As Tom Petty stepped back into the studio with the Heartbreakers in 1991, a slight feeling of tension held in the air.
It was the first time in several years the band had worked together on a record; Petty had chosen to go solo when he made Full Moon Fever with producer and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne in 1989.
“I didn’t want to leave the Heartbreakers behind,” he told Rolling Stone in 1991, “because I figured they were the best band I know, and because it just felt like there was a lot of unfinished business. But at the same time, I knew I was on a roll and I didn’t want to just drop what Jeff and I had going. There I was, taking one of my new friends to meet some of my old ones. And all I can think is, ‘Oh, boy, these people had better get along.’”
After the smashing success of Full Moon Fever and two albums with Traveling Wilburys under his belt, Petty brought Lynne along for the next endeavor. Though unaccustomed to Lynne’s hyper-produced recording style, and still a bit hurt from what a few of the members viewed as Petty’s disloyalty to the band, the Heartbreakers never saw splitting up as an option.
“It’s a miracle that this band stayed together for two weeks,” guitarist Mike Campbell said in the same interview. “I don’t really know why we’re still together. There must be a bond that even we’re not aware of.”
That bond presents itself clearly in the music. The pieces began to fall into place, and before long the title track of Into the Great Wide Open appeared, which was released as a single on Sept. 9, 1991. Telling the tale of Eddie Rebel, Petty offers a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of living out the American rock ‘n’ roll dream.
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Into the Great Wide Open’ Video
“I just kind of fell into it,” he told Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty. “You don’t know where those things come from. I was just playing those chords and this little story started to appear.”
The little story was a familiar one to Petty, who, no doubt, took a few pages from his own storybook to paint the picture of the restless, hungry and resilient young rock musician whose only limit was the sky.
“Well, that’s what people think when they come out to California,” he said to Zollo. “Strike it big. Some people hit it, some people don’t.”
The narrative was so ingrained into the culture that Petty was even accused of swiping the line “a rebel without a clue” from the 1989 Replacements song ”I’ll Be You.”
”I have to be honest: I never even heard the Replacements record,” Petty told the Chicago Tribune, even though the band opened for him and the Heartbreakers on their 1989 tour and played the song, a No. 1 radio hit, almost every single night. ”It’s just a real common line that everyone says all the time. I think Meat Loaf used it on one of his records, too. It’s a cliche, yeah, but it just sounded so good in that place and it summed up the character so well that I had to use it. It’s a phrase that’s been around, like ‘twist and shout.’”
Cliches and all, Petty’s portrait of Eddie Rebel was one of boundless determination and ambition, even in spite of the industry’s ruthlessness. So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star? Well, you better be prepared for a whole new world of challenges on the road to stardom, and even then success is not guaranteed.
“It seemed like when I was a kid in the ’60s, it was so easy to be a teenager,” he said to the Gainesville Sun in 1991. “Everyone was so united on what we were about. Now, there’s so many different ways to go. I mean, a lot of young kids are Republicans. It’s a whole different thing now. I was just trying to compare it to my own youth.
“I think I was innocent in some ways,” Petty continued. “When we started in this business, it was a lot more innocent than it is now. Now, it’s very organized, it’s big business. If you really take this record business seriously, it will just kill all desire to do anything. The innocence is gone. It won’t be back. It’s gone.”
No longer fresh-faced teenagers themselves, Petty and the Heartbreakers found themselves in a transitional period at the end of the ‘80s, one that Lynne witnessed.
“Into the Great Wide Open maybe lost the simplicity that Full Moon Fever had,” Lynne told biographer Warren Zanes in Petty: The Biography. “Full Moon Fever had a kind of blatant, this-is-what-it-is take-it-or-leave-it feeling. The sound was so concise, just one sound that belonged to itself. The next one, Into the Great Wide Open, maybe it was just thought about too much. It wasn’t as simple or straightforward.”
Regardless of simplicity, Petty’s chronicle of Eddie Rebel served as a reminder to both himself and the newly regrouped Heartbreakers that the road was far from over for the band.
“I wanted to make a positive album, but I wanted to reflect those changes,” he said. “It was the end of the decade. And I wanted to try to make some comment on that, on where we’re going. We’re going into the great wide open.”