Book Review: Petty — The Biography

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Several books have been written about Tom Petty, but this one is a little different in that it was written at Petty’s own behest and apparently has his seal of approval. Not because it paints him in some holy rock god light, but because it tells the truth, the way his songs always have. Written by former Del Fuegos member Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography includes a cast that has been a part of Petty’s rock ‘n’ roll circus for some 50 years, some of whom went on to great career heights and some who didn’t get out alive.

From tales of the fractured Florida childhood that shaped him, to stories of tour tensions and rock-star fisticuffs, to the revelation of Petty’s own heroin addiction and life-threatening depression, there’s (mostly) never a dull moment here. The book does a great job of painting a picture of how hard, almost impossible, it is to juggle the responsibilities of a guy in Petty’s boots. Leading a band and artfully dealing with its personalities, creating and caring for a family, trusting the right people to handle the commerce part of the gig, maintaining decent relationships with all of the aforementioned, and writing even better new songs for that next record – these are just a few of the things Zanes writes about, things that Petty has both succeeded and failed at.

For the most part, the people Zanes talks to – Heartbreakers past and present, relatives, management and others – are pretty candid and willing to say what’s on their minds, no matter who they might piss off. And since he is said to have read the original draft of Zanes’ book, this apparently is fine with Petty, which says even more about his character. While his family and associates take issue with Petty the Man from time to time about a variety of subjects, nobody here is able to cast legitimate aspersions on Petty the Artist when it comes to his creative genius and refusal to back down.   

There are a few spots in the book, most notably in the first two chapters, where the text suffers from a little TMI, a longwindedness that can leave the reader thinking, “C’mon, man, let’s get to the point.” It would have been nice if Zanes had maybe tightened up a few paragraphs and spent more words on Petty’s relationships with his heroes in the Traveling Wilburys (especially Roy Orbison), or included a little more insight into the Heartbreakers’ time with another music icon whose career parallels Petty’s in so many ways, Johnny Cash. But when Zanes is on a roll – particularly when he’s able to get great quotes out of people like Stan Lynch and Stevie Nicks and, especially, Petty himself – he makes it hard to put this book down. If you’re into Petty, or the inner workings of the life of any major talent who managed to get to the top and influence the music of a generation, this book needs to be on your winter reading list.