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How Bob Dylan taught Tom Petty the fundamentals of songwriting


It is dizzying to think just how influential Bob Dylan’s songwriting has been. You know they say that one in 200 men are descended from Genghis Khan? Well, I’d be willing to bet that one in five recording artists owe their musical DNA to Bob Dylan — and Tom Petty would have agreed. Being around 12-years-old when Dylan released his debut album, the future frontman of the Heartbreakers was a little young to fully appreciate the value of Dylan’s music at the time. By 1966, however, and the release of Blonde on Blonde, Petty was the perfect age to embrace the swirling world of Bob Dylan.

Speaking to American Songwriter, Petty recalled Dylan’s impact on his songcraft, stating: “We [Mudcrutch] hadn’t heard Dylan [growing up in Florida] until ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ came out as a single. And we loved that right away. We learned that, did it in the show. We learned all his singles. We didn’t have Dylan albums until Blonde on Blonde [1966]. I had heard Highway 61 Revisited [1965]. A friend of mine had that. But I actually bought Blonde on Blonde. That’s where I really got into Bob. And I started to really dig his thing”.

For Petty, Dylan represented a new chapter in pop music. While others were fixated on churning out radio-friendly love ballads, Bob was looking to create something deeper and more enduring. “He influenced my songwriting, of course,” Petty continued, “He influenced everybody’s songwriting. There’s no way around it. No one had ever really left the love song before, lyrically. So in that respect, I think he influenced everybody, because you suddenly realized you could write about other things.”

By the late 1970s, Petty had moved past pale imitations of his heroes and cultivated a distinct musical voice. Petty clearly felt he owed a debt to Dylan, so he drove across LA – where the Heartbreakers were recording – to the Universal Amphitheatre, where old Bob Dylan was set to perform. After covering themselves in grease and dirt trying to change a flat tire, Petty and longtime roadie Bugs Weidel finally made it to their seats, just in time for Dylan to introduce them to the crowd. “It was like ‘Joni Mitchell’s here’ and there’d be applause. And then suddenly he said, ‘Tom Petty’s here.’ And there was applause. And that was the first time it really hit me that people knew who we were. Because I’d only made two records then. Then a guy came up to us where we were sitting in our seats, and said “Bob would like you to come backstage. So we went backstage and had a brief conversation. Nothing of any substance. But I had met Bob.”

That meeting, however brief, united two of the most revered songwriters of their respective generations. While Bob would likely have been unaware of his profound influence on Petty, he was clearly impressed by his songwriting – enough to invite him backstage and welcome him as a friend. Maybe he saw something of himself in Petty’s songwriting; maybe he saw something entirely new.

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