Somewhere you’ll feel free: ‘Wildflowers’ and All the Rest

29 Oct

My family knows me so, so well. My big birthday present this year was “‘Wildflowers’ & All the Rest,” the long-awaited reissue of Tom Petty’s 1994 masterpiece album that would include additional material intended for the second disc of his original release. The 5-CD, super-deluxe edition I asked for and received also features original solo demos , alternate takes, and live performances of the material and related songs … including two versions of “Girl on LSD” (at last!). There are also liner notes with input from guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, producer Rick Rubin and others who had a hand in the original; an envelope of facsimiles of Petty’s handwritten lyrics (some of which were so preliminary I had a hard time figuring out what songs they became); an art print inspired by “It’s Only a Broken Heart;” and a sticker and patch of the Wildflowers logo.

It’s been said by critics and Petty’s family members that even as his later album, Echo, got dubbed by the press as his divorce album, “Wildflowers” was his real “Blood on the Tracks.” As private as he was about it the time, by the early 1990s Petty was suffering in his marriage to his erratic first wife. At the same time, his professional relationship with Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ original drummer, was unraveling, and his bassist Howie Epstein was struggling with his addiction to heroin. On top of this, he’d moved to a new label and was wrapping up a long stint with Jeff Lynne as his producer. Petty was ready for a new approach.

As fortune would have it, he shared a private plane ride with Rubin, who he initially brushed off as a rap and heavy metal guy – not knowing Rubin was a huge fan of “Full Moon Fever.” Perhaps in an effort to impress his new producing partner, Petty wrote deeply and prodigiously. They ended up with 25 fully-produced songs – yet with the price tag for a two-CD set being too expensive for most of his fans (remember, Petty’s the guy who forced MCA to back off of increasing the list price of Hard Promises by $1 back in 1981), he agreed with Warner Brothers to trim “Wildflowers” to a still-lengthy 15 songs, putting the rest into a vault.

Photo by Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

“Wildflowers” is the album that turned me into a insatiable Tom Petty nerd. Time and again – in the power tracks that became huge hits and the more introspective cuts – his songwriting floored me. Every word carries its weight. You can see that in his handwritten notes: he’d sharpen a simple phrase that would seem not worth the effort until you saw how the edit made it come alive: “You belong in a boat on the sea” became the more action-oriented, specific “You belong in a boat out at sea.” The more famous example is “You Wreck Me,” which began as “You Rock Me” – a song title that aggravated Petty and his bandmates for being trite and lazy. It took him two months to land on the word “wreck,” which cements the ride-or-die romance between singer and subject.

Even as I am digesting the material that rounds out the official double album, the demo disc is the most revelatory of the set because I can appreciate what a refined, multifaceted instrumentalist he was. Petty would draft the songs in his home studio – or at times in a literal closet at his house – adding harmonies and rhythm to his lead vocal and guitar ahead of sharing them with Campbell. I have a bad habit of assuming the lead singer of any band who plays rhythm guitar is doing so because he isn’t up to the task of being the lead axe man. Listening to the demos, I stand corrected. Any song with an indelible guitar riff, he did those first … along with the bass … and the harmonica … and hell, the rhythm guitar, too.

Photo by Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

In 2017, Petty got my heart racing by talking about the “Wildflowers” re-release as his next project after he wrapped up the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour. He even proposed a concert series to play through the double album in smaller venues, with a series of guest stars joining him onstage – Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, Steve Winwood were mentioned. But without warning, he died a week after the anniversary tour ended, overdosing on the prescription opioids he’d been taking to numb the pain of performing on a broken hip throughout the tour.

And that’s the thing about listening to it now, during the week of what would have been Tom’s 70th birthday: as much as I’m delighted to have so much new old music to dive into, I can’t ignore the undertow of sorrow that was there when he wrote the album and surrounds it now that he’s gone. I know now, having read Warren Zanes’ 2016 biography, that Petty wrote “Wildflowers” at a time when his personal life was crumbling around him, and bouts of depression and heroin addiction were coming soon if they hadn’t begun already. It reframes my understanding of what the artist’s intentions were and shades my listening experience.

When I first listened to the title track intently a dozen years ago, I imagined it as Tom encouraging his daughters to go out into the world, find love and blaze their own paths as he, their proud father, stood by, happy for their freedom and wistful about them having to leave him to earn it. Then, I interpreted “Wake Up Time,” the original closing track, as a song for his stepson, walking with the young man through disappointment toward the promise of a new day to bring him comfort. Now, thanks to the liner notes, I understand Tom was talking himself through the worst period of his adult life. The demo of “Wake Up Time” is so quiet, broken-voiced and deliberate, it’s as if he can’t see the sunrise as anything but a blinding spotlight on his failures: it’s a harsh wake-up call, not a gentle nudge.

Tom Petty was not a confessional songwriter, and even if his best work drew from the well of his experience, he was deft enough to craft the stories so that others – his listeners, other artists – could make them their own. And as much as I wish he were here to unpack the album for us and thank the many artists who performed at his 70th birthday bash, I’m grateful for the gift of his humanity throughout his career. Despair wasn’t the main story he had to tell – instead, he chose to revel in the humor, hope and resilience of everyday life. Even peering into darkness, he knew we were destined for somewhere we’ll feel free.

See you on the flip side …

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