Tom Petty on Bob Dylan

The first installation of our celebration of the 79th birthday of Bob Dylan today, May 24, 2020

To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday today, we are bringing you several Dylan-centric stories. This is one in the words of Tom Petty, Dylan’s pal and collaborator. He talks of Dylan in the distance, before they met, and the impact of that music. Then getting to know the man himself. Bob & Tom, together, forever.

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Partners in Rhyme: Tom & Bob

“He influenced my songwriting, of course. He influenced everybody’s songwriting.” –Tom Petty

TOM PETTY: We hadn’t heard Dylan [growing up in Florida] until “Like A Rolling Stone” came out as a single. And we loved that right away. We learned that, did it in the show. We learned all his singles. We didn’t have Dylan albums until Blonde on Blonde [1966]. I had heard Highway 61 Revisited [1965]. A friend of mine had that. But I actually bought Blonde on Blonde. That’s where I really got into Bob. And I started to really dig his thing.

He influenced my songwriting, of course. He influenced everybody’s songwriting. There’s no way around it. No one had ever really left the love song before, lyrically. So in that respect, I think he influenced everybody, because you suddenly realized you could write about other things.

I met him in ’77 or ’78 [in Los Angeles]. We went to see him [in concert]. Me and Bugs [Weidel, longtime roadie] got two comps. We left the Shelter studio, and we drove to the Universal Amphitheater, had a flat tire, and both of us got out on the road trying to change the tire. So we were just covered with grease and dirt. And we got to Universal, found our seats. The show had just begun. And then midway through the show, Bob introduced the celebrities in the audience, which was kind of unusual for Bob.

It was like “Joni Mitchell’s here” and there’d be applause. And then suddenly he said, “Tom Petty’s here.” And there was applause. And that was the first time it really hit me that people knew who we were. Because I’d only made two records then. Then a guy came up to us where we were sitting in our seats, and said “Bob would like you to come backstage.” So we went backstage and had a brief conversation. Nothing of any substance. But I had met Bob.

When Bob played in Live Aid [July 13, 1985 at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia] he went on right before the finale with only acoustic guitars, and people were tuning up behind him, and it was pretty disastrous. So when Willie Nelson invited him to perform in Farm Aid, Bob didn’t want to play acoustic, he wanted to have an electric band behind him. So we went down and rehearsed. We rehearsed a lot. Played a lot of songs. He loved The Heartbreakers. It was quick and easy. You could just throw something out, and The Heartbreakers were good at grabbing it and going for it. We rehearsed and learned more songs than we needed.

He would lead the rehearsals. He would just play us a little bit of what he wanted to do, and he would play it on guitar so we could see what the changes were. And then we’d just start to play. And he kind of got it to where he wanted it to be.

So we backed him up at Farm Aid and it went really well. And then afterwards in the trailer, Bob came back and said, “Hey, what would you think of doing a tour? I’ve got a tour of Australia [1986] I want to do, and what would you guys think of doing that?” And we’d all been huge Dylan fans, and we were very intrigued by the idea of playing with Bob. So off we went. And that went on for two years. We’d do part of it and then more would get added on, and then more would get added on. We really did the world with Bob Dylan.

If you’re going to play with Bob, it’s a little like playing with a jazz artist. They improvise. And he would improvise then. He’d throw out an obscure song, like an Inkspots song, that nobody knew. Nobody except for Benmont, of course!” [Laughs]

He had a lot of material. Some nights we’d do a different show. Every night we’d do something we hadn’t done. It wasn’t like I had never heard anyone say how hard it is to play with Bob because he’s so erratic. But he wasn’t. He was professional. He knew what the show was going to be, and we usually knew what the show was going to be.

“One of the nicest things about Bob is that he’s an honest guy. Really, really honest. Not someone who would ever lie.”

Bob highly values his privacy, and has to go through a little bit of struggle to have it. He is not the kind of person who is going to tell you everything about himself. But I found him to be a good guy. I like him. Liked him then, like him now. He’s a really good musician, and a great songwriter.

One of the nicest things about Bob is that he’s an honest guy. Really, really honest. Not someone who would ever lie. Not someone who would blow his own horn. And I enjoyed all those years of working with him, and I think we had a genuine friendship. Still do. We had a lot of long talks.

He knows a lot about music. He could go back to sea chanties. Folk music. He really knew a lot of folk songs, a lot of early R&B, a lot of early rock and roll songs, fairly obscure songs that I didn’t know. Some of the times I remember the fondest are the rehearsals where Bob might start playing some songs that we didn’t know, and you’d discover something new.

When you have that kind of success, and you’re the best songwriter who ever lived, a lot of myth is built up around you. And it’s quite a lot to carry around every day. But I admire him for remaining a good guy, an honest guy.

I’ll tell you this about him: I saw a lot of people running circles around Bob, being afraid of him, or afraid to say what was on their mind. Trying to anticipate what he was trying to say or do. I always found that if I asked Bob a direct question, I would get a direct answer. So maybe our friendship wasn’t that difficult, because I made up my mind that I would treat him like anybody else. Though I was certainly in awe of his talent. But people are just people [Laughs] And I don’t remember ever asking him a question when he didn’t give me a direct answer.

I found Bob to really put his family first, and to have a great concern about his children. The man himself is a professional musician and a family man. A troubadour of the truest sense.

He can enunciate his view of the world really well. And he can enunciate it in a way that’s poetic. That’s a gift. That’s not something you learn, or get out of a manual. It’s just a gift. So I was lucky to be around him. I never took it for granted that I was getting to work with someone that was a master of what he was doing But I never found him to take himself too seriously. He was a professional. Never showed up late, made every show. [Laughs]

It was so rewarding musically. Just so much fun. And there were great, great songs to play. Wow. All those songs, and they were really good. It was such a thrill to play “Like A Rolling Stone” with Bob. And we’d sing harmony, and there was only one mike. That was the theory, that kind of goes back to folk music, that everybody is going to sing on one mike and balance themselves. But God, it was fun. I even got to play the bass on some songs, when Howie [Epstein] would play a lap-steel.

[Interspersing our songs with his] was scary. You know, because you’re there with the greatest writer who ever lived. [Laughs] But you try not to think about that. And people were really happy to hear us play, too. Thank God. So I think it really intimidated me at first, but once you’ve done the show, you get used to it.

And there was something very free about it I think we learned quite a bit. It was good for me to step back and see what it’s like to back somebody up. It was really interesting to see the whole dynamic of how it works, how you have to really pay attention to what the singer’s doing. And it’s a whole different mindset that if you’re up front. So I think we emerged from that a much better band. And [Bob’s] been a good friend for years. And treated us great, really.

I was surprised to read [in Chronicles, Dylan’s quasi-autobiography] that he felt he was at the bottom of his game while we were at the top. All I can say is that if he was at the bottom of his game, then the bottom is pretty high, because he really could be riveting on some nights. I recently saw a bootleg video of one of the shows, and I was taken back by just how great he was in the show.

You know, artists at times aren’t really the best judges of how they’re performing. I’ve had nights where I thought I wasn’t very good, and then people who had seen the show would come to me raving about it. I did have the sense on that tour that Bob was searching for something. It’s very hard to put into words. We had a lot of long plane rides and talked quite a bit. It was nothing he said in particular, but I did sometimes feel that he was maybe searching for the next step in his career. And maybe I was at the top of my game, but I don’t think he was at the bottom of his. I think the bottom of his game is not that low, anyway. I think he’s always good. Maybe, like anyone else, to different degrees on different nights.

In the book he mentions Malmuth, Sweden, where he had an epiphany onstage that kind of showed him through the next door of his career. And I do remember that happening. I didn’t know what was going on in his head, but I remember him stepping up to the mike to sing, and nothing coming out, and I felt really worried for him, like that maybe his voice was gone. And then he dug down deep, and bang, it came out, and he was a new man within seconds there. And from that point on, and for the rest of the tour, the shows actually did go up a notch. The energy level went up, and he did seem renewed.

Bob is a great artist, and I think that he’s always going to be worth the money to come in and see. But artists are like that—they don’t necessarily see when they’re working at their best.

[During the recording of the two Travelin’ Wilburys records] Bob was very good, very sharp. A lot of people say he won’t do anything more than once in the studio. Not true. Not as true as the myth. I’ve seen him work very hard on things. And do a lot of takes. But a myth builds up around people. Because I think on his own records he goes for a spontaneity. He likes to get a spontaneous feel. But he keeps an overview of what’s going on, certainly.

“The Band of the Hand” is a rare single that I produced for him in Australia. He did it for a movie. [Band of the Hand, 1986.] I got told about it on the plane. We were landing in Sydney, and he came back and said, “I’ve got to do this session tonight, could you produce it?” So I really hit the ground running in Sydney, and had to book a studio and find gear, because our gear was somewhere else. And get The Heartbreakers in. And we did a track, and we worked pretty hard on it. We worked most of the night on the song. So I don’t know, I think nobody’s exactly one way all of the time.

We wrote “Jammin’ Me” together. The verse about Eddie Murphy, that was all Bob. I had nothing against Eddie Murphy or Vanessa Redgrave. [Laughs] I just thought what [Bob] was talking about was media overload and being slammed with so many things at once. And times were changing; there weren’t four TV channels anymore. It was changing, and that was the essence, I think, of what he was writing about.

We wrote a version together at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. We wrote a couple of songs that day. There was another one called “I Got My Mind Made Up.” That was on one of his albums. Knocked Out Loaded I think. I produced the track. We had done a version of it for Let Me Up that didn’t get used. It’s on the boxed set. So we wrote those songs, and then I took really just the lyrics to “Jammin’ Me” and completely rewrote the music with Mike [Campbell]. And then I sent it over to Bob to see if it was okay, and he said, ”Yeah, sure.” So that’s the extent I talked about it with him.

I remember we would write a lot more verses than we needed. We did that with the Wilburys too. It’s a great honor to work with someone so great. And more than an honor; it was fun because he’s really good at it.

I loved [Chronicles]. I saw it as one long poem. The great thing about it is that it reveals that he has insecurities like everyone else has. When you’re that famous, people just don’t give you that benefit of the doubt. They kind of just assume that you understand how great you’re supposed to be. [Laughs] But the truth is, you’re only a human. And you still go through everything that humans go through.

Excerpted from “Conversations with Tom Petty” [Omnibus]. The new expanded edition is being published this week, on February 13, 2020. 


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