Benmont Tench Recalls Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ Era; Watch the New ‘Somewhere You Feel Free’ Documentary


Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

In 2020, the Tom Petty estate released the Wildflowers & All the Rest box set, bursting with loads of astonishing outtakes, Petty’s intimate home demos, plus live recordings and early versions of the songs that the music legend had cut along the way to releasing Wildflowers, his esteemed 1994 solo record. It showcased in big bold letters the lightning bolts of inspiration that were striking Petty just as his band, the Heartbreakers, seemed to be stuck in a bit of a creative quagmire.

While the box set recently achieved Gold Record status, and the Record Store Day release Angel Dream – a re-envisioned version of Tom Petty’s soundtrack to Ed Burns’ She’s The One film – delved even deeper, it was hardly all the Petty family had in store for his legions of fans.

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making Of Wildflowers, from Mary Wharton, the director of Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President, Sam Cooke: Legend and several other first-rate music documentaries, debuted last month on what would have been Petty’s 71st birthday. Today, Nov. 11, it gets its global release on Tom Petty’s official YouTube channel, in 4K, no less.

It’s a treat for any fan of Tom Petty, chronicling perhaps the most remarkable period of his remarkable career with the same love and care that the Petty estate showed in putting together Wildflowers & All the Rest

Wharton, a fan since she was a Florida teen and her dad gave her a copy of Petty’s seminal 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes, contends that her job as director was simply to let the music and footage she had do all the work.

“There was such a purity and a beauty in the footage we had,” she says. “So we focused on making the best film we could about this beautiful collection of music with that footage and interviews from that time, to craft something that told the in-depth story of a really special time in Tom Petty’s musical journey.” 

And so, Rock Cellar called on one of Petty’s most loyal lieutenants, keyboardist Benmont Tench, to recall the period around the creation of Wildflowers and his relationship with Petty, which began when Tench was just 13 years old.

Rock Cellar: Wildflowers started as a solo record, but it really became something else pretty quickly, didn’t it?

Benmont Tench: To me, it’s pretty much the first Heartbreakers record with Steve Ferrone. But Tom wanted to go somewhere else with the songs, and so I’m cool with it being a solo record. For a while I was like, “Dude, it’s everybody. And Ferrone.” I mean, the “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” single by the Rolling Stones is Willie Weeks and Kenney Jones, not Bill and Charlie, but it’s still the Rolling Stones. But it was fine. I didn’t bring it up to him. I was just like, “Okay.” But I get it now.

Here is the documentary, streaming now on YouTube Originals:

Rock Cellar: And what do you now get about it?

Benmont Tench: I think that he set out to make a solo record, and instead of using just Mike [Campbell], he wanted me and Mike. And he wanted to do a stylistic break from both Jeff Lynne and the Heartbreakers. That’s the impression I get, in retrospect. At the time, I thought, “Well, he’s making the solo record. I’m there, I’m happy. I love playing with him.” And then Howie [Epstein] showed up and Ferrone showed up. But what I was really thinking at the time was, “How do I play these songs the best that I can?” 

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Rock Cellar: Yeah, because listening to it – after watching the film I did go back and listen to the record with Jeff [Lynne] before it, [Into the Great Wide Open] – and there’s a real shift in his songwriting, isn’t there? 

Benmont Tench: Well, that’s, I think, the other reason that probably he was going to do a solo record. I don’t know. I’m not him. But you know what? If you listen to the big box set, and you listen to Stan [Lynch] playing “Crawling Back to You,” or you listen to Kenny Aronoff playing “A Higher Place,” or you listen to Stan playing “HoneyBee,” well, it sounds like Heartbreakers.

But whatever his motivation was, it didn’t sound like jangling guitars or – for the most part – it didn’t sound like there was much Chuck Berry in it. There was more Paul Simon and the Beatles. I was just really happy to be playing on it. But I had been at the early sessions for it, when it was Heartbreakers stuff. Because we went to [Mike] Campbell’s house and started playing with a bunch of the [Wildflowers] songs with the tape rolling.

But I guess it wasn’t working for Tom. Or it wasn’t working for Tom and Mike, since they were the co-producers. Though I don’t think Rick [Rubin] was even there. I don’t remember the exact order, but I’m pretty sure Rick wasn’t there. And there’s some things from those early sessions on the Wildflowers box, and they’re really good. But when we were playing “It’s Good to Be King,” apparently, it just wasn’t what Tom wanted. 

Rock Cellar: What did you think of working with Rick? 

Benmont Tench: It was a great call. Rick was a great call. I’d worked with Rick on a few things. I knew Rick, and George Drakoulias, too. But I thought it was a great call. A really great call to work with Rick. Because from what I’ve read, apparently Tom wanted to do something that was nothing like the Jeff Lynne process.

And I think he said at the time, probably just as a side comment, that he didn’t want to layer the guitars and double all the instruments. He wanted everything just simple and clear. I think he told me that. And so, we did it opposite of the way we’d done it with Jeff. And that was good for him, too.

Because he’d done the Wilburys, and he’d done Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open with Jeff, and so it was time to stir it up. And he knew it, obviously. 

Rock Cellar: Some of these songs that you played until your last show – “Crawling Back to You,” and “It’s Good to Be King” and certainly “Wildflowers” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” – when Tom first brought those songs in, did you recognize them as being, I don’t know, special? I know it’s hard, because when you’re in the process of making a record, sometimes you don’t realize the ones that are special. But I’ve got to imagine, a song like “It’s Good to Be King” felt different and unique and special the minute you heard it.

Benmont Tench: Yeah. Wildflowers is special. All of it is. But so is Damn the Torpedoes. Of course, that would have been a different experience, writing it. That’s a different kind of record. But when you’re writing, when you write something really good, it feels really true to you. And a lot of the time, it doesn’t write itself, but it reveals itself.

Apparently, the song “Wildflowers” just showed up in one pass, without him even thinking. When a song reveals itself, you you’re taken aback, but in a good way.

So, for him, to have a whole record of that caliber of song is really cool.

And I don’t know if we had done it as a band since, probably, Damn the Torpedoes. We made some really good records. The first record was really cool. So’s the second.  Torpedoes was a watershed. And after that, Hard Promises was great, and all the songs were fantastic, but it wasn’t maybe as cohesive. And Long After Dark was really underrated. I think it’s a really strong record. The songs are really cool, and the lyrics are, mostly, really, really good. And the band played its ass off.

But Southern Accents was next and it’s a mess, although with some really great songs. [Laughter.] Well, it’s a mess because it took too many turns from the original. If there had been one producer – one focused producer – who was trying to get a cohesive record out of us, and if there hadn’t been so damn much cocaine – and I’m raising my hand in particular here, I’m not saying anybody else – if there hadn’t been so much cocaine going up my nose, then maybe Southern Accents would’ve turned out to be the record that I thought it could be.

Same deal with Let Me Up. And so, Full Moon Fever was a really good – a really strong record with really good songs – and Into the Great Wide Open has some surprisingly good songs, but somehow, they got missed or something.

But the strongest records in his career, I think, were maybe the first one, Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever and then Wildflowers. Because they’re the strongest collection of songs. 

Rock Cellar: It sounds as though your relationship with the record has changed since Tom’s passing, in part because you have the box set at your fingertips and you’ve had the time to dig into that, but also because, perhaps, it’s helped you get a little perspective that you might not have had playing the songs in a working band, when they were very present and you couldn’t reflect on them as part of your past. Do you get to be a bit of a fan of Wildflowers now and do you get to have a different perspective?

Benmont Tench: Well, I was always a big fan of Tom’s. I was huge Mudcrutch fan, so when we got the Heartbreakers going, I mean, I was basically just a fan. But as we were making it, I knew that Wildflowers was great. I wasn’t going, “This is a watershed moment in Tom Petty’s career,” but I knew that it was a great record. I really loved it. I loved what we were doing, and I loved every damn song on the thing.

So, it’s not like, with perspective, the record’s become better to me. What’s happened since his death is there’s all this posthumous releases and interviews and things what I’ve read, some of which was available before, and I have more of a take on where he was coming from. Maybe. But as far as, like, “Did I know what we had?” Yeah. I knew what we had.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Photo: Andy Tennille, Facebook.com/TomPetty)

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Photo: Andy Tennille, Facebook.com/TomPetty)

But at the same time, I was adjusting to playing with Steve, whose feel is so different from Stan’s. Stan’s pocket is this gorgeous thing where it’s like big open arms welcoming you in. And Steve’s pocket is astonishing, but it’s precise. It’s a tighter thing. When we started making Wildflowers and Steve turned out to be the drummer, I would go home and set the metronome, because I had to learn to play with somebody who had a different pocket. Before we recorded the song “Wildflowers,” I had figured out the part I wanted for the last verse, and I went home the day before and I practiced like crazy to get that damn thing precise, because I knew that I had to. 

Rock Cellar: It sounds almost akin to when George Harrison was making All Things Must Pass, because he just kept recording and recording, and he would’ve kept going if somebody from the label hadn’t said, “You know, you’ve got a lot of material here. Maybe you should stop.” 

Benmont Tench: As far as I know, nobody told Tom to stop. But he had all these songs and he probably just wanted to put the damn record out. I knew that there were all these great songs that we were winding up leaving off. Because it’s a very long single CD, even as it came out. It’s as long as a double vinyl, though originally he was going to do a double CD.

In fact, I remember being in the lounge in whatever studio we were in, and Tom and Rick, and maybe Mike were talking about the idea of making it a single record, and what to drop and playing around with the order and stuff. I didn’t know how, but I knew that we were leaving off “Hung Up and Overdue,” which seemed insane. And I knew we were leaving off “Hope You Never.” And I was like, “What the fuck?!” And there were a couple more.

But, you know, the record company didn’t want a double record, and I guess Tom maybe thought about it and thought it was better – more focused – as a double record. 

Rock Cellar: So, have you seen the film?

Benmont Tench: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen the film. I think it’s really cool.

Rock Cellar: When you watch that film and it’s not just your younger self, but it’s your younger self creating with your guys — guys you were in the trenches with for a long, long time. As fans, we all have our own perspective on watching those sessions, but you’re both a fan and a participant. It has to be a different experience. 

Benmont Tench: Well, we were fans. We were fans, not only of Tom’s writing, but of Mike’s writing, too. Don’t forget Mike. Please don’t forget Mike. But we were also fans of the noise we made together. To make that noise together was just … I don’t know what the word would be. It was certainly a joy. And it’s nice to see some footage of us playing together. 

Rock Cellar: I could listen to you talk about this record and that period forever. We haven’t done this in a very long time.  

Benmont Tench: Well, and I don’t know anything. I read back articles about the band or about Tom and I see a line from me and I’m, like, “Oh, my God. I don’t fucking know what I’m talking about.” But I was really so lucky to be part of everything that I was part of. I mean, how come they didn’t want me around for Full Moon Fever, but they wanted me around for this? I wasn’t the right guy for Full Moon Fever. I was the right guy for this. You know?

Everybody was the right person for this record. Every single person on the record is the right person to play those songs. And what a bunch of songs.

It was Tom and his songs. To have that caliber of stuff; what the hell? That doesn’t happen to anybody, to play in a band with songwriters that good. It really doesn’t. And Tom was a marvel. He was just a marvel. The bands that were around when we started, some of them stayed together. And some of them had really good, consistently good songs. But I can’t think of that many that were blessed enough to have songwriting [skills] like that.

Especially at that level of consistency, with somebody who had a great amount of commercial success.



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