When Tom Petty sat down to write the title track to Wildflowers, there were no elaborate plans in sight. The lyrics came quickly, the melody followed suit, and before long, Petty had a wonderfully sentimental song in his lap. “You belong somewhere you feel free.” Where did that come from? Who was he singing to? He spoke to his therapist about it at the time.
“I told him [the therapist] I wasn’t sure,” he told Warren Zanes for his book Petty: The Biography. “And then he said ‘I know. The song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.’ It kind of knocked me back, but I realized he was right. It was me singing to me.”
Much of what ended up becoming the 1994 Wildflowers album came from a similar point of origin. In the midst of dealing with a broken marriage, substance issues, and the overarching unpredictable direction of his life, Petty found himself in the deepest rut he had ever been in — a rut that happened to double as one of the most insightful songwriting periods of his career. The beautiful, bitter irony of Wildflowers came down to something many of us inevitably experience at one point or another: we often create our strongest work at our lowest points.
“I broke through to something else,” he said to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 2014. “My personal life came crashing down, and it derailed me for a while. But I was at the top of my game during that record.”
As we well know, not everything Petty wrote made it onto the record. The initial idea had been to release a double album, but, ultimately, only 15 songs made the final cut. Now, after years of talks and teases, “All The Rest” of Wildflowers is out and about in the world — three years after Petty’s death.
The reality is that much of what would have been the second LP of Wildflowers has already been heard. Many of the songs, like “California,” “Hope You Never,” and “Hung Up And Overdue” would find their place on Songs and Music from “She’s the One” in 1996, or given to others, like “Leave Virginia Alone,” a song that was passed off to Rod Stewart in 1995.
But the six previously unheard songs echo the same mentality that the original Wildflowers contains: a complex mixture of lost love, solitude, and freedom that is, hopefully, just on the horizon.
“Some people just stay in one place, some people take off and run, one jump ahead of whatever’s out there,” he sings on “A Feeling of Peace.” Fellow drifters will relate.
“So much confusion has torn me apart,” he tenderly sings on “Confusion Wheel,” “And I don’t know how to love, and I don’t know who to trust, and I don’t know why that is.”
We often see our heroes as having most, if not all, of the answers. Petty’s immense success through the 70s and 80s seemed concrete proof of that. But when things began to crumble, Petty — however subconsciously — chose to tell the truth. Part of that truth included the heartache, but another part of it included the one thing that he thought would pull him through it all: love.
“There’s a break in the pain, I’m gonna take a ride,” he sings on “There’s a Break In The Rain,” “Honey, I’d love to see you smile, and may my love travel with you everywhere, yeah may my love travel with you always.”
Of course, the latter half of that lyric will sound familiar to most fans, as it ended up included on Petty’s 2002 album, The Last DJ, in a song titled “Have Love Will Travel.”
And therein lies the undeniable beauty of Wildflowers: All The Rest. Yes, we know the songs, but now, for the first time, we’ve been offered a glimpse into the piecing together of an album that has stood the test of time. Bits of lyrics from one track turn out more pleasing on another track or vice versa. A riff here actually works out better there. And so on and so forth.
“I always thought his demos were really special and sometimes surpassed what we did when we recut them,” said Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench. “Tom was good at playing just the right thing on every instrument. They aren’t just thrown together; they’re good versions of these songs the way he had it in his head.”
“There will be a demo with the same lyrics but I’m singing in a whole, different way, playing it with a different mood,” Petty told David Fricke. “I listen and I wonder which came first. Was I experimenting with something I’d already written or did I write that and realize it was the wrong mood?”
Those moods aren’t always easy to convey in music. But in a simple, sincere fashion, Tom Petty bravely bared his soul on the Wildflowers tracks because, well, that’s what good songwriting is. In turn, he showed many of us that we too can — and should — be genuine about how we feel and who we are. Life is too short for anything else.
Of course, there’s a certain sense of a lifted weight now that these tracks are here. These songs are, finally, out in the open where Petty wanted them to be. It’s fitting they’ve arrived in the month of October — the same month as the third anniversary of his death and the same month as what would have been his 70th birthday. Many of us can’t help but think of how Petty would be handling this material were he alive today — there had been rumors of a Wildflowers tour for several years.
But there’s also an air of comfort in knowing the finality of this release. At long last, all the pieces of the puzzle are here for us to make of what we will. Not many people were privy to watching those gears turn in Petty’s head as he navigated the songwriting, which seemingly appeared out of thin air at times, but thanks to his impressive personal studio setup, the at-home recordings have gifted us that window into the process. It’s like watching an artist set up their easel and begin to paint a self-portrait.
Thus, Petty, from beyond the grave, has taught us a valuable lesson with these recordings: paint your own self-portrait, even if you don’t know where to begin and even if it isn’t as glittering as you may wish it to be. “If you follow your feelings, follow your dreams, you might find the forest there in the trees.”
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