The Upshot: Musician and scholar Zanes turns in a complex and compelling — and nigh-on definitive — look at one of America’s great modern rockers.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It took a musician to write one of this year’s best biographies, but not his own.
Former Del Fuegos co-founder Warren Zanes, who also happens to hold a Ph. D and teaches at NYU, has written the most definitive book on Tom Petty yet, — one which manages to be both honest, exhaustive and considerate.
The fact that Zanes and his bandmates once toured with Petty and the Heartbreakers (they even dined on spaghetti with the Petty family, as told in the book) has given the author a perspective and intimacy you can’t imagine many other biographers having. The book begins with Petty’s childhood in the semi-rural Gainesville, FL – yes there was a college there, but also plenty of rednecks and hunting — and his early bands: The Sundowners, the Epics and Mudcrutch. The scene, though small, turned out a number of pretty impressive classmates in the 1970s rock scene including future members of the Eagles and the Allman Brothers Band. The incestuous scene also brought many to California, including Petty and his crew.
While the book is crammed with a lot of the popular Petty lore that many may already know, like his friendships George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan – all eventual members of the Traveling Wilburys – his longtime collaborations and kinship with Stevie Nicks and his remarkable solo career, the book also covers some of the more interesting aspects of the Petty story, most that have never been told in full detail before. In particular, before the band really took off, Petty was signed on as a writer and collaborator for Leon Russell where he would often be sent for at all hours of the night, simply to cool his heels on the couch outside the studio waiting for inspiration to strike his boss.
Despite his relationship with Petty, Zanes still tackles some of the tougher aspects of the rockers career, including his struggles with heroine and other drugs, soured relationships with his bandmates, his divorce and a strained relationship with his father. Petty discusses all in a refreshingly honest manner and still manages to come off as sanguine.
In Petty, Zanes has turned in a complex, compelling look at one of America’s great modern rockers.