Tom Petty released a lot of great albums over the course of his four-decade career as one of the great American songwriters, but none meant more to him than 1994’s Wildflowers. “Even on the last tour, if we played a song from Wildflowers he’d say: ‘That’s the best record we ever made’,” remembers Benmont Tench, keyboardist and founding member of Petty’s backing group The Heartbreakers. “And I appreciated that he said ‘we’.”
Wildflowers is ostensibly a Petty solo record, although the majority of The Heartbreakers ended up playing on it anyway. It was recorded at a transitional time in his life; he was privately aware that his 20-year marriage was falling apart, and publicly separating from both his record label MCA and producer Jeff Lynne, who had been instrumental in the creation of his two previous albums, 1989’s Full Moon Fever and 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. Lynne was a hero of Petty’s, and had been his bandmate in supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, but Tench says Petty was looking for a new sound. And it was easier, perhaps, recording the more personal, introspective songs on Wildflowers with Rick Rubin, a producer he barely knew when they started making the album. “People will tell their life story to a stranger, even when they won’t tell those things to a friend,” points out Tench. “I think emotionally it was great to have new blood around.”
Now, Petty’s fans have the chance to glimpse inside those transformative recording sessions. The new documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free tells the story of the making of Wildflowers using a recently discovered trove of 16mm film footage recorded in the period between 1993 and 1995, along with new interviews with Tench, Rubin and other key collaborators and archive recordings of Petty himself. It all makes for an intimate film that has proved revelatory even to those who knew Petty best. “The movie is wonderful, because you get to hear Tom talk about what he was going through and his process for what he was trying to accomplish,” says Tench. “He was a guy who played everything close to the vest. He never said any of that to us!”
The film is the work of director Mary Wharton, known for music documentaries including 2009’s Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound and 2020’s Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President. She says the previously unseen footage from the Wildflowers sessions offer an unprecedented look at a songwriting master at the peak of his powers. “It was the most astonishing opportunity for me, as someone who has always had such love and respect for Tom as a songwriter, an artist and a rock star, to be able to look at his process,” she says. “He never really shared works-in-progress or anything like that, so to be able to sit at the feet of a master and watch him in his creative process was such a special and rare opportunity.”
During this period, great songs were coming to Petty thick and fast, and sometimes completely fully formed. He ad-libbed the entirety of the album’s gorgeous title track in one go while recording alone in his backyard studio, and thereafter never changed a word of it. Petty’s ability to write a complete song in only the time it takes to play it brings to mind a famous, albeit possibly apocryphal story, about Picasso. The great artist is said to have once been asked by a fan how he could ask an enormous fee for a sketch that only took him 30 seconds to draw. “You’re wrong,” he retorted. “It took me 40 years.”
Tench says Petty’s songwriting ability had similarly been refined over decades of fastidious work since they first met in their shared hometown of Gainesville, Florida. “I first saw him around when I was 11 or 12, at a music store he worked at that I hung out at, and then I met and got to know him when I was 17,” remembers Tench. “He loved writing songs, and he was always working on being a better songwriter. When I was 17, he was 20. When we made Wildflowers, he was 44. That’s a long time to be honing your craft. It opens you up, so that something can come in. He was open. He had something in his heart that needed to come out and bang, it came out.”
Petty’s willingness to follow his muse wherever it led him resulted in some of the most playful, and outright funny, songs of his career. That includes fan-favourite “Girl on LSD”, in which Petty sings about falling for girls on a variety of narcotics including cannabis, cocaine, LSD, beer, crystal meth, china white and coffee. “I’m pretty sure he made that up on the spot,” says Tench, laughing at the memory of it. “It doesn’t sound like he fine-tuned everything, but it was funny, and it was true! It was so much fun to play live. He was great at that kind of stuff. He was a very funny man, and he didn’t let that side of himself out very much for the first 10 years of our career.”
With Heartbreakers Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Howie Epstein all ending up on Wildflowers, the most significant personnel change was behind the drum kit. Stan Lynch had been the Heartbreakers drummer since they formed in 1976, but by the mid-Nineties so much friction had built up between Lynch and Petty that they finally parted ways. That left a vacancy which a number of drummers auditioned for and filled temporarily, including Ringo Starr, but it was Brighton-born Steve Ferrone who most impressed Petty. The first song they recorded together was “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, which went on to be a major hit. Ferrone remembers listening back to it for the first time in the studio with Petty, Campbell and Rubin. “It was funny, because when it finished Tom turned to Mike and said: ‘Well, what a difference a drummer makes’,” recalls Ferrone with a chuckle. “I wasn’t sure what to make of that as it could mean a few different things, but then Tom looked at me and said: ‘Don’t worry, you won!’”
Ferrone remained with The Heartbreakers until Petty’s death from an accidental drug overdose in 2017. Over our video call, he shows me the Wildflowers lyric he got tattooed on his forearm a few days after the songwriter’s death, from the song “Crawling Back to You”: “Most things I worry about/ Never happen anyway”.
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That’s not the only life lesson he took from his former bandleader. “Tom said something to me once that has stuck with me, and that I’ve tried to live by ever since,” says Ferrone. “He said: ‘Listen, just because I’ve made a lot of money, it doesn’t stop me from being an artist.’ That’s the way he lived. He never stopped wanting to do something fresh. He never wanted to rest on his laurels. He always wanted to be a creative force… and he was.”
‘Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers’ will be in cinemas on 20 October for a one-night global celebration via Trafalgar Releasing.
Tickets are on sale now at TomPettyFilm.com