Book Blurbs are a series of quick-hitting reviews in which our staff dissect and critique music-related books fresh off the presses.
For every A-list rock and roll star, there comes a point where the road forks away from their humble origins into the realm of mystique. For years, it’s been easy to assume that Tom Petty’s life is one big leisurely joint aching to be smoked in the sun. He has that southern drawl and relaxed attitude that seem perfectly carefree, and that’s without getting into the impossibly catchy heartland rock he’s been spooling out with the Heartbreakers for almost four decades. For a guy known for tales of dreamers. losers, and ne’er-do-wells, Petty has always assumed the role of his characters with conviction.
This perception of Petty has gone largely unchallenged for the bulk of his career, a fact that only makes Warren Zanes’ biography of the rock legend all the more interesting. Zanes peels back the cool-guy exterior to become the first person to delve into Petty’s life story, making for a marvelous read, even if it’s not always a sunny one.
About the Author:
When Zanes’ band, the Del Fuegos, opened up for Petty and the Heartbreakers some 30 years ago, there was no telling that he’d be the guy to lead fans through the band’s surprisingly complex backstory. These days, Zanes works as Vice President of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to Petty: The Biography, Zanes also penned Dusty in Memphis, the first installment of the celebrated 33 1/3 series, in 2003. He’s also continued to make music since leaving the Del Fuegos, releasing the solo album Memory Girls in 2002.
Zanes tags his book as the Tom Petty biography, and he’s not mindlessly beating his chest. His book serves as a fairly complete history, tracing Petty’s story back to his grandparents’ settlement in Northern Florida all the way up through last year’s reliably solid Hypnotic Eye. Rock and roll became his respite from a home life plagued with verbal and physical abuse, giving him ample motivation to throw himself headfirst into his songwriting. That all-or-nothing focus, the kind he struggled to apply to school and other aspects of his life, carried Petty to huge local and modest national success with Mudcrutch, which later became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. From there, Zanes weaves a wonderful narrative about family, stardom, musical fraternity, and the oftentimes otherworldly task of keeping it all together.
Structurally, Petty: The Biography follows a pretty boilerplate rock bio trajectory, beginning with the singer’s early upbringing and following him through the enormous highs and lows of mainstream superstardom on his way to his current standing as an elder statesman. But it’s a credit to Zanes that Petty feels fresh and inspired despite sticking to that rigid formula. Petty and the Heartbreakers also deserve kudos for letting Zanes into their rock and roll world, which beneath its breezy facade is full of the kind of complications that come with the territory of being in a band for 40 years.
The book is loaded with riveting details that have never before come to the surface. Yeah, the news that Petty got caught up with heroin in the late ’90s grabbed a lot of headlines, but it’s the smaller things in Zanes’ bio that will jump out at even longtime fans of the band. There’s great stuff about Petty’s wild mood swings, his tumultuous marriage, his relationship with Bob Dylan and George Harrison, the extent of his friendship with Stevie Nicks, and the near-constant tension that existed between him and drummer Stan Lynch. Zane wisely avoids deifying Petty and isn’t afraid to paint him in a not-so-flattering light, but he never does this unfairly. Even in its most unflinching moments, Petty: The Biography paints a human portrait of its subject. Less the story of a rock star, it’s the story of a man fighting to be everything to everyone: father, husband, son, band leader, and friend.
Zanes’ account is so rich and thorough that it doesn’t leave much room for complaints or nitpicking. More could be said about Petty’s relationship with his younger brother, Bruce, while discussion of Into the Great Wide Open gets lumped in a little too close with Full Moon Fever and deserves a bit more attention for itself. Minor details in the long run.
The highest praise that can be paid to Petty: The Biography is that not being a Heartbreakers fan isn’t a barrier. Zanes does such a great job getting at the humanity of his subject that you don’t even need to be much of a fan of the music to enjoy it. It’s a plus, for sure, and fans will no doubt devour every word. But Petty: The Biography is, at its core, a story about people and how those people brought together under a particular set of circumstances manage to make a relationship last in the face of various stresses, pressures, and harsh realities. It’s a great piece of writing by any measure, but as far as rock bios go, this is tops.