Bob Dylan‘s fifteen-date Australasian jaunt in the company of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has been dubbed the “True Confessions” tour, and the title couldn’t be more apt. The first week of shows in New Zealand and Australia generated enough gossip, melodrama, intrigue and glamorous fun to sate the most rabid soap-opera junkie. And just to keep things relatively honest, some scorching rock & roll was thrown in to boot.
For starters, the city government of Wellington, New Zealand, nearly withdrew the permit for the tour’s February 5th opening date after the under-rehearsed band whipped up the ire of local residents by turning an outdoor sound check at Athletic Park into a lengthy, full-volume practice session. Tempers eventually calmed, however, and the show went on. Unfortunately, the concert crowd was somewhat less passionate in its response; the two-and-a-half-hour set didn’t catch fire for them until Petty lit the blaze three-quarters of the way through with an extended version of “Refugee.”
After the show, Dylan and the gang repaired to the Park Royal Hotel, where, shortly after midnight, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench commandeered the piano at the hotel bar for an impromptu songfest that featured Dylan, Petty, Stevie Nicks (who was backstage at the show) and backup singer Debra Byrd. Their repertoire included “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Sincerely,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Daddy’s Home,” “Get a Job” and “Poison Ivy.” Sometime after three, everyone drifted off to bed.
Two days later at Mt. Smart Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, Dylan and the band — Petty and Mike Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards, Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch on drums and Byrd, Elisecia Wright, Queen Esther Marrow and Madelyn Quebec on background vocals — really began to flex their muscles, rocking a crowd of more than 40,000 fans into a nearly riotous response. An R&B-styled instrumental intro, featuring Dylan on keyboards, led into a fierce reading of “Positively 4th Street” and a torrid “Clean Cut Kid.” Five tunes later, after an angry, electrified “Masters of War,” Dylan relinquished the stage to Petty and the Heartbreakers, who promptly served up “Straight into Darkness” and “American Girl.”
Dylan returned for a solo acoustic spot that featured “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and Petty joined Dylan for an acoustic duet on “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” from Self-Portrait. The Heartbreakers then backed Dylan on “Just Like a Woman,” “Lenny Bruce,” “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” “Seeing the Real You at Last,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and Rick Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.” Petty again kicked things into high gear with the Byrds‘ classic “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” and “Refugee,” setting the stage for Dylan to blow it out with “Rainy Day Women,” “I and I,” “Shot of Love” and “In the Garden.” The encore consisted of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and a raucous “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The action then moved to Sydney, Australia, for four nights at the 12,000-seat Sydney Entertainment Centre. On the afternoon of the opening show on Monday, February 10th, an exhausted Dylan, who had been recording in the studio with Petty all weekend, held a press conference in the studio of Brett Whitley, one of Australia’s best-known painters. Dylan maintained good humor through a half-hour of questions so banal and patronizing that one sympathetic reporter finally asked, “Is this why you wrote that song about Mr. Jones?”
That night Petty, coming on like a right to the jaw, again brought the house down with “Refugee,” and Mark Knopfler joined the guitar brigade for the encore, which featured “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan’s postconcert escapade on that night included a lengthy hotel-bar tête-à-tête with actress Lauren Bacall, whom he went to see the following day in a matinee performance of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth.
By the second Sydney show, Stevie Nicks had had enough of waiting in the wings. Since Dylan’s was the only standing microphone onstage, Nicks stood on the drum riser and sang background vocals into Stan Lynch’s mike for two songs. Finally, she was invited center stage to join Petty and Dylan for the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” finale.
Although the Australian tour may be extended beyond the scheduled fifteen dates, there are no plans at the moment for any American or European shows. Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) is shooting footage from two Sydney shows for a one-hour HBO special to air in late spring or early summer, and Petty and Dylan are writing songs together — a development that nurtures the hope of future live and recording collaborations.
This story is from the March 27th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.