Picture the scene: His 1994 and Tom Petty presents his new solo album Wild flowers in costumes at Warner Bros. He’s been working on this music for two years with a new collaborator, producer Rick Rubin, and he’s excited. He presses play. The first thing you hear is the title track, which sounds like a folk standard. Then you hear You Dont Know How It Feels, with its booming drums and the wrecking ball of a choir; it sounds like a hit single. Then you hear 23 more songs.
It’s amazing, says the label, but it’s too long.
In a way, the artist seated in front of the table, 43; a friend and collaborator of Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Johnny Cash; an artist who has spent his decades-long career demanding control of everything that bears his name, right down to the price of his albums. Wild flowers is released this fall; 15 tracks, 63 minutes. He goes triple platinum and many consider it his masterpiece.
More Tom Petty is gone Wild flowers, the more he admired her the less he understood her. In subsequent conversations with Rubin, he admitted to feeling slightly intimidated: not sure he could ever get past him, unsure where it was coming from. In the last few years of Pettys’ life, he spoke optimistically about reviewing material for a set and possibly a tour. It was the next thing on his list.
Three years after his death, we have Wild flowers and all the rest, the immersive collection Petty had in mind, curated by her family and band mates. He includes, with the album itself, finally back on vinyl, Everything else: a set of 10 songs, forming a solid studio album that Petty was planning to release under the name Wild flowers 2. Then there is Home recordings, which compiles intimate solo demos of Pettys from the era. Comes next Living wild flowers, an exciting collection that shows how audiences around the world have received this material on stage over two decades. And finally there is Alternative versions (search for wallflowers), where you hear Petty and her bandmates experimenting with the songs in the studio: a set of performances notable for their minor variations in lyrics and arrangements (and, in one case, because Ringo Starr plays drums).
It’s a lot to take. Of course, even before this collection, Wild flowers was overwhelming by design. There are classic albums that feel set in stone, where every note seems useful in communicating a point: your Born to runs where Blues or Pettys own Damn the torpedoes. And then there are albums like this, where the mess is the point: you just heard an artist indulge in the spirit that hits him in the studio that day. This is the type of album where a song can be a hopeless, John Fahey-inspired acoustic ballad, but the song just before it can involve some wacky non-sequences about sex while someone tears up a guitar solo.
It’s a sprawling quality inherent in the album that makes this box set look less like an obsessive curiosity than a deep questioning of its success. Like the album itself, these recordings are fascinating, fun and at times unsettling. Of which Fade on Me, Fahey’s inspired ballad, is featured in a first solo performance where you learn that Pettys’ lyrics about a failing romantic relationship actually started out as a desperate intervention from a guitarist to a bassist. (This is especially baffling given that Howie Epstein, bassist for Pettys’ own band, the Heartbreakers, was struggling with a heroin addiction that would claim his life less than 10 years later.)
More than any Pettys album, Wild flowers is conducted with autobiographical intensity. It’s telling that even in the earliest forms of these songs he was accompanied by harmony vocals and 12-string guitar and piano, as if he wanted to make sure that even these versions would sound good with a car stereo. . And yet, the music is full of details about addiction and divorce (Petty and his first wife Jane went their separate ways a year after the albums were released). An outtake called Harry Green is a silent acoustic song about a high school outcast who befriended Petty in Florida and committed suicide. He’s one of the many ghosts that haunt this music, though the song itself may have felt too confessional to include.
The other extracts are less revealing but often remarkable: Leave Virginia Alone has such a romantic and sweet chorus that Petty ended up lending the song to Rod Stewart. There Goes Angela (Dream Away) is only present on the Home recordings together, and it’s a lovely addition to Pettys’ legacy of gorgeous stoned lullabies. In the liner notes, bandmate Benmont Tench notes that this version marks his first hearing of the song; he confirms this by noting that, had he heard it earlier, he would have demanded that they record it.
Because every component of the set feels like its own carefully constructed album, it eschews the historic aura of something like Dylans In tip where entire studio sessions were presented with incomplete takes and jokes. Despite the length (70 songs in 5 hours, in its longest version), it feels designed to be played from front to back. For the casual fan, all you need is the standard set, which Wild flowers with the 10 outputs on Everything else. But there is nothing that seems superfluous, and the very essence of the album is palpable through every part. On the live set, two outtakes find definitive versions: the Drivin Down to Georgia riot, where the Heartbreakers explode like they could only with a cheering audience. And then there’s Girl on LSD, a wacky B-side that Petty can barely get past without breaking her head. I’m sorry for that, he died as the audience roared. I don’t know what happened to me there.
This lightness supports the whole. Take the Home recordings version of You Dont Know How It Feels, a darker version of a road trip classic, with several dropped lines. Most of the things that I worry about Listening to all the bonus records, this is one lyric that you will hear her trying to work on several songs. It becomes a sort of mantra, a way to control your anxiety and turn it into something lighter, something you can sing along with. For those of us who have always listened to Tom Petty for this reason, it is heartwarming to know that you can turn to Wild flowers. And now you can live there.
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