Years ago when his friend Bob Dylan told him he was a poet, Petty was flustered. “I couldn’t help feel it was like being told you’re an archer,” he said, “and you know you don’t even own a bow.” His reluctance to consider himself a poet is probably one of the reasons he endures as such an extraordinary and prolific songwriter. Relatively unburdened by the label of genius that has been more frequently attached to Dylan, Simon, Springsteen, and others, Petty has easily leapfrogged past his first hits into a realm of previously unimagined, unencumbered songwriting, writing new songs as joyously freefalling and uncontrived as the best that rock and roll can be. “It’s not supposed to be that good,” he said smiling. “It’s an alternative music, rock and roll. It’s dissonant. It’s blue. It bends the notes. So how much are we going to worry about it? As long as it’s got some soul to it, it’s going to be fine. It’s so simple you can walk right by it.”
To celebrate Petty’s birthday today, let’s take a look at the stories, in his own words, behind 15 of these deceptively “simple” songs he’s written. Happy birthday, Tom!
Jeff Lynne sat beside me as I wrote that song. Actually, I think “Freefalling” was his line. I think it was the only thing he said. I was just playing on a keyboard and Jeff was listening to this song. And I played that lick. And he said, “Whew, that’s good.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” And then, almost to make Jeff laugh, I ad-libbed the verses. And he’s there with his tape-recorder recording it. And then I got to the chorus and I didn’t know what to do. And I remember it very well. He said, [imitating Lynne's low, British-accented voice] “Freefalling.” And I didn’t even know what that meant, but I just sang it. And he said, “Go up! Go up! Go up an octave.” So I went up an octave, and there it was. You know? It was done.
I just took a deep breath and it came out. The whole song. Stream of consciousness: words, music, chords. Finished it. I mean, I just played it into a tape recorder and I played the whole song and I never played it again. I actually only spent three and a half minutes on that whole song. So I’d come back for days playing that tape, thinking there must be something wrong here because this just came too easy. And then I realized that there’s probably nothing wrong at all.
I wrote that because I needed a couple of songs to make the album She’s The One. I wrote it at home one night after a session. I got into that space and it drifted in, and the very next day I brought it to the band and we cut it. We were all just knocked out. I loved the intro, because it takes a very long time for the guitars to come in and when they do, they just sound great. I played this little tiny guitar I have. But it made a great sound. And that whole line just emerged: “I hear you singing on my supernatural radio.”
Stop Dragging My Heart Around
I wrote it with Mike. Stevie Nicks wanted a song really bad for a couple years. So I wrote her this song called “Insider.” And I really liked that song. I played her the song. She says, “I love it. Can you put it down for me?” So I put the track down and I sang a vocal for the track. And she immediately wanted to sing along. I listened to it and I really liked the edge. I said, “Would it really sound totally lame if I said I wanted to keep this one and write you another?” She said, “No, not at all.“ I had a few songs that I didn’t think I was going to use and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” was one. I played it and she said, “That. I like that.” I gave her that tape, and they took it. And they made it the duet — Jimmy Iovine and Stevie. Because my vocal was already on it. And so she filled it up with all this harmony and girl singers and made it much more of a pop song. And the next thing I know, it’s a big hit record. It probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if she hadn’t done it.
I started with the title. I thought at the time I was going to do an album based on southern themes and southern music. I wrote it at the piano. Very late at night, about four or five in the morning. I still think it’s probably one of my best two or three things that I ever wrote. I thought it was very personal, so that was one where it just took me over (laughs). I don’t know what happened there. I do have a vague memory of being extremely glad when I hit the bridge. I actually woke up my wife and made her listen to this song.
Mike [Campbell] had the whole track down, the whole chord progression. It’s one of the first things that we actually wrote together. It took minutes. Literally, just a few minutes. I remember walking around the room, singing it, just circling the room. The words came very fast, and there are only two verses. And that was it. Finished.
Learning To Fly
That was inspired by the Gulf War. I remember that line about the rocks melting and the sea burning being directly inspired by seeing this whole thing on TV. I think that was the jumping off point. It became something a little more substantial than that but that is how it started.
I wrote it on a break from recording at the Shelter Studio in Hollywood. I think we took a break because we had recorded everything we had and I made up “Breakdown.” I wrote it on the piano. I still have that piano. I bought it (laughs). Many years later, it’s sitting in my living room.
I wrote it very quickly. It’s a very short song. I played it to them, and they really dug it, and we made the record. I think we got the drumbeat from a Beatles record, “All I Got To Do.” We just varied it. That was the idea, to have that kind of broken rhythm on the highhat.
Oh, I love that one. It’s one of my favorites. The whole idea of a gunslinger questioning his existence is great, saying, “I’m taking control of my life.” It really cracks me up, still, that song (laughs). I was tremendously pleased with that one. That was one of those rare moments when I actually got to say something and entertain the people at the same time. I wrote it in a couple of hours. Written during the Gulf War.
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
That was one I wrote during the Full Moon Fever sessions. I wrote all but the chorus. I just had the loop going around and around and really had most of the words and everything. And I played that tape for Rick [Rubin] and he liked it a lot and suggested I write a chorus. So I tried to finish it up while I was making Wildflowers, and there were maybe five years between the writing of the verses and the chorus. I don’t think I was writing about pot. I think it was just a girl’s name.
I remember writing that one very well. That was a hard one. Went on for weeks. I got the chorus right away. And I had that guitar riff, that really good lick. Couldn’t get anything else. (Softly) I had a really hard time. And I knew it was good, and it just went on endlessly. It was one of those where I really worked on it until I was too tired to go any longer. And I’d get right up and start again and spend the whole day to the point where other people in the house would complain. “You’ve been playing that lick for hours.” Very hard.
It’s one that has really survived over the years because it’s so adaptable to so many situations. I even think of that line from time to time. Because I really don’t like waiting. I’m peculiar in that I’m on time, most of the time. I’m very punctual.
Roger [McGuinn] swears to me that he told me that line. And maybe he did, but I’m not sure that’s where I got it from. I remember getting it from something I read, that Janis Joplin said, “I love being onstage, it’s just the waiting.”
I think the original inspiration was Bo Diddley. If you listen to the beat, it’s a Bo Diddley beat. And it’s forever being equated with the Byrds. Even Roger [McGuinn] thought it was the Byrds. But we honestly didn’t think about the Byrds at the time. But it must have been influenced by the Byrds in some way, but I didn’t realize it at the time. There’s also no 12-string on that record. It’s just two six-strings playing off of each other.
You Got Lucky
That came from a riff that Mike had. It was almost a throwaway. Almost just tossed off. And the next thing we know, it’s the single.
Don’t Come Around Here No More
I was always very partial to that one. Odd song. That was an idea that Dave Stewart had, this tom-tom thing going. I think it was my idea to take it double-time when it got out a little ways. We really went nuts. We worked on that record for a long time. We wrote it very quickly. We were doing stuff like grabbing the tape and pulling it off the reel. There’s one part, if you listen where the piano does this rrrvvvvv thing. And we did that by literally grabbing the tape and yanking if off the reel.
Face In The Crowd
I wrote it one evening with Jeff Lynne. Just strumming our guitars. He had a musical idea for that one and I worked on the words. Because it’s very hard for me to sing other people’s lyrics. Jeff is a melody guy. And he’s very good at that. He would do a lot of editing. One good thing about him and the whole Wilburys experience is that I became completely unashamed. I would spout out anything. And that was really good for me. Because it was literally four or five people sitting there going, “Handle with care” (laughs). “No. Yes.” Spout out whatever I thought and it would immediately go to committee and it’s knocked out or it’s approved. And then that line would lead to something else. That’s a different way from how I usually work, and it really loosened me up. I’m not inhibited by trying anything lyrically just as you wouldn’t be inhibited to try anything on the guitar. You just want to keep letting your mind go and seeing what falls out (laughs).
—By Paul Zollo