I thought it would be a struggle to follow Elvis Costello’s autobiography but lightning does strike twice and once again I have spent a week or two in the life of a rock star and felt bereft when I turned that last page.
Petty is aptly named. It is not so much about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers though of course they are all over it. It is not even about Tom Petty though of course… Petty goes right to the core of this rock star. Maybe other biographers have tried to reach the artist’s soul but few have gotten there as Warren Zanes has here.
Zanes was a rock star himself. He was a member of the Del Fuegos and supported Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers back in the 80s. Today, having acquired a PhD in between, Zanes is Vice President of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He knows his rock music.
As well as that, and maybe because of it, Zanes had access to not only Petty but the band, the family and friends. Some reviews have criticised the fact that there not more direct quotes from these key players but I do not feel I would need more quotes as I believe Zanes uses his interviews to good effect. It was particularly intriguing to hear from Petty’s daughter Andria
What we get is a very personal account of Tom Petty’s relationships and in general the difficulties within. From his abusive father, to what seems to have been a loveless and difficult first marriage that went on way too long, to the frictions within The Heartbreakers particularly drummer Stand Lynch, we get the impression that Petty’s commercial success was lived alongside a great deal of tension, stress and sadness. The conclusion is that the art was where Petty found his solace and refuge. I have not found many rock biogs that concentrate on the friendships and I found Zanes original and intriguing.
A look at a rock star who seems to have struggled with close friendships it is even more intriguing to find that his best friend became George Harrison. Through producer Jeff Lynne the two seem to have connected immediately and been confidants. Bob Dylan is another buddy… and Roy Orbison… He ends up in a band with them all - The Travelling Wilburys. Quite a thing for a young boy impacted by The Beatles on Ed Sullivan thirty years before.
My main interest when readings biographies is what they can tell me about the songs. To be fair Petty is slack on that. However, it led me into rediscovering some of Petty’s work that I had not spent enough time in. The Wildflowers album particularly. Zanes opens up this work with Rick Rubin, waxes lyrical and I reassessed it. Very pleased that I did.
I also remembered that late 80s time when The Heartbreakers went on the road with Bob Dylan being The Band of fifteen years previous. It has me yearning for that as part of Bob Dylan’s Official Bootleg releases.
In the end Petty finds Dana York, the love of his life. She took her time arriving in a life that had even been touched with drug addiction. She seems to have arrived though at a time when Petty was getting his life together, assessing his weaknesses, putting right his mistakes and getting a new lease of life. Petty has a happy ending after quite a sad story.
Zanes is a great writer. It’s beautifully written.