One purpose of a celebrity biography is to leave the reader feeling like they know the subject, even though they’ve never met him/her. With Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes made just such an introduction. Sometimes, though, when you meet a musical hero, you secretly wish afterwards you never had. And some of those regretful feelings linger after reading this new book. It’s not that Petty comes off as a bad guy; in fact, he’s presented as a pretty good guy throughout. It’s just that Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers are painted as so darned dysfunctional throughout, hardcore fans may wish they simply only knew the group’s music from afar.
Zanes begins his book by providing the typical biography — Petty’s hometown, parents, siblings and upbringing, etc. He spends far more time, though, describing how the Petty’s famed band came together, beginning with the pre-Heartbreakers (called Mudcrutch), and attempts to explain how they persevered through personnel changes and the various pressures of the music business throughout the years. This is really more of a book about a band, not just the front man of a band. Along the way, the reader learns of Petty’s long term conflict with drummer Stan Lynch, as well as the demise — tragically, from drugs — of bassist Howie Epstein.
One is left wishing Zanes has written more about the Heartbreakers’ music. How did the group’s core — guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and Petty — create the unique sound that lifted this band above so many other classic rock radio staples? Many fans have critics see The Heartbreakers as direct descendants of The Byrds from the ’60s, and while Roger McGuinn gets a few mentions in the book, his influence is never fully explored. Furthermore, the reader gains no new insight into the stories behind many of Petty’s best songs, such as “Refugee” and “The Waiting.” Yes, this book tells the band’s success story; but it never delves deeply enough into why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have had such an enduring legacy.
The best parts of this book focus on a couple of Petty’s famous friendships. Around the time of Petty’s commercial and artistic breakthrough, with the release of Damn the Torpedoes, he struck up a monogamous friendship with Stevie Nicks that had gossip columnists at the time wondering if there was more to the relationship than just friendship. (There wasn’t/isn’t). Nicks is quoted as saying that she had a secret ambition of becoming a member of the Heartbreakers. Maybe this is why “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” her collaboration with Petty for a hit single, came out so good.
Also, Petty’s friendship with George Harrison went much deeper than the just their Traveling Wilburys all-star collaboration. Harrison likely understood Petty’s famed lifestyle better than anyone else. Petty notes in the book how he saved many of Harrison’s letters to him as treasured possessions.
Petty: The Biography is also the place where Petty first revealed his struggle with heroin. Although any secret addiction is shocking when first exposed, Petty’s dalliance with this hard drug doesn’t seem quite so startling; especially when you know what a rough childhood he had with his abusive father, or that he used a lot of cocaine back in the ’70s. He may not present the image of a junkie, but he’s certainly no stranger to drug experimentation.
This book will likely have you reaching back for all those great Petty albums and songs. And while you may not have a deeper understanding of how all this wonderful music was created, you will have a greater view of the context within which it was made. Petty in concert many times comes off like an easygoing ringmaster of his own circus. But after reading this book, it quickly becomes obvious that nothing has ever come easy for the man. A sports analogy applies: no pain, no gain. After all is said and done, you’ll also walk way realizing how few people really know what makes Petty tick – even those seemingly the closest to him. And no biography, no matter how well it’s written, is ever going to get us inside the real world of Tom Petty.