Bob Dylan Said His Tour With Tom Petty Was a Creative Nightmare: ‘I Couldn’t Wait to Retire’

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers toured with Bob Dylan in the 1980s and Petty felt that it was a high point in his career. He explained that he learned a good deal from the other musician and was grateful for the friendship they built. While Petty was happy about the tour, Dylan didn’t have as good a time. He explained that he felt he was at a career low and couldn’t wait for the tour to end. Eventually, though, he had an epiphany onstage. 

A black and white photo of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan standing in front of a wood paneled wall.
Bob Dylan and Tom Petty | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Tom Petty felt that he learned a lot from Bob Dylan

In 1986, Dylan invited the Heartbreakers to join him as his backing band while on tour in Australia

“We’d all been huge Dylan fans, and we were very intrigued by the idea of playing with Bob,” Petty said, per American Songwriter. “So off we went. And that went on for two years. We’d do part of it and then more would get added on, and then more would get added on. We really did the world with Bob Dylan.”

He explained that he learned a great deal about music while on tour with Dylan.

“I learned so much from Bob Dylan,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2012. “He gave us a kind of courage that we never had, to learn something quickly and go out on stage and play it. You had to be pretty versatile because arrangements could change, keys might change, there’s just no way of knowing exactly what he wants to do each night. You really learned the value of spontaneity, of how a moment that is real in a concert is worth so much more than one you plan out.”

Bob Dylan felt that he was at a career low while on tour with Tom Petty

Petty was excited about the tour, but Dylan didn’t share his buoyant emotions about it.

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” he wrote, per the book Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes. “It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

He explained that he felt entirely disconnected from his songs. He thought that he should step back from music altogether.

“It wasn’t my moment of history anymore,” he explained. “There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold in the tent. One more big payday with Petty and that would be it for me. I was what they called over the hill. If I wasn’t careful I would end up ranting and raving in shouting matches with the wall. The mirror had swung around and I could see the future — an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of his past triumphs.”

He eventually had an epiphany on stage

Despite his gloomy outlook, the tour would not be Dylan’s last. This is because he had an epiphany onstage.

“Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension,” he wrote. “Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high.”

Petty explained what it was like to see this moment happen onstage. 

“I remember having a shock when he went to sing and nothing came out,” he said. “He just kind of took a deep breath and came back, full-voiced.”

Decades later, Dylan is still performing for audiences.

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