Artists]

Petty continued, “It was one of those where I really worked on it until I was too tired to go any longer. And I’d get right up and start again and spend the whole day to the point where other people in the house would complain.”

‘You take it on faith / You take it to the heart’

Eventually the lyrics came together, recording the painful anticipation of finding the right love.

Oh baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now?
Don’t it feel like somethin’ from a dream?
Yeah, I’ve never known nothing quite like this
Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again?
Baby, we know better than to try and pretend
Honey, no one could have ever told me ’bout this
I said, yeah, yeah (yeah, yeah)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

Well yeah, I might have chased a couple of women around
All it ever got me was down
Yeah, then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I feel right now
Baby, you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now

Oh, don’t let it kill you, baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let ’em kill you, baby, don’t let ’em get to you
I’ll be your bleedin’ heart, I’ll be your cryin’ fool
Don’t let this go too far, don’t let it get to you

Yeah, yeah (yeah, yeah)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
Yeah, the waiting is the hardest part

[RELATED: How the Agony of Romantic Anticipation—and Janis Joplin—Influenced the Meaning Behind Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “The Waiting”]

How Janis Joplin Inspired “The Waiting”

The lyrics also correlate to anything worth waiting for in life, which was the sentiment Petty originally started out with after hearing something Janis Joplin said years earlier.

“It’s one that has really survived over the years because it’s so adaptable to so many situations,” said Petty of the meaning behind the song. “I even think of that line from time to time. Because I really don’t like waiting. I’m peculiar in that I’m on time, most of the time. I’m very punctual.”

Petty added, “Roger [McGuinn] swears to me that he told me that line, and maybe he did, but I’m not sure that’s where I got it from. I remember getting it from something I read, that Janis Joplin said” ‘I love being onstage. It’s just the waiting.’”

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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