Then, in 1984, inspired by some conversations with Robbie Robertson, Petty came up with an idea that couldn't be realized without the band's contribution. He wanted to make an album about the modern American South – the common homeland that most of the group's members had emerged from but had never quite forgotten. "I'd seen these people I'd grown up around struggling with that experience," Petty had said in an earlier conversation, "with all the things about that legacy they couldn't shake free of, and I think that was tearing at me." The result was Southern Accents – a work that examined the conflict between old ways and new ideals and that also aimed to broaden and update the band's musical scope. Though some band members now feel that the record was a bit overworked, they all credit it as a reconciliatory experience. "They've been real supportive of me through this record," Petty says. "I think in the last album we were in a lot of different camps. . . . Now they laugh about Southern Accents and its sitars. They had to let me get this out of my system."
Then along came Bob Dylan. He had already employed Tench on Shot of Love, and Tench, Campbell and Epstein on Empire Burlesque, and was now looking for an electric band to support him at Farm Aid. When Neil Young, one of the event's organizers, mentioned that Petty and the Heartbreakers had also committed themselves to the show, Dylan decided to ask the group to accompany him. "He called me," says Petty, "and I said, 'Yeah, come over,' and shit, we had a great time. We rehearsed about a week, playing maybe a million different songs. That was one of the best times I ever had. We were blazing. So we went off to Farm Aid and had a great night: The Heartbreakers had a good set, and Bob had a good set. But it was over too quick."
Well, not quite. Dylan had been considering offers for a possible Australian tour, but was reluctant to assemble a makeshift band. Plus, the Heartbreakers had just finished their own tour and were firming up their schedules for February. "The next thing I knew," says Petty, "we were doing the Australian tour, and we wanted to do it."
According to some reviews, the tour got off to a shaky start in New Zealand, where the opening-night audiences responded more fervently to Petty's set than Dylan's. But within a few shows, Dylan was storming into such songs as "Clean Cut Kid," "Positively 4th Street," "Rainy Day Women" and "Like a Rolling Stone," often facing off with Campbell and Petty in fierce three-way guitar exchanges and launching suddenly into songs that nobody had rehearsed, and that some band members hardly knew. "One night," recalls Tench, "Dylan turns around and goes, ' "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." ' We'd never played it. . . . At times, that tour sounded like some bizarre mix of the Stooges and Van Morrison."
"There's nothing tentative about Dylan onstage," adds Lynch. "I've seen gigs where the songs have ended in all the wrong places, where it's fallen apart, and it's almost as if, in some perverse way, he gets energy from that chaos."
Dylan can also seem daunting in other ways. "He has more presence than anyone I've ever met," says Mike Campbell. "But when you're working together, you sort of forget about that. Then all of a sudden it will hit you. I mean, I can remember when I was in junior high school: I was in a diner eating a hamburger, and 'Like a Rolling Stone' came on. I got so excited by the song and the lyric. I thought, 'There's somebody singing and writing for me.' I went out and got a guitar. I'd forgotten about that until one night in Australia, and I realized, 'This is the first song I ever learned on guitar, and here I am playing it with the person who wrote it.' "
Dylan was also the object of much intense feeling in Australia. "I pretty much saw it all," says Lynch. "I saw the girl who slept in the elevator claiming to be his sister from Minnesota; I saw the one who claimed to be his masseuse, who flew in from Perth and was riding up and down the elevator trying to figure out what floor he was on. I also saw the people that were genuinely moved, who felt they had to make some connection with him, that this was an important thing in their life. They wanted to be near him and tell him they're all right, because they probably feel that Bob was telling them that it was going to be all right when they weren't all right, as if Bob knew they weren't doing so well at the time.
"They forget one important thing: Bob doesn't know them; they just know him. But that's all right. That's not shortsightedness on their part. That's just the essence of what people do when you talk to them at a vulnerable time in their lives. It doesn't matter that he was talking to them by way of a record; he was still talking to them."
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