Dylan merges with Petty’s band during tour
St. Joseph News-Press — July 12, 1986
“We’re looking at this temporarily as just one group to itself,” Tom Petty says about the merger of his band, the Heartbreakers, with legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan for a series of tours this year. “We just added another singer who happens to have a lot of songs.”
A lot in this case means more than 25 years worth of Dylan’s celebrated songs of protest and politics, material that grew out of folk and put social consciousness into rock ‘n’ roll. Well past his commercial prime, Dylan’s legacy still makes him one of America’s most revered performers.
Early on, some critics wrote that Petty and the Heartbreakers, a mainstream rock ‘n’ roll favorite for the past eight years, stole some of Dylan’s thunder during the concert with a set of their own songs. Band members, however, say that’s not the case, and their primary duty right now is to be Dylan’s band.
All of which begs the musical question: What’s it like to play with Bob Dylan?
“The trouble with that question is there’s no real answer,” Petty said with a chuckle. “I think it’s one of the more interesting things we’ve done. Like playing with any songwriter, in a way, once you’re all there and working, it’s fairly normal. You can’t really work with somebody if you’re in awe of him.”
Added Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who said Dylan’s 195 hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” inspired him to take up the guitar, “It is real inspiring. His songs mean a lot to me as a musician. There’s a lot of room for free playing in his songs, which makes everything pretty spontaneous. It’s just never the same; that’s the only way I can describe it.”
Campbell ventured a guess that in the two legs of Dylan and the Heartbreakers “True Confessions Tour” — a winter jaunt through Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and the current two-month swing through the United States — they have yet to play the same show twice. And even the list of some 70 Dylan originals and selected oldies they learned before going out on the road together isn’t sacred.
“During one show in Australia, we were supposed to do ‘When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,’ and (Dylan) didn’t feel like doing it,” Campbell remembered. “He turned around to me and said, ‘You know the chords for ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ don’t you,’ and we’d never rehearsed it. I said, “There’s only three, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, Let’s go.’
“You never know what’s coming,” Campbell said. “There’ll be different songs, or we’ll do the same songs in different keys. It reminds me of a high school dance band; it’s more polished maybe, but it has that looseness, that freshness, that — uh — chaos.”
The tour isn’t Dylan’s first time working with the Heartbreakers. Keyboardist Benmont Tench played on “Slow Train Coming” in 1979, the first of Dylan’s three “born again” albums. Tench, Campbell and bassist Howie Epstein were then beckoned for last year’s “Empire Burlesque.”
“It happened through a mutual friend,” said Campbell. “I got the call, ‘Would you like to play on this session?’ ‘Who’s it for?’ ‘Bob Dylan.’ ‘Oh yeah. I’ll be there. What time is it?’ It just sort of happened.”
Around the same time, Dylan also signed with a new manager, Elliot Roberts, who is partners with the Heartbreakers’ manager, Tony Dimitriades, in the Los Angeles-based Lookout Management company. When Dylan agreed to play the Farm Aid concert last September, an event he inspired with an off-the-cuff remark at the Live Aid show in July, he wanted a band rather than the rag-tag outfits he had put together for most of his tours after the early ’70s outings with The Band.