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Bob Dylan and Tom Petty's Farm Aid Rehearsals
1985-09-19, Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA
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Thirty-eight years ago today, Bob Dylan played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the first time in front of an audience. The audience, though, was just a couple ABC News cameras. The occasion was a rehearsal for their first show together, at the inaugural Farm Aid 1985 (Bob more or less had to show up after his Live Aid comments inspired the whole thing). The Farm Aid appearance was supposed to be a one-off. The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench told me how it came out:
When we did Shot of Love, Debbie Gold was Bob's assistant. She was a character, but she was smart. She and I hit it off. Then Mike came in; that was [producer] Chuck Plotkin's idea.
Debbie told me that she had said to Bob, "Well, if you like Ben and Mike, you should try playing with some of the other Heartbreakers." So then when Empire Burlesque came around, the four of us were on parts of that record. So he already knew us.
Anyway, by Farm Aid, Elliot [Roberts] was representing us along with Tony Dimitriades. My understanding is that it's Elliot that finally connected all of the dots. Tom had probably met Bob at some point, but I don't think he had recorded with him. He wasn't on Empire Burlesque like the rest of us. So Elliot or whoever it was, said, "Why don't you do this one-off with Bob?"
But before all that, before even their first proper show together, they rehearsed.
As I mentioned, cameras were rolling. A few clips aired on a 20/20 TV segment the following month. The host sets the scene saying, “Dylan was on an empty motion picture soundstage for a rehearsal that at times turned into a kind of jam session with a popular rock band called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”
“A popular rock band”? How out-of-touch was the 20/20 audience that he needed to explain who Tom Petty was? It’s 1985, Petty’s already had “The Waiting” and “Refugee” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “American Girl” etc.
But the cameras captured much more footage than the couple minutes used in that TV special. And it eventually leaked out! The 20 or so minutes of rehearsal footage is extremely fun to watch, and features Bob playing a bunch of covers he never performed on stage alongside a handful of originals.
The full thing (or most of it) is on YouTube, but I broke it up into the individual songs below. Most are partial clips, either because the camera cuts in/out of a song or the band does.
One bit I found that’s not part of that linked YouTube video is the opening instrumental. The uploader probably edited it out because Dylan’s not even playing. But us here, we’re the sort of nuts who will absolutely watch 39 seconds of Bob Dylan smoking and chatting up the Queens of Rhythm (one of them his soon-to-be-wife Carolyn Dennis) while Petty and the Heartbreakers jam behind him.
The first real song we get is one Dylan never played in any actual concert. It is Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” With the Heartbreakers and Queens backing him, this is exactly the sort of golden-oldie he can crush. Sure, he mostly just sings the chorus, but he clearly enjoys the one verse he does deliver: “Tell your ma, tell your pa, gonna send you back to Arkansas.”
Next up, yet another cover he never actually performed in concert: Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” Or, rather, he’d never performed this during his own concert. In 1965, over twenty years before this, he jammed on it with the group that so strongly influenced the Heartbreakers: The Byrds. No recording of that, but reportedly he just played harmonica, making this is his first time singing it.
I also like the bit of footage after the song of Dylan talking to the band. See how intently drummer Stan Lynch (who I also interviewed) is watching Bob to see what his next move is. Reminds me of Levon and The Band during The Last Waltz.
“Shake” is a Dylan original he wrote around this time, a 12-bar blues he played at Farm Aid (you can watch that here) and a couple other times, then abandoned. It features lyrics that probably took longer for him to sing than they did for him to write, like “If you you have a dollar you can ask me nice / And for fifty cents you can have it twice.” Heh?
Dylan works up a real sweat. The band might be wondering why they can’t play an actual Bob Dylan song. After it wraps, Dylan fiddles around with a guitar riff that sounds vaguely familiar.
“Shake” may technically be the first Dylan song of the set, but “I’ll Remember You” feels like the first proper Dylan song of the set. His duet partner is Madelyn Quebec, who had started singing with Dylan during the final bit of his gospel run. You can see her watching him closely to follow him, which is undoubtedly tricky when he forgets the words and just mumbles. Still, an absolute highlight of the tape.
Fun fact: Dylan would marry Quebec’s daughter Carolyn Dennis the following year, meaning he is duetting with his future mother-in-law. They shoulda covered Ernie K-Doe.
I always like glimpses of Bob the bandleader, like we saw many times in the 1993 videos, and you get another one around 2:56 here as he turns around to cue the band on how to end the song. It collapses. They’ll get it right when the song makes its proper concert debut at Farm Aid a few days later.
You can imagine ABC News through sitting through all these covers and obscure Dylan originals thinking, “For God’s sake man, give us something middle America will know!” So you will not be surprised to learn that “Forever Young” is the song they actually used in the 20/20 broadcast. In fact, in the broadcast the host says they explicitly asked him to do an older song.
Kind of a silly song to include, because it doesn’t even include Tom Petty; the only Heartbreaker on it appears to be Benmont Tench, plus the Queens of Rhythm. Shows you how much these TV news people appreciated the momentous occasion of this inaugural Dylan-Petty summit. A pretty arrangement, but Bob looks bored at times. He wants to get back to playing Jimmy Reed covers with the band.
An extremely brief snippet of Bob singing the 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune “Alabamy Bound,” almost to himself, leads into some footage of the Queens hanging out, chatting and waiting for the song to start while Bob riffs around on guitar. After that a brief confab between Dylan, Petty, and Mike Campbell, while Stan Lynch looks on. Not much happens, but I enjoy this sort of candid-camera footage. This is probably what the majority of these rehearsals really feels like, everyone waiting around for something to start.
Next, it’s the poet laureate of rock and roll singing…“Louie Louie” (poetry in its own way). First and only time he sang it too. You know this is the sort of song every single Heartbreaker could do in their sleep. The way Bob just starts playing it alone on his guitar makes me think this was unplanned; he just hits those iconic chords and everyone else jumps in. Love the zoom-out about a minute in where you can see everyone playing together, rather than just the usual close-up on Dylan. And you see him trying to teach the confused Queens their part (“yeah yeah yeah yeah”) at 1:40. Another highlight of the tape.
Another duet, and this one not with his future-mother-in-law but with singer Peggi Blu. This is maybe the best part of the whole tape. He clearly took advantage of having these amazing Motown-steeped singers with him to do a song like “Then He Kissed Me” — for, again, the only time ever. In fact, Blu herself had sung this very song as part of a ‘70s incarnation of The Crystals. Wonder if Dylan knew that. He certainly doesn’t know most of the words. In this case, it looks like he’s following her as much as she’s following him.
Two more tracks as things wind down here. The first is another instrumental. This definitely feels like another loose jam, Dylan kicking off a blues riff and the band following along. The cameraman gets a little arty at around 1:06, zooming in on Bob’s black boots as his feet tap along. He knows they’re not gonna use this on TV, and seems to relish the chance to just be a guitarist in a lot of these clips.
Finally, what better song to close this or any performance than “That Lucky Old Sun”? These rehearsals were the first time Dylan ever played it, though certainly not the last: It would appear at Farm Aid (the only one of these rehearsal covers he actually played at the show itself) and many subsequent Heartbreakers concerts, before popping up periodically in later concerts and, most famously, on Shadows in the Night.
It sounds beautiful here, a perfect use of the singers, and Dylan brings more tenderness to the vocals than he does elsewhere. Even in this loose, jammy, sometimes half-assed rehearsal, you can see this song means a lot to him.