Petty: The Biography. An Interview with Author Warren Zanes - by James A. Baumann

You Don’t Know Tom Petty

by James A. Baumann

Click here to purchase Petty: The Biography

Anyone who grew up within earshot of an FM radio during the last three decades thinks they know Tom Petty. Depending on their age and inclination, they may think of him as the young punk who, armed with a Rickenbacker, celebrates the American girls and urges us not to live like a refugee. Or maybe he is the displaced Florida son who still speaks with a southern accent. He could be the video star who refuses to back down while running down a dream. Or maybe he even is the elder statesman who has the pull to play a Super Bowl halftime show as well as the rebel spirit to sing about the over-commercialization of his beloved rock and roll.

All of these could be parts of Tom Petty, but to pigeonhole him in one of these descriptions would be greatly missing the bigger picture. It’s a portrait that was mostly uncovered in the 2008 documentary film Runnin’ Down a Dream, but it wasn’t until Warren Zanes’ new book, Petty: The Biography, that the complete story (or, at least as complete as the world is likely to get) has been told.

Warren Zanes first crossed paths with Petty, like all of us, through his radio speakers. Later, as a member of the garage-rocking Del Fuegos, they came face-to-face as compatriots when the band served as Petty’s opening act. 

After the Del Fuegos split, Zanes would earn a PhD in visual and cultural studies. He since has successfully blended both sides of his life, writing for the 33 1/3 book series and a variety of publications. He’s been a vice president at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is the executive director of the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. 

He and Petty came back together as Zanes helped power the Runnin’ Down a Dream documentary directed by the legendary Peter Bogdanovich. It was the documentary research that continued and, eventually, led to this biography. 

While the documentary is expansive, Petty had the final cut. With this biography, though, he put all editorial decisions about what would or would not be included in Zanes’ hands. The result is a rather unflinching look at Petty’s life. 

In the promo materials Petty says, “At this point in my life, there’s no reason to do anything but tell the whole story.” And he does even as that story includes an abusive and opportunistic father, a wife saddled with mental health issues, the twisting ride of a professional music career, business deals gone sour, lost band members, and Petty’s own depression and heroin addiction. 

Fortunately, the book never falls into the “Behind the Music” template trap of success-flameout-redemption. Zanes delivers the downsides of Petty’s story with empathy. He also balances them with the top-of-the-world times as well. Of course there are all the hits and critical acclaim of his career that lead to fame and fortune. But the story also celebrates the less tangible opportunities such as being the (relatively) young pup in the Traveling Wilburys. The value of friendships and loyalty is shown through individuals like Stevie Nicks, George Harrison and  roadie Alan “Bugs” Weidel. Petty’s second wife overcomes his skeptical circle of friends and becomes a saving grace.

And, of course, there is Petty’s lifelong bond with the Heartbreakers, without whom there is no story. The narrative repeatedly winds around the relationships, the trust, the hard decisions, the creativity, the hurt feelings, and the striving for greatness that are part of any collaborative relationship. Zanes spoke with all of the Heartbreakers past and present (except bassist Howie Epstein who overdosed before the project began) and let them tell their side of the story. He also spoke with members of Mudcrutch, the precursor that would, eventually leave the Gainesville, Florida bar scene, head out west, and send Petty’s story into overdrive. 

There can’t be many people that know Petty better than this group. Throughout, their insights are honest, illuminating, and – in many cases – include some variation of the phrase, “Hey, it’s Tom’s band.” In the end, one gets the feeling that the reason behind so much of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ success came from the fact that they were a true band, but they weren’t a democracy.

Zanes took time out from his parade of radio interviews and promotion for the book to answer a handful of questions for Pencilstorm about relationships, the story behind the songs, and knowing what to cut.

Baumann: You were in a band and a rock & roll peer of Tom Petty. You’ve also been a writer and an academic for several years now. Were there times when you were researching and writing this biography where you felt one side of your life pulling against the other? Conversely, were there specific times where you really felt the two sides most came together?

Zanes: Really, both sides of my life were in the mix at all times. That was the only way to do this project. Not that it was a conscious thing. I merely responded in relation to the subject, one of America's best songwriters and record makers, and the job, writing his biography. I wanted readers to get closer to this musical life, while also giving them something with an intelligence reflective of someone as smart as Petty. I had to be both an academic and a rock & roller.
Baumann: A lot of the focus in the book is on Petty’s relationships and many of those – Petty’s father, his first marriage, record label execs, etc. – are contentious. Even the productive ones – such as with Mike Campbell and all the different band members through the years – are touched with stories about unpopular decisions and sacrifices he had to make in service of those relationships. Was that a story line you had in mind when you began work on the book or was it something that evolved organically as you worked on it?

Zanes: When writing about a bandleader, one has to delve into the psychological. Being a bandleader is an impossible job. I wouldn't say his relationships are "contentious," unless we're willing to admit that any long-term creative relationship is going to have some of that. Petty is just one of several musicians in bands that have managed to stay together for decades that has complicated relationships in his past. The good news - and perhaps the difference - is that he had the willingness to talk about those relationships in an unguarded fashion. Did I know we needed to go there? Absolutely.
Baumann: You make a good point:  what relationship as close as family and a marriage, or a band that lasts more than three decades, isn't going to have some contention in it at one point or another? And you did give equal weight to those relationships that would buoy him up, such as those with Stevie Nicks or George Harrison and the rest of the WIlburys. The creative foil of Mike Campbell & Benmont Tench, and Scott Thurston's contributions later in the band's career. 

I particularly enjoyed the passages talking about Petty's and Harrison's relationship. Many, many years ago my grandmother was visiting in England. She was at the house of an acquaintance who was a minister. An old church had been damaged in a storm and, by pure coincidence, she was there that afternoon when George stopped by for afternoon tea and to talk about donating some money to help with repairs. She obviously was before Beatlemania's time, but she wasn't stupid. After George left, she grabbed half a cookie that he had eaten and slipped it into her purse. That half a cookie now sits in a box in my office.

From that time she would buy his records and, after she died, I found a bunch of newspaper and magazine clippings in her house about George's passing. I don't know how much she was ever a fan of his music, but just in an afternoon tea he made a great impact on her. So, your stories of his ukulele playing and bear hugs certainly rang true.

Zanes: That cookie story is as good as it gets, James. Wow.

Baumann: When the advance word got out that you were able to get Stan Lynch to submit to an interview for this book, fans reacted like you had found a missing Dead Sea Scroll. How were you able to make that happen and why do you think it was such an important part of the story?

Zanes: Tom Petty's story is a band story. So I needed the band to talk. Stan played a big role in the first half of the group's history, but it was the half in which they came together, faced early success, defined a power structure, experienced their first personnel change, tasted elation and disappointment. It was the time of becoming. And Stan was the lone extrovert. He was the band's greatest champion and its greatest internal threat. An amazing, complicated guy. I needed him. After several refusals, he accepted a visit. But I went to his door, and asked only for twenty minutes. Though I got eight hours.
Baumann: There are a handful of times in the book where you purposely jump out of the narrative and tell a first-person anecdote. What motivated or inspired you to utilize that device? (Which, for what it’s worth, I found to be effective.)

Zanes: That was something I had to ponder, had to work on at length. But I'm no different from many Petty fans: I've spent my life getting the next Tom Petty record. He's followed us through life, just as we've followed him, and we're lucky for it. I wanted to show some of that, just as I wanted to detail the crossing of our paths. We've known one another over thirty years, in a few different contexts. That needed to be understood, though it couldn't take too much space. I trimmed it, a lot.
Baumann: What was the one thing you learned while researching the book that surprised you the most?

Zanes: That Tom Petty is a worker, a tremendously hard worker. The decisions that get made on both the art and business sides are his decisions. The songs have an ease that we love, like Buddy Holly and Hank Williams have an ease, but to achieve that requires a fastidiousness and intuition and talent and work, work. I see him in the same light as the legends of country, like George Jones and Johnny Cash: he's going to keep doing this, probably as long as he can, because it's who he is.
Baumann: Two elements that many people are going to focus on from the book are Petty’s previously undisclosed heroin use and how his first wife suffered from mental illness. Obviously this information hasn’t widely circulated before now. To that end, it appears that you had unfettered access to most everyone around him from band members to friends and even his daughters. Why do you think he chose now to open up about those issues? 

Zanes: I think he was ready to do it, and I was in the right place. My relationship with him has always been a professional relationship, based around various projects, but he must have felt enough trust to do this. He was nothing short of unguarded when it came to talking. At times I was surprised at the degree to which he was opening up. 

But, really, he's a reader. He's read books that put a high gloss on things, just as he's read books that go after the truth. He knows that the latter books are the ones that mean something. When he read Peter Guralnick's Elvis books, he didn't love Elvis less. Tom wanted a good book, a smart book, a well-written book, but, above all, I think he wanted an honest book. He empowered me to write one. He never told me what could be in or out, never told me how I had to think.

Baumann: Many times you make the connection about how what was happening in Petty’s life at the time had an impact on the album he was working on. Now that you're done with the book, what albums – for better or for worse – do you listen to differently than you did before? 

Zanes: I listen to them all a bit differently. I haven't lost my old connection to them, but I have new information that is somewhere in me that affects how I process the content. It's a combination of the conscious and unconscious minds I think. But if you know that a songwriter was physically abused as a kid, or that he was lost in his own marriage, you're going to hear the reverberations of that, the longing and loss that you know is inside that person. 

At the same time, great songs and records have lives beyond the people who made them - so the biographical details never own a song. And Tom's are good enough that they have had rich and full lives in worlds far beyond his front yard.

Baumann: I know you were taking requests to put together a Tom Petty playlist on Spotify. What tracks would you choose for readers to listen to as they read the book? These shouldn’t necessarily be your favorite songs, but the ones that paint a picture of who Petty is.

Zanes: "Lost In Your Eyes" is an important Mudcrutch song that I refer to. "Dreamville" captures a Petty who is seeing the great rock and roll era tarnished and at risk, its world slipping from view. "Even the Losers" is his anthem. "Forgotten Man" is a guy out in Malibu trying to figure out what his connection is to the strange, shifting world in which we live. "Southern Accents" is Tom saying good-bye to his mother, I think. Frankly, I wouldn't know where to stop with this question. This is only as finite as his catalogue.

Baumann: When I would interview bands I always liked to ask them when they knew to stop messing with their records in the studio and declare them to be finished. So now I’ll ask you this: How did you know when to stop writing and editing this book?

Zanes: I didn't know. I had help, which is often the case with people making records. My editor, Gillian Blake, helped a lot. Petty's life and career are worthy of an 800-page biography, but I don't think that would have been the right experience for the fan and reader. Some of them, yes. But, most of them, not. 

I know Tom Petty songs that are so good that I'd love a twelve minute version, but he keeps it to three and half minutes. I know Hitchcock movies I'd love to see clock in at three hours, but he sticks to 90 minutes. I had to remember that and make this feel right as a reading experience. 

Baumann: You must have a bunch of leftover Tom Petty stories that you could put out as literary B-sides or outtakes. What’s your favorite story or quote that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the final version?

Zanes: Well, we're talking about a very quotable, very funny, very sharp guy. So there's always more. It was no mistake that artists like Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Johnny Cash were drawn to Tom Petty. But, in particular, I remember him talking about his dogs. He has a real connection. And when he talked about one of the dogs dying, it was very moving. But he cut through the emotion with a line something like this: "I was so torn up about losing that dog, I went out and got another, exact same model." He was referring to a yellow labrador.

Click here to purchase Petty: The Biography