Tom Petty put the beating heart into Americana, and only a minuscule minority have surpassed the wealth of brilliance that he’s injected into his country’s musical DNA. Even Petty would admit, however, that one name has left a more significant mark on music than him, and that’s Bob Dylan.
The two talents shared rich history, famously both answering George Harrison’s call to form The Travelling Wilbury’s alongside Roy Orbison and creating the most decorated supergroup that the world has ever seen. Being a bandmate of Dylan was like a fever dream for Petty and undoubtedly a feat that was up there with anything else he achieved throughout his accomplished career.
What made that group work is they cultivated four different styles of artists, who combined delightfully. Although Petty worshipped the ground that Dylan walked on, as he did with the other two members, his career never attempted to copy the troubadour’s essence. Perhaps, that’s why he and Dylan got on so gloriously — because the Heartbreaker carved out a unique path just like he did.
It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he heard Dylan for the first time, and it was admiration straight away for Petty. “We 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 . I had heard Highway 61 Revisited . 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,” he later told American Songwriter.
Petty continued, “He influenced my songwriting, of course. 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 realised you could write about other things.”
The singer then recounted when their paths collided for the first time after attending a concert by the Freewheelin’ one. Just meeting Dylan after the show was enough for Petty, little did he know that a decade later, they’d be bandmates.
“I met him in ’77 or ’78 [in Los Angeles]. We went to see him [in concert]. Me and Bugs [Weidel, longtime roadie] got two comps,” Petty explained. “We left the Shelter studio, and we drove to the Universal Amphitheater, had a flat tire, and both of us got out on the road trying to change the tire. So we were just covered with grease and dirt. And we got to Universal, found our seats. The show had just begun. And then midway through the show, Bob introduced the celebrities in the audience, which was kind of unusual for Bob.
“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,” he merrily reminisced.
Dylan was beside himself when Petty passed away in 2017 after suffering a cardiac arrest. In a heartfelt statement, he told fans, “It’s shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Moreover, when Dylan next took to the stage after the tragic passing, he took it upon himself to deliver a cover of ‘Learning To Fly’, which he managed to brave through for his lost friend. Take a few minutes, and watch the footage below of the duo in action together.