Reimagining ‘Wildflowers,’ Tom Petty’s haunted triumph about a troubled marriage
Those old songs had been on his mind again.
All through the spring and summer of 2017, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had been on the road, playing the hits. “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down,” “American Girl” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — the classics that had never left the radio, a catalog that lived in the hearts of boomers and hipsters alike.
But that September night at the Hollywood Bowl, it was Petty’s 1994 solo album “Wildflowers” he kept coming back to. A droll “You Don’t Know How It Feels” near the top of the set, “You Wreck Me” as a rave-up near the end — both longtime setlist staples. But also a mid-set “It’s Good to Be King” that stretched past 10 minutes, with Petty trading melting-clock leads with Mike Campbell. The rarely played lament “Crawling Back to You,” and “Wildflowers” itself, had the whole amphitheater on backing vocals.
“I think its the best song EVER, in the WORLD, EVER!!!” Nandi Bushell, 10, said of her new theme song penned by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.
Petty was 66 that night. When he started writing “Wildflowers” he was just past 40. When he slipped away to write in those days, the words that came out were conflicted and yearning and vulnerable. He was sorting through his life, looking at the state of his marriage, working on a mystery. He’d been productive like this before, but he was writing about himself in ways he never had.
With co-producers Rick Rubin and Heartbreaker Campbell, he recorded enough material for a double album. But only 15 of those songs ended up on “Wildflowers.” Four more showed up on Petty’s soundtrack for Ed Burns’ “She’s the One.”
That left a lot still unheard. He finally started digging back into this material in 2013. By the time the band left on tour in 2017, Petty and producer Ryan Ulyate had mixed and sequenced the other half of “Wildflowers” as an album called “All the Rest” and delivered it to Warner Bros., Petty’s label. Then Petty took it back, to tinker with it some more.
He’d been in pain for a while when they hit the road. He’d delayed hip-replacement surgery to do the tour. Days before the first shows he’d been diagnosed with emphysema. But that night at the Bowl he was loose and funny — the hippie Mad Hatter version of Tom, guiding everybody’s trip. They’d been an L.A. band longer than they’d been anything else. This was a homecoming.
“He was so happy,” Campbell says. “He wanted to be there more than anywhere else in the world.”
It would be his last performance. Petty died of an accidental overdose of painkillers one week later, on Oct. 2, 2017.
“Wildflowers” isn’t a lost album, or a compromised one, or a hidden gem. It sold 3 million copies on initial release. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” became Petty’s highest-charting single since “Free Fallin’.” But it also seems to stand outside the rest of Petty’s catalog. The new box set “Wildflowers & All the Rest,” produced by Ulyate and curated by Petty’s bandmates and heirs, reimagines “Wildflowers” as the sprawling statement it almost was. A wealth of demos and alternate takes — the “Super Deluxe” version includes 70 songs — illuminate a period of creative surge even Petty could never fully explain.
“Tom tapped into something in that moment we didn’t recognize at the time,” Rubin said in an email interview. “It ended up haunting him later in life. I remember running into him on the beach several years ago and he said he was ‘afraid’ of ‘Wildflowers.’ He said it was his favorite of everything he’s done and couldn’t grasp why.”
The process started the way it always did — just Tom Petty in a room.
“He always had a home studio,” said Adria Petty, the eldest daughter of Tom and his first wife, Jane Benyo. “His whole life. Even when I was a little kid and we were really poor, he’d always have a room that he snuck into, to write songs. Even if we lived in a one-room place — the kitchen would be blocked off, for writing songs.”
Later there was a house in Malibu, and a little room with a hidden door. Two long wooden tables, some recording equipment, a few guitars. A framed Elvis Presley poster on the wall. Petty wrote “Wildflowers” there, watched over by the King.
It was the early ‘90s and the radio was playing rock music again. Music with dirt and voltage in it. Bands that sounded like they played together in the same room and looked like they slept together on the same floor.
Petty had been busy making exactingly built pop records with Jeff Lynne. But hadn’t the Heartbreakers been called a punk band, back in the day? Hadn’t Petty been wearing flannel all along?
“I think as the music got more gritty and rock-driven,” Adria says, “he was like, ‘Hey, that’s the space I dwell in, that’s my world. I wanna do something really pure.’”
In 1992 Petty and the Heartbreakers played “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” at a Bob Dylan tribute show at Madison Square Garden. Rick Rubin was on Tom and Adria’s flight back to Los Angeles. She remembers Rubin sitting by the window, listening to one Neil Young CD after another, talking to nobody.
“I could see my dad out of the corner of my eye,” Adria says, “looking at that and going, ‘Well, that should be me, not Neil.’”
His next album would be his first for Warner Bros., whose CEO Mo Ostin had secretly signed him to the label in 1989, while Petty was still under contract with MCA. Ostin was friendly with Rubin, who as it happens was a fanatical “Full Moon Fever” fan. Rubin and Petty began meeting at the Malibu house. That turned into two years of afternoons.
“We sat in office chairs and Tom would either play me recorded demos or play new songs on acoustic guitar,” Rubin said. Sometimes they’d hang out in the living room, where Petty kept an upright bass. They always talked about music — if it wasn’t about the new songs, it was about old songs they’d liked and learned from.
When Rubin, Petty and Campbell began bringing these songs into the studio, they took what Rubin calls a “natural, documentary-style approach” to recording.
“We returned to Tom’s roots, his comfort zone, with musicians making a human connection in the moment,” Rubin says.
They worked for nine months, eventually recording 61 hours of music — atypical, Campbell says, of the way the Heartbreakers usually worked (“When we had enough for an album, we would stop.”)
Legend has it Petty played a 25-song version of “Wildflowers” for Warner Bros. President Lenny Waronker, who suggested paring it down to a more concise statement that would fit on one CD.
“I was surprised Tom was open to this suggestion,” Rubin says, “as he notoriously bucked any kind of voice of authority. Lenny was different though, and as Tom had so much respect for both Mo Ostin, who signed him, and Lenny, the always-tasteful music producer, he followed [their] advice.”
“They picked the right songs,” Waronker says. “But I have to say, a few months ago I listened to the other half, the 10 [unreleased] songs, and I had to turn it off after three or four, because I was thinking, ‘Goddamn — that song was good too! Maybe we made a mistake here.’”
The demos included with the box are revelatory because they’re so fully formed — but Petty didn’t always play these recordings for the band, preferring to let them find their own way in. And some of the songs he wrote in that room in Malibu never made it to the studio at all — aces that stayed in his sleeve, like “There Goes Angela,” a psychedelic lullaby that leads off the demo disc.
“I’m kind of mad at [Tom] about that,” longtime Heartbreaker Benmont Tench says. “When I first heard that, eight months or a year ago, it just blew my mind. What a lovely song.”
Tench and Campbell worked on the box set with Ulyate, Adria and Petty’s widow, Dana York Petty. But lately Tench, who followed Petty’s first band Mudcrutch around Gainesville before becoming a Heartbreaker, has been listening to it like the Tom Petty fan he never stopped being.
He remembers cutting “Confusion Wheel” back then with the band — trying to find his way into the melody, figuring out what to play.
The demo is delicate and desperate: I don’t know how to love / And I don’t know how to trust / And I don’t know why that is.
“It seems like the key to what the record is about,” Tench says. “It’s bright and hopeful and sad and rocking and insane, all at once.”
“Tom happened to write a stellar batch of songs both in quality and quantity,” Rubin says of the period. “Maybe this has something to do with what was happening in his personal life, though we never discussed it.”
Adria remembers being home from Sarah Lawrence College, the family gathering like they always did to listen to Tom’s new record start to finish.
Afterward she says she asked her father, “So, are you getting divorced or what?”
“Things were not going great with my parents,” she says now, “and I had a feeling that things were moving in that direction.”
It was Jane and Tom against the world at first. Bonnie and Clyde as surrogate Mom and Dad to a gang of kids straight out of Gainesville, trying to make it as a Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll band.
“I think the idea that he would be without her, ever, didn’t really cross his mind,” Adria says. “Men in Florida meet their wives in their youth and they stick with them through thick and thin and don’t ask any questions. It was such a terror and a fear for him, and such a disappointment, that he would have to get divorced.”
“Wildflowers” is Petty contemplating life outside those certainties, maybe for the first time ever. Feeling the push and pull of history and hurt.
It’s there in “Hope You Never,” one of the songs he gave Ed Burns, where one line goes, I hope you never fall in love with somebody like you and the very next line goes I wish you well, I wish you everything and more.
“That’s such a perfect example of my dad,” Adria says. “He could feel these deep feelings, but then he would always retreat to, ‘Yeah, but I really love you and I wanna make things OK for everybody.’ It was very much his style.
“To me, this album’s about him giving himself permission to be happy, and to do what he wanted to do with his life.”
In an email, Jane Petty wrote: “To hear our life, our friendship, our children and our love woven into his beautiful songs is both wonderful and heartbreaking, especially now that he is no longer on this earth. I will forever be proud of my life with Tom, and my relationship with ‘Wildflowers.’ ”
There was friction in the family after Petty died. Adria and Petty’s younger daughter Annakim accused Dana Petty of “misappropriating Tom’s life’s work for her own selfish interests.” Lawyers for both parties traded potshots in statements to TMZ. A $5-million lawsuit was settled in December.
“There was an atmosphere after my dad died where certain people tried to take advantage of the press and of the legal system to create a schism that didn’t need to be there,” Adria says. “And I love my family. So that’s really all I have to say about it.”
She says the lawsuit wasn’t the reason the box set wasn’t ready for the album’s 25th anniversary last year. “It was about having a long-term management situation [in place],” she says. “It was about everybody getting along. It was about having a breath after Dad died.”
“Wildflowers” has always met people where they are, when they need it. “Marriages and births and divorces and births and funerals,” Adria says. “People play ‘Wildflowers’ for every occasion.”
They find these songs, or the songs find them. This keeps happening. To Adria, not long ago, alone in a new house, without power or cell reception, cut off from the cloud, playing the “Wildflowers” demos again, her father’s voice the only thing on her iTunes. To Tench, still marveling after all these years at what Petty could do and what he held back. To Campbell, revisiting these songs as a steward of Petty’s legacy and also a grieving friend.
“To be honest with you,” Campbell says, “there were times when I couldn’t even listen to the stuff, ‘cause it’s still fresh to me that he’s gone. I struggle with that, still. There were times, y’know — I can’t be in this room. I can’t hear his voice right now. You have to be professional, you rise above it. But I had some of those moments. I miss him terribly.”
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.