Bob Dylan Plays Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” Live in Concert (and How Petty Witnessed Dylan’s Musical Epiphany in 1987)

While performing in Denver this past weekend, Bob Dylan paid tribute to Tom Petty, playing a cover of his 1991 track, "Learning to Fly." Most will remember their time together in the Traveling Wilburys. But really their relationship was cemented before that, when the musicians embarked on the long True Confessions Tour in 1986. That's when Dylan lost his mojo and nearly ended his career, then suddenly found new inspiration again, all while Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shared the same stage.

In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, Dylan laid out the scenario:

I'd been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever had been 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. I couldn't overcome the odds. Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. It wasn't my moment of history anymore. There was a hollowing singing in my heart and I couldn't wait to retire and fold the tent. One more big payday with Petty and that would be it for me. I was what they called over the hill.... The mirror had swung around and I could see the future - an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theatre of past triumphs.

Everything finally came to a head one night when Dylan performed with Petty and the Heartbreakers in Locarno, Switzerland. He writes again in Chronicles, "For an instant, I fell into a black hole... I opened my mouth to sing and the air tightened up--vocal presence was extinguished and nothing came out." Panicked, Dylan used every trick to get started. Nothing worked, until, he then cast his own "spell to drive out the devil." That's when "Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension." A complete "metamorphosis had taken place." He adds: "The shows with Petty finished up in December, and I saw that instead of being stranded somewhere at the end of the story, I was actually in the prelude to the beginning of another one." Without out it, we wouldn't have Oh MercyTime Out of Mind, Love and Theft, or Modern Times.

You can watch footage of the epiphany concert on Youtube. It took place on October 2, 1987--thirty years and three days before Petty's death on October 5, 2017.

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Related Content:

A 17-Hour, Chronological Journey Through Tom Petty’s Music: Stream the Songs That Became the Soundtracks of Our Lives

Watch Tom Petty (RIP) and the Heartbreakers Perform Their Last Song Together, “American Girl”: Recorded on 9/25/17

Bob Dylan & The Grateful Dead Rehearse Together in Summer 1987: Hear 74 Tracks


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