Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers': Things You Didn't Know - Rolling Stone
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Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

How label issues, interband tension, and the singer-songwriter’s impending divorce played into his 1994 masterpiece

Tom Petty

Read 10 things you might not know about Tom Petty's 1994 masterpiece, 'Wildflowers,' on the album's 25th anniversary.

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In the final years of his life, Tom Petty spoke often about his plan to re-release his 1994 masterpiece Wildflowers as a double album and then play it straight through on a special tour. “I probably haven’t even told the band about this yet,” Petty said in 2016, “but they can read about it in Rolling Stone.” His focus on the LP is easy to understand; song-for-song, it is perhaps Petty’s single greatest achievement. “That was where I was really at the top of my game as far as craft and inspiration colliding at the same moment,” he told Paul Zollo in 2005. “And that one I think I’m most happy with. I think it’s my favorite, just overall.”

The songs range from reflective ballads — like the title track and “Time to Move On” — to fiery rockers like “You Wreck Me” and “Honey Bee.” But all of them are the work of a mature artist who was deep into a career resurgence that began five years earlier with his first solo record, Full Moon Fever. Wildflowers was enormously successful, selling 3 million copies in the U.S. and peaking at Number Eight on the Top 200. To producer Rick Rubin, the album’s sturdiness was a shock. “I think the reason I was surprised has to do with the idea of a grown-up making a good record,” he told Petty biographer Warren Zanes. “When you think of the great songwriters, they weren’t making great albums at that point. I can’t remember what Paul Simon record or what Paul McCartney record came out around that time. But I’m guessing they just weren’t as good.”

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Wildflowers, here are 10 things you might not know about the LP.

1. Petty’s label nixed his original idea to release Wildflowers as a double LP. 
Wildflowers took two years to make, the longest Petty ever spent on an album. He felt that the stripped-down tracks were strong enough to merit a double LP, but his label advised against it. “When we played it to the record company, [Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker listened to it with me and Rick Rubin and said, ‘It’s great but I think it’s too long. You need to cut it down,'” Petty told writer David Browne in 2013. “And we were like, ‘Oh, man, we wanted it to be a double album.’ And he said, ‘Well, it is a double album. The first CD is longer than two vinyl records.'”

2. Several of the outtakes were included on the soundtrack to the 1996 film She’s the One.
Petty didn’t quite know what to do with the Wildflowers outtakes when the record was trimmed down to a single disc. But when he was approached by director Ed Burns — hot off the success of his debut film The Brothers McMullen — to create the soundtrack to his follow-up, romantic comedy She’s the One, he handed over many of the discarded songs. The record was marketed as a new Tom Petty record, much to his dismay.

“I was doing something that went against my grain,” he told Zanes. “Some people thought I was following up Wildflowers. Then, with everything being done at such an incredible rate of speed so that the record could come out with the film — with me making my deadline — they held the film back six months. My record came out with no movie. I was so depressed — that just made me more depressed.”

3. The record marks the official exit of drummer Stan Lynch from the Heartbreakers.
Wildflowers may be a solo Petty record, but many members of the Heartbreakers contributed to it, with the sole exception being longtime drummer Lynch. The relationship between the drummer and Petty had been strained for years, but Wildflowers marked a permanent rift between the two of them. Simply put, Petty was no longer satisfied with Lynch’s drumming style. “I didn’t fit into the music being made,” said Lynch in the 2007 documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. “I didn’t know how how to fit in. Furthermore, I was too damn old and successful to want to fit in.”

Steve Ferrone was brought in to play drums on the album, and when Petty fired Lynch, he gave Ferrone his spot in the Heartbreakers.

4. It’s Petty’s divorce album. 
It’s often said that 1999’s Echo is about Petty’s disintegrating relationship to Jane Benyo, his wife of 20 years. But the marriage was already collapsing when Wildflowers was recorded and the songs reflect the pain that Petty was going through at the time. “She’s an honest defector,” he sings on “Time to Move On.” “Conscientious objector/Now her own protector.” “I’ve read that Echo is my divorce album, but Wildflowers is the divorce album,” he told Zanes. “That’s me getting ready to leave. I don’t even know how conscious I was of it when I was writing it … it just took me getting up the guts to leave this huge empire we had built, to walk out.”

5. It was Petty’s first record for Warner Bros. following a messy split with MCA.
Unbeknownst to MCA, Petty had dinner with Warner Bros. chief Mo Ostin in 1989 and secretly signed a contract with the label, even though he owed MCA two more albums. The contract sat in a vault for two years while the band released Into the Great Wide Open and a greatest-hits album, which featured previously unreleased standout “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” MCA’s Al Teller was furious over Petty leaving the label, but was satisfied at the fact that the compilation album sold 12 million copies, making it Petty’s best-selling album ever.

6. After making Full Moon Fever without most of the Heartbreakers, Petty worked hard to include them on Wildflowers.
Petty’s supporting cast for solo album Full Moon Fever essentially consisted of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and producer Jeff Lynne, leaving the rest of the Heartbreakers extremely bitter. “Before the record came out, Stan went all over town telling people that the album sucked, that what I was doing was terrible,” Petty told Zanes. “I think the Heartbreakers were insecure because I did Full Moon Fever and then went into the Traveling Wilburys. They were pissed off.” Ever the loyal frontman, he enlisted the band to record Wildflowers to prevent further strain in the group.

7. Petty performed on Saturday Night Live to promote the record, with Dave Grohl on drums.
With Lynch out of the band, Petty asked Grohl to sit in for an SNL performance that included “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee.” “It was the first time I had really looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended,” Grohl recalled in Runnin’ Down a Dream. The show went so well that Petty asked Grohl to join the Heartbreakers, but he had his own plans for his post-Nirvana career. “That was a gas, playing with Dave,” Petty told Zollo. “I even discussed with Dave about joining the band. And he wanted to, but he had his own solo thing developing at the time, the Foo Fighters. And of course, he would rather have done that.”

8. MTV, VH1, and radio censored the chorus of “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
The chorus of this swampy, swaggering track was changed from “Let’s roll another joint” to “Let’s hit another joint,” while some versions even played the word “joint” backwards. Similarly, the druggy ditty “Girl on LSD” was deemed too controversial to be included on the album. With lines like “I was in love with a girl on cocaine/She had everything going but a brain,” the song was ultimately made the B side to “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”

9. The record features cameos by Ringo Starr and Carl Wilson.
Beach Boy Carl Wilson sang backing vocals on “Honey Bee” and the outtake “Hung Up and Overdue,” the former featuring a scorching, fuzzed-out guitar intro by Petty. “It was meant to be a release from getting overly serious,” he said of “Honey Bee.” “Because some of those songs get pretty deep, and I think it’s good to have something that clears the mind for a minute.”

For “To Find a Friend,” Petty enlisted a Beatle to play the drums. “It’s a luxury to have musicians of that caliber,” Petty told Zollo. “And Ringo can really just play perfect time all day long. Many drummers today wouldn’t know how to play a song like that. But he knew exactly where to go with it.”

10. After Petty’s sudden death in 2017, the Heartbreakers are openly considering a Wildflowers tour featuring guest singers.
Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and Crowded House vocalist Neil Finn are currently on the road with Fleetwood Mac, taking over Lindsay Buckingham’s parts. But after that extensive tour wraps up in November, Campbell’s schedule will be open, and he’s said he’s considering embarking on a Wildflowers tour with the rest of the Heartbreakers. “It would be a great tribute to Tom to just do that album,” Campbell told Rolling Stone last year. “We’d probably have four or five different guest singers with us. We don’t know who they might be, though, or when this might happen.”

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