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Dylan: On Recapturing 'Highway 61' and Touring with Tom Petty

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A moment later an engineer is standing in the doorway, telling Dylan the overdubs are done. "This is all gonna pass." Dylan says before getting up to go back into the studio. "All these people who say whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing – that's all gonna pass, because, obviously, I'm not gonna be around forever. That day's gonna come when there aren't gonna be any more records, and then people won't be able to say, 'Well this one's not as good as the last one.' They're gonna have to look at it all. And I don't know what the picture will be, what people's judgment will be at that time. I can't help you in that area."

"Everyone's always saying to me, 'What's Bob Dylan like?'" says Tom Petty a few nights later, seated in the tiny lounge area of a Van Nuys recording studio. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, have gathered here to work out material for a forthcoming album and also to help supervise the sound mix for Bob Dylan in Concert, the HBO special documenting their recent tour of Australia with Dylan. "It's funny," Petty continues, "but people still attach a lot of mystery to Bob . . . I think they figure that, since we've spent time around him, we can explain him, as if he's somebody who needs to be explained."

Petty shakes his head. "I mean, Dylan's just a guy like anybody else – except he's a guy who has something to say. And he has a personality that makes it his own. There's not many people that can walk into a room of 20,000, stare at them and get their attention. That's not an easy trick."

Petty may be a little too modest to admit it, but Dylan also has something else going for him these days. A good part of the excitement over Dylan's current U.S. tour owes to the singer's alliance with a band as rousing as the Heartbreakers – a band more given to propulsive rock & roll than any group Dylan has worked with in over a decade. Judging from the HBO special, the Heartbreakers can render the Highway 61 sound – that unmistakable mix of fiery keyboards and stray-cat guitars – with a convincing flair. Yet rather than simply replicate the sound, the group reinvigorates it and applies it evenly to a broad range of Dylan's music, helping bring a new coherence to his sprawling body of styles. As a result, many of Dylan's more recent songs – such as "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky" and "Lenny Bruce" – come across in concert with an uncommon force and conviction, perhaps even a bit more force than some of the older songs.

But Dylan isn't the only one whose music has benefited from this association. Ever since the end of the Australasian tour, Petty and the Heartbreakers seem to be on an inspired streak, cranking out blues-tempered rock and pop songs in the same impromptu fashion that Dylan so often employs. It isn't so much that the group's new music resembles Dylan's (actually, it suggests nothing so much as the reckless blues of Exile on Mam Street), but rather that it seems born of the same freewheeling intensity and instinctive ferocity that has marked Dylan's most ambitious efforts.

But there is something more to it – something that belongs only to Petty and the Heartbreakers. I have seen this band on numerous occasions, both in the studio and onstage, and though they've always seemed adept and exciting, they've never struck me as particularly inspired improvisers, in the way, say, that the Rolling Stones or the E Street Band can seem. Now, here they are, jamming with unqualified verve, playing not only head to head but also heart to heart and, in the process, creating what is probably their most inspiring music to date.

"We've never done anything like this before," says Petty, fishing a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. "It's not like we're even thinking we're making a record. . . . Yet here we are with enough for a double album."

Petty plants a cigarette between his lips, lights it and settles back into the sofa. "Tonight was a good night," he continues. "In fact, this has been a good time for us in general. I think we feel pretty glad to be together."

Though nobody likes to admit it, following the 1982 release of Long After Dark, the Heartbreakers more or less dissolved. Petty withdrew into his home, where he was building a state-of-the-art studio and anticipating a solo project; drummer Stan Lynch joined T-Bone Burnett's band for a brief tour; keyboardist Benmont Tench played onstage and in the studio with Lone Justice; guitarist Mike Campbell began experimenting with some new aural textures on a twenty-four-track machine in his basement, where he would eventually compose "The Boys of Summer" for Don Henley; and bassist Howie Epstein did some session work and began assembling material for a possible record of his own.

"It was reaching a point," says Campbell, "where everybody was getting a bit stale with each other, inspirationwise. We just weren't committed as a band." Adds Stan Lynch, "It's like we all faced this ultimate question: If I'm not doing what I do now, what would I do? That's a horrible thing, but we all faced it and realized we wouldn't roll over and die if we lost this gig."

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