Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

By James Calemine

“They’ll beg you for the answer
It won’t ever be enough
There’s no way to really tell em
It’s like dogs on the run.”

                             –Tom Petty

Published in 2015, two years before Tom Petty’s death, Petty by Warren Zanes, stands as the definitive Petty biography.  Zanes’ old band, The Del Fuegos opened up for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers back in the late 80s. I met Zanes back in 1990 at writer Stanley Booth’s Georgia home. Growing up 50 miles from the Florida line, I heard a lot of Tom Petty on the Jacksonville radio as a kid in the 70s and 80s and he always counted as one of my favorite musicians. I later wrote about Dusty In Memphis, which Zanes penned in 2003.

Zanes details how he first met Petty on that Del Fuegos tour:

“But the last show was over at almost 3:00 a.m. I was in the bass player’s room, where the party was unfolding, when I heard the phone ring in my adjoining room. I went in and picked it up.

‘Is this Warren?’

‘Yeah.”

‘This is Tom Petty.

‘Who is this?

‘It’s Tom Petty…but I just drank a bottle of wine. I’m a little drunk.”

‘You sound like Tom Petty.’

‘That’s what happens when I drink.’

He apologized for not making the show and invited us to come out to his house the next night. So, a couple of us did that, went and met a man who seemed almost as socially awkward as we were.”

Zanes later interviewed Petty many times at the songwriter’s California home. Zanes takes the reader all the way back to Gainesville, Florida in the 50s, where the Tom Petty story begins. He wrote: “His story has a whiff of Horatio Alger and at least a little Elvis to it: a shitkicker from some two-bedroom ranch down in North Florida and got out.”

The book details how Petty knew Don Felder, Bernie & Tom Leadon and Stephen Still all who later went on to play in groups such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Eagles and Manassas. The journey leads the reader through Petty’s early bands such as the Epics, the Sundowners and Mudcrutch down in Florida. Petty’s Florida roots always revolved around music and dramatic family dynamics, which served as the foundation of one of America’s greatest bands, The Heartbreakers.

Zanes does justice to each era of Petty’s career from the debut album to classics such as Damn The TorpedoesHard Promises, Long After Dark, Southern Accents and Wildflowers. Zanes interviewed most of the Heartbreakers and their versions of certain eras or albums serves as a cohesive storyline that makes this book a page turner. 

For any Petty fan this book is a compelling read–from glorious music sessions, to band tension, fame and success and the darkest clouds that descend when you achieve your dreams. Zanes’ friendship allowed Petty to open up and provide very candid statements such as “Just hearing Southern Accents, I taste the cocaine in the back of my throat.” Until this book, Petty’s heroin addiction was pretty much unknown. 

The book documents crucial changes in Petty’s career such as his collaboration with Dave Stewart (The Heartbreakers were unimpressed by Stewart) and eventually Petty’s Full Moon Fever album, as well as writing songs with The Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. The Dylan tour proves especially interesting.  “No one in the Heartbreakers went away from working with Dylan without feeling like they’d been to the very best school,” Petty said. 

Zanes portrays the major shifts in Petty’s career and life with a close-to-the-bone sentiment like the departure of original Heartbreaker drummer Stan Lynch, Petty’s divorce and the death of bassist Howie Epstein.

The albums Wildflowers, Echo and The Last DJ retain their own interesting mythology as the band begins to enter the third and final phase of their career, which also included Petty resurrecting his old Florida band, Mudcrutch. The book must’ve gone off to the publisher when the Heartbreakers final album, Hypnotic Eye, was released in 2014 because there is no mention of it in the book.

Zanes wrote on the last page: “This book is born of interviews. The many days spent with Tom Petty, sitting down at his house in Malibu, sorting through the past and talking about a life making records, will remain among my favorite possessions. Mostly, we were at work. We’d sometimes break for a meal after a few hours.

“The day I mentioned that I was getting divorced, Tom got out his stationary, with a still from Melies’s Trip to the Moon on the front, and wrote notes to my sons. He thanked them for loaning their father, told them they should come out for a visit, wished them luck in their new house, finally drawing a caricature of himself for their immense pleasure. These notes still hang on the walls of my sons’ bedrooms. Petty’s been like that for me, ever since I first met him.”

This book resonates even more now after Petty’s death. 

Highly recommended…

www.jamescalemine.com