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Tom Petty’s Dream Version of ‘Wildflowers’ 3 Years After His Death

Tom Petty
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During the last week of his life, Tom Petty grew unusually wistful. Home after a tour with the Heartbreakers, he had his wife, Dana, call up his rarely seen 2002 “Fun in the Desert” video, in which he tooled around a barren landscape on a mini-motorcycle, then asked her to track down a high school girlfriend on social media. “He hated Facebook,” Dana Petty recalls. “But he got super-nostalgic. Looking back, it’s very strange.”

Little from his musical past tugged at him more than Wildflowers, the 1994 solo album that contained some of his most intimate, relaxed, and revealing songs, from “You Don’t Know How It Feels” to the wispy title folk song. With the help of producer Rick Rubin, the album became one of Petty’s most beloved albums, selling more than 3 million copies at the time, as well as one of his most sonically expansive works. “He would always say, ‘That’s the best record we ever made,’” says Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. “It was a period when song after song was coming, which doesn’t always happen 20 years after your first release.”

When Petty first submitted the 25-track Wildflowers to Warner Bros., the label, including then-President Lenny Waronker, suggested he trim it back to one disc. As Petty told Rolling Stone in an unpublished interview from 2013, “Lenny listened to it and said, ‘It’s great, but it’s too long — you need to cut it down.’ We were like, ‘Oh, man, we wanted a double album.’ ” Petty acquiesced, relegating roughly half the album to his archives, although a few of the outtakes (“California,” “Hung Up and Overdue”) would end up on the soundtrack of the 1996 Edward Burns rom-com She’s the One.

Around 2012, in the midst of working on a new Heartbreakers album (Hypnotic Eye), Petty decided the time had come to finally release Wildflowers in its complete two-disc form. “We’re going to put out the songs from the other record as well,” he told RS excitedly. “We recorded quite a lot of songs and dug them out, and the songs are just so cool.”

Petty would never live to see his dream project through. In October 2017, he died from an accidental overdose of prescribed medications, including fentanyl. But on October 16th, three years after his passing, Petty’s wish will be fulfilled with a multidisc set, Wildflowers & All the Rest. As he had planned, it augments the original album with the excised songs, some in alternate versions from the ones heard on She’s the One. “I know he really wanted it to be finished,” says Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. “And it felt good to do what he wanted and to follow through on his original idea.”

Deluxe configurations go even further: Separate discs are devoted to Petty’s homemade demos, live recordings of the Wildflowers songs, and alternate takes from the studio sessions. Akin to multi-disc sets accorded to classics like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Wildflowers & All the Rest allows listeners to see how one of Petty’s landmark records came together, nearly step by step. His daughter Adria Petty (who curated the collection along with Dana Petty, Campbell, Tench, and Adria’s sister Annakim Violette) says the set “helps you understand the magic of how my dad did something” in a way nothing else can. “I always thought they got together and maybe he had a certain amount of songs and presented them to Rick,” she says. “But that really wasn’t the process. It was this huge collaboration…a deliberate and very painstaking process to make these pure, simple recordings.”

And yet this project, which meant so much to Petty in his final years, almost didn’t happen. Before one of the most anticipated classic-rock releases in recent memory could become a reality, Petty’s surviving family had to get through a bitter court battle over his estate that came close to tearing them — and the Wildflowers project — apart. “Our world was turned upside down, and it did some damage,” says Dana. “We got through it somehow. . . . But I don’t recommend it to anyone.”

Rubin and Petty in the studio during the ‘Wildflowers’ sessions, 1993

Mark Seliger

Before Petty began working on Wildflowers in 1992, he had reason to feel stressed. His marriage to his first wife, Jane, was collapsing; Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein was battling drug addiction; and tension had developed between Petty and drummer Stan Lynch. Around the same time, Petty had also left his longtime label, MCA, for a new deal with Warner Bros.

That year, Petty found himself on the same private Warner jet from New York to L.A. with Rubin, then best known for cofounding Def Jam in the Eighties and producing the Beastie Boys and hard-rock acts. Rubin and Petty would have seemed to be on different ends of the musical spectrum, but according to Adria, who was on the flight as well, they made an initial connection there, starting with the fact that both had attended the recent Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert in New York. “Rick was in the corner with a Walkman listening to every Neil Young album, and I think my dad really took notice of that,” she says. “He thought he was a rap guy or a Slayer producer, but here Rick was at the Bob show and studying Neil. My dad must have thought, ‘Maybe he should be studying me!’

Rubin, it turned out, had been a fan of Petty’s 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever, playing it incessantly on long drives after he moved to California. “From that point on, I was excited about the possibility of working with Tom,” Rubin recalls. Eventually, Warner Brothers’ Mo Ostin set up a meeting between the two men, and the two met at Petty’s house. “Rubin was afraid to meet Tom,” laughs George Drakoulias, then Rubin’s number two at his label, American. Soon after, though, they decided to work together. “We never discussed anything about overall goals or ideas for the project,” Rubin recalls. “Tom was clear he wanted it to be a solo album. It wasn’t clear to me why it was important to him, but he did make the point.”

When the work commenced, Rubin recalls that Petty only had one song, “It’s Good to Be King.” But it was clear to Campbell that the album would be a different one from the start. “It was an interesting time in our life, because we’d been working so hard, touring and recording right up to Full Moon Fever and all that,” the guitarist says. “We finally got to a place where we did not have to push so hard to survive. Tom was able to sit back and reflect on what he wanted to do next artistically and maybe try different types of songs, more acoustic here and there, more introspective. Maybe some different points of view. We weren’t under the gun to hurry it up, so we could take our time and wait for the good songs to come through.”

True to Campbell’s memory, the Wildflowers sessions extended in a leisurely pace over about a year and a half as the songs were fine-tuned section by section. “We were worried a little bit if we could trust Rick or not to do what we wanted to do and not take it in the wrong direction,” says Campbell. “I don’t know if ‘worry’ is the right word. We had to learn to trust him deeply and spiritually with the songs. And then once that happened, we all went along for the ride… He pumped up the drums for a different sound than we might normally get, and offered to lead the arrangements in a different way that we might not have gone if all the the Heartbreakers were standing there. We had the freedom to explore other things.”

Engineer Jim Scott recalls Petty showing up promptly each afternoon, ready to work. One of the first goals was to recruit a new drummer. Although Lynch was technically still in the Heartbreakers, Petty and Rubin began auditioning others for the album, eventually including British percussionist Steve Ferrone. As Ferrone learned, Petty was in search of a new sound and approach — not as polished as the work he’d done with Jeff Lynne, and more expansive and open to new sounds. “Occasionally, there was a song we’d play and I’d say, ‘Okay, this sounds more like the Tom Petty I know,’” says Ferrone. “We’d do a few takes and then Tom would say, ‘Nah, we’ve been here before.’  I was like, ‘This sounds like you.’ But he would walk away from the song.”

Wildflowers came to incorporate Celtic folk balladry, blues, folk-rock, and cameos by Ringo Starr and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson. To ensure the best vocals, Scott recalls Petty taking a tip from the late Roy Orbison, whom he’d befriended in the Traveling Wilburys, and drinking a six-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola before each take. For that perfect mid-Nineties touch, everyone took a break each Thursday evening to watch the latest episode of Seinfeld.

Home from college during a Thanksgiving break, Adria watched her father and Rubin work on string arrangements and “geek out” over the Beatles’ White Album. (“Only a Broken Heart” feels particularly like an outtake from that Beatles masterpiece.) “He really had a fun time doing it,” Adria recalls. “You’d never have known what he was going through.”

Petty was on such a roll that one song, “Wake Up Time,” was recorded at the very last minute while the band was filming a promotional video at a studio after the album was done. Petty announced he had a new ballad and everyone hastily arranged for it to be cut right then, around midnight; it was so-last minute that Ferrone almost missed his dawn flight back to New York. “Wildflowers isn’t perfect, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it,” says Scott. “It’s one of the last great analog records that wasn’t run through the ProTools grinder. You don’t have the budget to spend a year and a half on a record now.”

Drakoulias recalls the mood of the sessions as “like a frat house — lots of joking and laughing.” It became clear that the sessions were an oasis for Petty from everything else happening in his life. “He wasn’t really open about what was going in inside his private world,” Tench says. “The songs obviously show there was something going on, and the aftermath shows there was something going on… He’d come to the studio and have these remarkable songs.” Adds Adria, “I don’t think that there was any doubt about what the record was about. It’s the quintessential divorce record. It’s [about] allowing yourself to move on to another phase in your life and find happiness.”

Many around Petty were taken aback when he agreed with the label’s suggestion to trim back Wildflowers when the sessions concluded. “We thought the quality was there, so I was let down and confused,” admits Tench. Campbell insists that Petty wasn’t pressured: “It wasn’t shoved down our throats,” he says. “We were being cooperative and maybe deferring a bit to what they thought would work in the marketplace. But Tom was going to do what he wanted to do.”

Rubin admits to being “shocked,” in his words, when Petty made that decision, which involved a new, painstaking resequencing of the songs. Rubin now wonders if Petty’s decision was related to his consideration of his fans: “If part of the pitch was double albums are twice as expensive for the fans to buy, I could see Tom not wanting his music priced beyond his audience. He always kept his concert tickets to reasonable prices compared to his peers. Knowing this history helps to make sense of Tom’s willingness to bend on a creative choice.”

In the end, the decision proved a smart one. Even at 15 songs, the released version of Wildflowers was still long, nearly the equivalent of an old-fangled double LP, and still reflected the musical range Petty and Rubin aimed for. “He was this strange combination of being musically conservative but wanting to move forward,” says Tench. “In the day, I faulted him for his conservatism. If I’m a big fan of someone, I’m very critical. But in looking back, he took more chances than I gave him credit for.”

Petty moved on to further albums and tours after that, but Wildflowers stayed with him. When he and engineer Ryan Ulyate began revisiting the shelved half two decades later, Petty realized he’d forgotten about songs like “Somewhere Under Heaven,” a psychedelic Wall of Sound creation. “I’m listening to it and thinking, ‘This is cool — I wonder who it is?’ ” he told Rolling Stone. “And suddenly my voice came on and I was just stunned. I had no memory of this song.” (Ulyate recalls that moment as well: “He said, ‘Who is that guy?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s you.’”) “There were things I didn’t even recognize until halfway through,” recalls Campbell. “I’d think, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that guitar lick — it’s that song. What happened to that song?’ It was like rediscovering new songs, in a way.”

Around this time, Petty invited himself over to Rubin’s studio to play him a surprise. “I couldn’t believe it when we listened,” Rubin recalls. “I had forgotten we had recorded all of those songs. It was surreal. They sounded just like Wildflowers, but none were on the album.” Petty seemed to be grappling with a way to release the material, and floated the idea to Rubin of releasing it as a standalone album called Wildflowers 2, although Rubin says he talked him out of it: “I said that might give people the impression it’s a new album in the Wildflowers style.”

Petty’s love of Wildflowers was also evident in another plan that emerged, for a special tour in which he would play all the songs from the sessions, with guest singers. It was a classic-rock gimmick he had long avoided, but it spoke to how highly he regarded one of his signature works. “Oh, God, he was so excited to do a tour behind it,” says Dana Petty. “He really wanted to make it something special. He talked about it nonstop. He had such a great year and said, ‘I can put it all behind me and do Wildflowers and do whatever I want.’ He was really happy.” During rehearsals for his last tour, Petty would occasionally work on new harmonies and arrangements for the Wildflowers songs with Charley and Hattie Webb, the British sisters who sang backup at those shows.

After the Heartbreakers’ last show, at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25th, 2017, Petty hosted an intimate party at his and his wife’s room at their Bel Air hotel, where he talked with Ferrone about what he had in mind: playing the original Wildflowers start to finish, followed by the rest of the material, with guests like Stevie Nicks, Eddie Vedder, and Steve Winwood. “It would turn into a massive band,” Ferrone says. “He had a lot of ideas. If anyone could have pulled it together, it would have been Tom. It would have been fabulous.”

Tom Petty

Petty in a Los Angeles supermarket, 1992

Mark Seliger

A week after the last Heartbreakers show, those dreams faded when Petty collapsed at his L.A. home and was rushed to a hospital, where he died the next day. Before the tour, Petty had been dealing with knee and hip issues that concerned some of those close to him. “I did not want him to go,” Dana says of that last tour. “He wouldn’t hear it. He really thought it was going to be OK: ‘I’ve had a broken hip for two years. What’s the worst that could happen?’ It definitely wasn’t the healthiest move. Not worth it.”

Petty was often in such pain on that tour, due to knee and hip issues, that he would be driven to the stage in a golf cart, and Ferrone had to walk him up the stairs to the stage. “He had a lot of pain in his hip — it wasn’t easy for him,” Ferrone says. “I‘d be on his right, and he’d have his arm around my neck and he’d have the railing, and we’d go up the stairs. For anyone who saw it, it was a couple of old friends going up the stairs talking to each other. I’d say, ‘Ready for the next step?’ He was like, ‘Just get me up there! We’ll be all right!’ We’d get to the top of the stairs and I’d go to my drums and he’d go out to the front and wave his arms, and it was on.”

With Dana as the designated trustee of her late husband’s estate, plans for posthumous projects began, starting with a box set (An American Treasure) and a hits package in 2018. Court documents indicate that Warner Bros. put up $900,000 for the expanded Wildflowers, which was penciled in for 2019, the album’s 25th anniversary. But those plans ground to a halt that spring. Accusing Dana of “gross mismanagement” of the estate, Adria and Annakim Violette, Petty’s daughters from his first marriage, sued her for $5 million, contending that she had excluded them from the estate’s finances. In subsequent court filings, Dana called Adria “erratic” and “abusive,” and claimed she wanted to put her father’s name on products like salad dressing.

Adria says the Wildflowers plans were part of what troubled her. “They were going to just slap out All the Rest with the same cover from Wildflowers, like, ‘Here you go,’” she says. “I just felt like they weren’t going to do the due diligence. I didn’t want it to come out without the thoughtful discussion it deserved.” She blames unnamed “70-year-old white men” for ignoring her and her sister’s wishes. “They can put whatever they want in those filings,” she says. “It’s a bunch of bullshit. They used that to try to pressure us to make financial and creative-control concessions we were really uncomfortable with.”

Dana admits that her late husband’s legal affairs were not necessarily airtight. “Tom’s will wasn’t written very well, to be honest,” she says. “It was very confusing, and it got ugly. When lawyers get involved, they like to sling dirt. And regrettably, lawyers got involved. And I don’t think it was necessary.” She pauses. “I don’t know. Maybe it was.”

From the sidelines, the Heartbreakers — Campbell, Ferrone, Tench, bassist Ron Blair, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston — could do little but watch the fight play out. “It was sad that it was not harmonious at times,” says Campbell. “Everybody was stressed and grieving.” Adds Tench, “I didn’t want anybody mad at each other or feeling abused on either side. Tom would have been furious because he never let his personal life get into the press.” (Adria clarifies that the Heartbreakers were not her targets: “They are my family, like my uncles. There’s no disrespect for them.”)

In December 2019, the two sides reached an agreement to table their legal disputes; new manager Will Botwin (of Red Light Management, a firm that also works with Phish, Brandi Carlile, and others), was hired to oversee the estate. “As soon as there weren’t attorneys involved and there weren’t people trying to manipulate the dialogue,” says Adria of the reconciliation, “it was completely smooth.”

With that legal resolution, work on Wildflowers & All the Rest resumed. Petty’s original 1994 tracking order for the double-disc Wildflowers was never located. “I did search for a couple months for the original double-album sequencing,” says Adria. “I would have loved to have put out what he delivered to Lenny and Mo as the finished album. That would have been something. I used to listen to it all the time on a gold CD, and we loved it and Dad loved it.  And all we can remember is that it was basically the first album and All the Rest, a J.J. Cale cover, and then it ended with ‘Girl on LSD.’”

But after searching “the home studio and all of our closets and cupboards,” says Dana, the estate and Ulyate were able to put together an entire disc of unreleased recordings of Petty at home, working his way through the Wildflowers songs, some with different lyrics or arrangements, and with Petty sometimes overdubbing instruments himself. That disc in the box set is nearly an album unto itself, reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s pared-down Nebraska. In addition to unplugged versions of Wildflowers songs, the estate also discovered completely unknown tunes like the gentle, harmonica-laced “There Goes Angela (Dream Away).” “I was baffled,” Tench says. “Why hadn’t I heard this before?”

An early demo of “California” includes an unheard verse — “Don’t forgive my past/I forgive my enemy//Don’t know if it lasts/Gotta just wait and see” — that stood out for Adria. “That verse gives that song so much more meaning,” she says. “You wonder, was it too revealing? You get to hear what originally came out of him, versus what he shared with everyone.” Adria also learned that “Don’t Fade on Me,” seemingly a chronicle of his marriage on the original Wildflowers, began as the story of a band, not a relationship. “It became almost transferred back to his home and his relationship,” she says. “There were so many discoveries on those demos.”

Regarding the release of those and other private recordings, Campbell says he used a simple formula: “My approach was to just pretend I was Tom:  ‘This is good’ or ‘No, please, don’t let the world ever see that song!’ I had a pretty good sense of that. I hope we did it right. I think we did.”

Listening back to those tapes proved surprisingly healing, for both the family and the band members. “It keeps me in the band — I really don’t like not being in the band,” says Tench. “It was very disorienting for [the Heartbreakers] to just vanish into thin air. It’s been hard to find my way. But things like this box set have been helpful. It makes me happy to hear it.” Dana Petty had a similar reaction as she listened to unearthed recordings of her late husband’s voice at a studio. “I was over there every day listening, and it was very healing and exciting,” she says. “We’d dance around. It’s been a really hard three years, but that’s what got us through.” Choking up a bit, she adds, “It’s been horrible without him. It doesn’t get any easier. Whoever said that is full of shit. I wake up every day and think he’s next to me. And it’s like Groundhog Dog every day. It sucks.”

With the first part of Petty’s dream project finally done, attention may eventually turn to the Wildflowers concerts he envisioned. At this point, especially with Covid-19 having shut down the concert business for the foreseeable future, nothing has been nailed down. Campbell and Ferrone both say they are open to preserving Petty’s idea of an all-star tour. “It’s awkward thinking about getting the Heartbreakers together without Tom there,” says Campbell, who joined Fleetwood Mac in 2018 and hopes to tour himself next year with his new band, the Dirty Knobs. “But if it was ever going to happen, the only thing that would interest me would be that project, because I know he wanted to take those songs on tour.”

Yet in a sign of how raw emotions remain three years after Petty’s passing,Tench has a few reservations about the plan. “Do I want the band to back up somebody else?” he says. “It would just be too weird. And as far as playing the record with different singers, I don’t know. Why? It could be fantastic, and my mind is always open to anything. But right now, I’m not over this.”

For now, Petty’s survivors are relieved that the legal turmoil of the past two years appears to be behind them. “It was really embarrassing and a weird and horrible thing to go through after you lost your dad,” says Adria. “But if we had to fight to say we really care about this and that it wasn’t about money — and about being able to make sure [the projects were] at a level he would have appreciated — it was worth it in that regard.” Adds her stepmother Dana, “Hopefully, we can move forward. We did on this record.”

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