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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