“Petty: The Biography” Review and Interview with Warren Zanes

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The Petty Archives Review of Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes:

Review by Archive Admin, Liberty White
18 November 2015
     Like no other author I have read before, Warren Zanes knows exactly what Rock and Roll is about—not the logistical, statistical stuff like what year Elvis was crowned king—but the stuff that only someone who is passionate about music can understand. Anyone who has experienced this intense desire to make their own music will relate to this book on a level deeper than they will relate to most people. The best thing is, Zanes can formulate it into words; he writes in a way that allows everyone to feel Petty’s ambition and passion.
     The first real feeling I had about this book was a sadness—the bittersweet kind. Watching Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (documentary by Peter Bogdanovich), you get the ambition, the get up and go get ‘em attitude of the Heartbreakers.
     But ambition isn’t born out of ambition. There’s a catalyst, and with this biography, you actually get it: You get Petty’s home life and the struggles that pushed him forward into the unknown. That’s what makes it sad, for me. The Bogdanovich documentary is actually what made me a fan of the Heartbreakers. I’m one of the young fans, but I’ve had enough time to read thousands of articles, interviews, reviews, and now to own and operate The Petty Archives. With this huge archive behind me, it was always in the back of my mind how Earl was as a father, how Kitty left too soon… but Zanes pulls it right up front. It’s more painful when you actually have to face it. Tom Petty is such a private man that even his closest friends never knew exactly what was happening, let alone the general public. I never wanted to let my mind wonder at how tough it was or what his marriage was like. I never wanted to believe how heartbreaking it could be. Tom Petty reminds me of this fortune cookie I got last time I ate Chinese… “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” The cheesiest thing, but also the truest.
     I’ve always looked up to Tom Petty. I find it funny how he convinced so many of his bandmates and friends to leave college and pursue music. He makes a great leader, because he is truly passionate about his cause. Even I fell for it and started making music, before an injury put a stop to that. The drive that he radiates comes through in his music and how he carries himself, inspiring not only those around him, but anyone who has ever enjoyed a piece of his music. It’s like he’s all stretched out—he’s down to earth and relatable, but has his head up in the clouds searching for something better.
     The best thing about Zanes’ book which I think a lot of people will find refreshing is that it’s not boggled down by times and dates. It’s not heavy in that way. It has a smooth flow and a feeling that you’re along for the ride. Almost every in-depth biography or article I’ve read on Tom Petty has some date wrong. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum says that both Petty and Mike Campbell were born in 1954… (Yes, I did write them a correction and put it in the suggestion box while I was there).
But Rock and Roll doesn’t care about dates, and I think Zanes understands this on this occasion. Who gives a shit what year anything happened? …That doesn’t change what it felt like or what it does to people.
     Petty is an introspective book about looking back and pushing forward with Tom as a guide. Zanes writes in a way that holds so much insight into human connection. The book is full of block quotes from key players; the most reflective and contemplative voice of all is Adria Petty’s. She seems to look on all of it with a clarity which no one else has. Olivia Harrison comes very close, but there is something authoritative in Adria’s words which dictates insight.
     I cried on page 260. Like how Petty’s relationships evolve with his friends and bandmates, my own relationship with Petty evolved while reading this book. Like him, I’ve always had that stubbornness and ability to fight any kind of injustice, despite the consequences. Warren Zanes is in this small club of Tom Petty fans who can tell me something about Tom Petty I don’t already know. Everyone has their struggles, but I never knew Petty’s struggles ran so deep. I’m still trying to peel away the blankets off of my own bed of clinical depression. I’ve changed so much in the last year of my life that I’ve been painfully waiting for someone to introduce me to myself. I read in another interview with Zanes’ that he reassured Petty the story of his struggle would be told as a cautionary tale. It breaks my heart to know that Petty understands the feeling of wasting away, likely even more than I understand it; even if it sounds selfish, it helps me to know I’m not alone. Tom Petty’s always done that for me, though. Kept me going. Telling me that I don’t have to put up with bullshit if I can’t tolerate it.
     If there is any book which should be assigned to developing teenage musicians as a textbook… it’s Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes. This is a book anyone could read and find some connection with, whether it’s musical, biographical, or emotional. Because more than anything, it’s about human connection and our incessant search for peace.
Tom Petty and the Del Fuegos; Warren Zanes (far right).
Tom Petty and the Del Fuegos; Warren Zanes (far right).

The Petty Archives Interview with Warren Zanes:

Liberty:  You write a bit about the past and future of music and the industry. A lot of older music fans tend to be a bit cynical about how the music industry has changed—they don’t seem to like that anyone can make “music” these days on their computer. But I think it’s a hopeful thing. There is no doubt that Tom Petty changed the music industry for the better. He helped make it more people friendly in his battles against injustice. That’s the way I see it—people friendly. I like that independent artists with ambition are able to do more things without the ties of big music corporations (although the corporations still have a lot of hold). What do you think about the future of music for ambitious kids akin to Tom Petty?
  • Warren: That’s a good question. While I’ve watched some changes with skepticism, I do believe that popular music culture still has room for voices from the margins to have an impact on the mainstream. Rock and roll has a beautiful history of giving working class kids a forum in which to grab the world’s attention, which doesn’t happen with all art forms. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Nirvana, the list is long and extends over decades. In American life, only in sports have we seen this kind of possibility. And that’s what we’ve always been told American life is supposed to be like. Tom Petty’s is among those great stories. So, despite the changes in the technology of music-making and in the business, it remains true that the next important moment in music may well come from a kid in some basement who no one gives a shit about until he makes the recording that changes the way we think. As long as that remains a possibility, all is well. And so far, the art has had the governing vote over the business. Even if just barely at times.
Liberty:  Tom Petty has, in my eyes, always been underrated as an artist and an influence. I was thinking about Walk the Line, Ray, I Saw the Light, and other biopics about posthumous musicians. Do you think a biopic will ever be made about Tom Petty and who would you want to play him?
  • Warren: I generally don’t like biopics. They often make sacrifices in the storyline in order to create a narrative that will work at the box office. Fair enough, but if you love the artist being portrayed, it can be a rough ride. So, if it had to happen–and the story warrants it, for sure–I suppose I’d want to go back in time (sorry, I’m adding time travel to this answer) and get the young Steve McQueen in the role. He’d have to grow his hair. But he’s got the right kind of cool, and that would be the most important thing as a starting basis. But wouldn’t we all be sorry if anyone but Tom Petty sang those songs?
Liberty: In the Bogdanovich documentary, they mention choosing the name “Heartbreakers” after the song “Heartbreaker.” Do you know if that is the Led Zeppelin song, the Rolling Stones song, or another song with “heartbreaker” in the title?
  • Warren: I don’t have an answer for you on that one. Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) came out somewhere around 1973, so that’s certainly in the air. But the Zeppelin song was the more iconic. Here’s what we know for sure: thy didn’t name themselves after Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” of 1979! For a few reasons. But, all that aside, my sense–and this is just me–is that the name wasn’t the biggest priority in that moment. Denny Cordell helped them with the issue, but the greatest attention was on making that band into the recording band they needed to be. Everyone had put in years working toward that goal. The push forward was the focus.
Liberty: You have interviews from Alan “Bugs” Weidel, Stan Lynch, and others who seemed to come out of the woodwork for this book. Why do you think they decided to talk?
  • Warren: In the case of Bugs, I think it was a matter of him choosing to do this and me having Tom’s approval and involvement. And Bugs did an interview that was nothing short of remarkable. In various contexts, far beyond this project, I’ve done a lot of interviews. And what I’ve found is that the people who have been interviewed less often provide very open, sometimes even raw conversations. The people who have given thousands of interviews often repeat themselves, and for good and obvious reasons. With Bugs, this was the first time he did an interview. I’ve always liked him a lot, even if I feel like I don’t know him nearly as well those who work with him. And, really, no one was closer to Tom, from the beginning. Bugs is a legend for those who love that band. So this interview was important. We went for a few hours, and he was among the most open.
    Regarding Stan, I think that was a crucial interview. When he initially said no, I was certainly disappointed. But I kept at it, finally offering to fly down, come to his door, and limit the conversation to twenty minutes. What he told me was the difference was that I said I’m come right to him, that I didn’t treat him like I was doing him a favor in including him. He was gracious, open, vulnerable: everything you would want in an interview. There are certainly points at which he and Tom didn’t see things in the same light, and I made every effort to capture the tension between their viewpoints.
Liberty: You worked with Boganovitch on the Runnin’ Down a Dream book that went with the film as an editor. There are things in the film and the film’s companion book which are not elaborated or mentioned in your biography. This biography feels like you’re filling in the gaps—in a good way. Was that part of your intention? To fill in the gaps?
  • Warren: If gaps were filled, that’s good. But, no, that wasn’t my aim. I wanted a cohesive work that had the elements of character, conflict, and narrative structure. My aim wasn’t to be comprehensive, if only because that would have led to a thousand-plus page book. What I wanted was to capture the Tom Petty story and show how that story is the ideal case study if one wants to understand what the age of rock and roll meant in American life. The arc of his experience is remarkable. But I also wanted to show the sacrifices made and the passion involved in creating a band and keeping it together. And, lastly, I wanted to explore how the world of songwriting became his safe place, the world he went into where he knew what to expect and good things happened. As a songwriter, he’s in the league of Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, so I had to attempt to capture the life that led him to songwriting and the time he spent in that creative space.
Liberty: There’s a middle ground here too, but did you feel obligated to write this biography or was it something you wanted to do for pleasure?
  • Warren: I wasn’t driven by a sense of obligation, no. I was given a remarkable opportunity, one for which I’m very, very grateful, and I have lived my life with Tom Petty’s music playing, from age eleven forward. There was a lot of joy in the process. But I think Tom is an important American voice and more needed to be known. For people like me–and there are many, obviously–it deepens our connection to the material we love to know more about the life from which those songs emerged. It’s not required, but I think it does something important. I believe Tom’s place in the story of American music will grow larger with time. He gets a lot of respect, but I see him getting more. To me, there are acts whose importance will be reevaluated, acts like Sly and the Family Stone and The Band, even James Brown, acts that are revered but will get a still bigger place in the history books in ten, twenty years. Tom Petty is one of them. This book is a part of a much larger, collective project, of increasing our knowledge about the man and his music. But, to your question, I sure as hell got some pleasure out of it as I did the work!
Liberty: As a writer, I’m interested in the process of writing this book. The way it’s laid out is very nice. It skips around a little bit without feeling jumpy at all, which seems to happen a lot in biographies; either they feel too chronological or they jump around, but your writing is perfectly balanced. Did you have this formula from the get-go, or did it evolve as you began the biography?
  • Warren: There’s always work involved. Gustave Flaubert said something like, “There’s no writing, only rewriting.” I take that to mean that the writer has to try things out, play with structure, keep retooling the language, deepen the sense of character, make conflict and narrative development clear. And nobody gets all that in a first draft. I have an editor and an agent who are there if I’m unsure of what direction I want to take something, my sounding boards. And, at many times, I needed only to stop writing, to go listen to the music, and then I knew what to do. But the early drafts and the final version, if related, were distant cousins.
Liberty: What parts of the process of writing Petty: The Biography were the easiest and most difficult for you? 
  • Warren: The most difficult part? Stopping. Tom Petty is a deep man. He is worthy of more documentaries, more compilations, more books. His story continues still and his past remains something worthy of further excavation. So, yeah, it could have gone for years. But when I recognized that I had fulfilled my early goals and had a book that worked, it was time. The easiest part? The interviews with Tom. I’m grateful that I found myself sitting there beside him. He’s as smart, as funny, as wise as you’d both hope and imagine. His mind was always a few steps ahead, restless and certainly searching. That he’s cool is merely the final wrapping on a remarkable human package.
Petty: The Biography is on sale now and a book any fan of Petty should consider mandatory reading.
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