By Tyler Asay
The late, great Tom Petty’s birthday was this week, and his estate recently released Wildflowers & All The Rest, a reissue of his beloved 1994 album along with unreleased tracks and demo recordings from this era, which was all recorded with Rick Rubin. To celebrate, The Philadelphia Globe’s resident Tom Petty fanatics, Kevin McCall, John Saeger, and Tyler Asay, break down the release and share some of their favorite Petty memories.
Tyler Asay: Tell me a little about your relationship with our shared god, Tom Petty. Where did you first hear him? Did you ever see him live? Where were you when you heard he passed and how has his music shaped your life?
Kevin: I grew up in suburbia trying to play bar gigs with original music. Those songs didn’t quite hit the mark in that setting, so I learned a bunch of Tom Petty covers. Musically they are straightforward and simple, but that’s what makes them so infectious. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” I’ve been obsessed ever since watching the Runnin’ Down a Dream documentary and since learned most of his catalogue. My favorite “on stage” memories are performing his music live with Rob Grote (the Districts), Jamie Salvatore (Jamie & the Guarded Heart), Jammmin’ Jess and of course Ramon Gaeda.
My parents shared his music with me early on. They were huge Traveling Wilbury fans. We got to see Petty at Wells Fargo the summer before he passed. I was in the car driving to a rehearsal when WXPN broke the news of his death and they segued into “It’s Good To Be King.” Reports went out that he had passed before he officially died. I remember reading the headline “[Tom] Petty came back to life for one last encore.”
John: Tom Petty was not only my favorite musician, but he also turned me on to countless other artists that I love. The collaborations and inspirations of The Heartbreakers is almost as peerless as the number of big choruses people would sing along to at Heartbreakers concerts. My first memory of listening to his work is “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which is also one of my favorite songs.
Counting his side project Mudcrutch and the Heartbreakers, I saw Petty eight times and was even able to get my wife to delay our honeymoon so we could see the Heartbreakers and Steve Winwood in Philly. Luckily, she agreed and we created an all-time memory by catching a terrific concert from the third row. We never did get to our original honeymoon destination because of a hurricane… something that has been discussed a few times over the years.
His passing affected me more than expected because it was so sudden. I am thankful that I caught the Heartbreakers three times in their final tour. At the time, I was worried that I was over-indulgent. I have since become grateful that I did not miss a show and have no regrets on the total cost of tickets.
I saw Petty at Firefly in 2013 and had a hilariously transcendental experience. He always was someone who flickered on the fringes of my taste and influenced me more than I actually knew. Where does Wildflowers sit in your personal rankings of his albums?
Kevin: Petty gets lumped into the classic rock category. Unlike his contemporaries, he continued to release quality rock records further into his career. You’re not gonna get a great, modern rock album from another novelty act. Specifically pointing to 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. It holds up today. His 90’s solo work is iconic. Between Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers! Imagine writing “American Girl” in ‘76, “Free Fallin’” in ‘89 and having the longevity to follow it up in ‘94 with Wildflowers. It’s in the top 5 for me.
John: I think Wildflowers is Petty’s best total effort as a songwriter. The greatest Heartbreakers record is probably Damn The Torpedoes, but I would classify both as being the best of different eras of the band. Echo is also an underrated gem that I would lump in there.
Totally agree. I always loved Hard Promises but this reissue is pushing Wildflowers up my personal ranking. Was All The Rest on your radars at all? I’ve been thinking about it about once a week since I heard Rick Rubin talk about it on Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record podcast about a year ago. A whole second Wildflowers album seemed so mysterious and intriguing to me.
Kevin: I knew something was up when all the demos/ b-sides kept popping up. I probably wasn’t in the loop until my record store friends (you guys) told me about it. October is a big month for Petty. It’s the same month he was born and died. The spooky season will forever be his.
John: All The Rest first popped on my radar when the single “Somewhere Under Heaven” was released in 2015. Of all the potential posthumous work, this is the album that intrigues me most because Petty had planned it himself. There is a rumor that the band’s legendary Fillmore run may receive a box set. I would camp out outside a record store for that release.
I consider Petty to be as good of an artist as Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, but he does not have that one classic album that people rank with other culturally-lauded records like Dark Side Of The Moon or Born To Run. I think listeners consider him as more of a radio artist (which is a mistake), but the Wildflowers double album was probably his best shot at getting the magnum opus he first sought in Southern Accents.
Do you guys have a favorite song from All The Rest? Does it feel like a “complete album” to you if it was hypothetically released in 1996 as a follow-up to the original album?
Kevin: “Leave Virginia Alone” stands out since it was first released by Rod Stewart. I love when songwriters lend their tunes out to other artists before they release it. Reminds me of Gram Parsons doing “Wild Horses,” before the Stones. What’s missing on Stewart’s is Mike Campbell’s slide solo that outros Petty’s version.
Tom was feeling the grunge-rock stuff happening in the 90’s. I.E. barn burner, “Honey Bee.” I get Temple of the Dog vibes from “Over That Hill,” too. “Harry Green” is beautifully written. “Hope You Never,” is bittersweet and melancholy. It’s a trip to think these songs didn’t make the final record. They’re all so great!
John: I am going to cheat on this and defer to the live disc. The cut from “Girl On LSD” is from a show at the then-Wachovia Center that I was at. I mostly remember dodging the cell phone of the woman in front of me for much of the show, but I vividly recall the Heartbreakers playing the track because someone in the crowd requested it on a sign.
It was a genuine happy moment where the band and audience basked in such a fun song. When I first heard the track, it sounded a lot like how I remembered the moment at the Wachovia Center and it brought a smile to my face when the credits confirmed it was from that show. It is nice to have a memory like that preserved on such a special project. I would love to chat with the people who had the sign that night.
As a whole, it does stand as a project that completes the artist’s original intention.
Have you dug into the demos yet? My favorite so far is “A Break In The Rain (Have Love Will Travel)” which is an early version of the song from 2002’s The Last DJ. It’s a song that feels so familiar but so far away, both “a memory and a dream,” which I think speaks to Petty’s continued relevance. How do you feel this reissue changes your relationship with Petty the artist since his passing?
Kevin: The “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” demo does not feature the “memory and a dream,” line. Petty borrows from his own lyrics from “Crawling Back To You,” for the demo.
"I'm so tired of being tired Sure as night will follow day Most things I worry about Never happen anyway."
Clearly he was still working it out. What would become the final published lyrics on “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” are so important to Petty fans. He had to dig to find the right words that would speak to his relevance in music now and forever. The Wildflowers reissue makes me appreciate Tom Petty so much more as a songwriter.
John: The demo of “California” blew me away when I first listened to it in Rick Rubin’s interview with Adria Petty on Broken Record. I had heard the original studio release a hundred times (it was first included on the soundtrack for She’s The One). The Wildflowers home recording shows how arrangements alter the tone of lyrics. The substance of the lyrics is essentially the same song, but the mood is much more pensive than the actual Heartbreakers version. As a whole, this deluxe edition of Wildflowers feels more personal than the original. The artist’s death certainly changes how we listen to material, but there is no doubt that the rough draft of the album is a potent set of lyrics.