In writing the biography of Tom Petty, author Warren Zanes creates a narrative so compelling it’s difficult to stop reading. Interweaving interviews with his main subject, past and present members of his band The Heartbreakers, plus friends, family, crew members and management; the author effectively (re)creates a wide-ranging conversation that, as it evolves, has a life all its own.
It’s one of those conversations that seem to suspend time, where each contribution to the dialogue prompts another topic that has its own sub-themes, each enlightening in its own way. As with the best rock biographies, Zanes doesn’t so much attempt to explain as illuminate and it’s in that sense his book on Tom Petty is so unique: as the story unfolds from the Florida-born rocker’s abusive childhood through his earliest struggles as a musician, then on to a success that brings its own challenges professional and personal. Zanes’ own devotion to Petty’s career finds reaffirmation in his research.
The once and future member of the Del Fuegos and certified music scholar takes nothing for granted as he plumbs the depths and scales the heights with the famous American rocker, but there’s a sense this book ratifies his own understanding of the man and his work. It’s open to question whether Zanes holds to whatever preconceptions he held based on his previous interactions with this musician. They toured together at one time—but he refrains from sounding judgmental and remains circumspect to the end, even as he reveals a portrait of a man as guarded as he is forthcoming in their conversations.
And because of the knowingly subtle, dramatic way Zanes tells Tom Petty’s story, that same sensation should carry over to readers, whether long-time fans or mere dilettantes. There is no need to elevate the melodrama of relationships within the Heartbreakers—former drummer Stan Lynch’s candor sufficiently highlights that dynamic more than enough as does the departure and subsequent return of bassist Ron Blair—so, for instance, the understated account of multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston’s induction into the group, and his bonding with the leader, makes a statement all its own. Like the father figure he becomes early on in their band’s evolution, Petty has nurtured a camaraderie that can withstand what otherwise might be terminal stress, as resulted from the excruciatingly slow dissolution and death of bassist/singer Howie Epstein.
Likewise, the abiding connections Tom Petty maintains with his family. Zanes refuses to engage in amateur psychology here, but he doesn’t have to. Simply recounting the expression of affection the the veteran bandleader offers his long-time manager Tony Dimitriades, as encouraged by Petty’s second wife Dana, is enough to draw the comparison between father and son: the conversation sounds as eerily similar to the one TP and his father conduct shortly before the latter’s passing, And the rapprochement Petty oversees in the latter-day regrouping of Mudcrutch, the ensemble that was in fact the genesis of the Heartbreakers, is nothing so much as the head of a clan artfully broaching reconciliation with prodigal sons (of his own making).
The biographer preserves his down-to-earth tone, sometimes to a fault, as in his tales of those rare occasions Tom Petty feels compelled to destroy relationships in acts of seeming self-preservation. The story veers away from the conflict arising from the record label leveraging commercial success to enact price-hiking of its records, but there is as frank an account of the separation of Tom Petty’s business from Denny Cordell as there is his first wife Jane. And, as with the bleak description of the rocker’s descent into heroin use, Zanes makes no attempt to embroider the story any more than he does in relating the difficulties arising from the arson that destroyed the musician’s home or the agonizing process by which Petty strove to create the album Southern Accents (MCA, 1985), during which time he suffered as much psychic as physical pain.
In the most cogent of his many otherwise discerning personal observations about Petty’s life and times, Zanes posits the distinct possibility that this Florida-born songwriter and musician’s long-term commercial success, as a solo artist and with his band (not to mention the Traveling Wilburys), has disallowed a perception of him as a truly important artist, compared to some of those with whom he has collaborated, such as the late Beatle George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Yet in otherwise allowing the facts speak for themselves, within the context of a story that extends as fully and completely into the present as it proceeds from the past, the author does justice to both the life and the work of Tom Petty. Such artful maintenance of that balance is the greatest accomplishment a biographer can achieve.