‘Conversations with Tom Petty’ by Paul Zollo
By Ed Masley
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — Sunday, January 15, 2006
Tom Petty at his best? and worst
Tom Petty’s led a fascinating life, but most fans wouldn’t know the half of it unless they picked up “Conversations with Tom Petty,” in which journalist Paul Zollo gets the star who rarely talks about his private life to open up on almost every aspect of that life.
He rambles from the dad who punched an alligator’s eyes in to impress him through the supergroup he formed with several of his childhood heroes to the lonesome death of bassist Howie Epstein.
As suggested by the title, Petty’s story unfolds as a series of questions and answers.
This less-than-ideal format leaves no doubt as to why he felt comfortable talking to Zollo, whose questions often read like embarrassing mash notes.
But Petty responds to the ego-massaging with insight, humor, raw emotion and a natural gift for spinning yarns, whether laughing off Live Aid as a day of “crappy” music or offering Zollo a chilling account of the morning an arsonist set fire to his home with Petty and his family trapped inside.
The book is unwisely divided into two parts, 186 pages devoted to his life and then 100 pages worth of epilogue in which he’s made to go through every album song by song (which would have made for killer liner notes but feels a little dry and disconnected here).
While “Conversations” breezes through his childhood, taking all of 14 pages to arrive at Petty’s first gig, that’s enough to cover meeting Elvis, his first Kay electric guitar and how “we were never the same” after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
You also get a real sense of his dad, the alligator-punching man’s man who “didn’t mind just popping you” and
drank enough that Petty “thought it was completely normal to run your car into a ditch.”
The book follows his rise from the cream of the Florida bar-band circuit through “Damn the Torpedoes” and the Traveling Wilburys to Petty’s latest effort, 2002’s “The Last DJ,” sharing anecdotes and insights on his own creative process and the marquee figures in his life — George Harrison, Bob Dylan, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and Dave Stewart, to name just a few who emerge here with all their dimensions intact.
The guys you really get to know, though, are the members of the Heartbreakers. Petty dishes the dirt on his often contentious relationship with drummer Stan Lynch, but Epstein, who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, is easily the book’s most haunting presence.
He gets his own chapter, a poignant insider’s account of Epstein’s drug bust in New Mexico (involving Carlene Carter and a stolen car), his firing from the band and his inevitable death.
They wave goodbye the night of their induction to the Hall of Fame, at which point, Petty says, “I knew inside, sure as I was sitting there, that I would never see him again.”
A final chapter on his latest album couldn’t help but come off as depressingly anti-climactic after that, but Zollo makes it worse with one last round of unrelated questions before signing off with the truly pathetic device of getting the star to talk about how much he loves the fans.
This book deserves a better ending, and there’s no doubt Petty had it in him.