Paperback Riders: Warren Zanes “Petty: The Biography”

2015, Henry Holt & Co

When Andy Davidson reviewed Warren Zanes’ recent book on the making of Springsteen’s Nebraska it reminded me of his biography of Tom Petty. For such a vital figure, Petty has not been well served by biographers, and despite stopping in 2015 (2 years before his passing) this remains the standard work on the man.

Structured as a chronological narrative of Petty’s life from early days in Gainesville Florida to the making of ‘Hypnotic Eye’ which of course turned out to be the final Heartbreakers album. Zanes weaves the story of his own relationship with Petty into the book through brief chapters set in 1976, 1987, 2006, and 2015. The level of access that Zanes had to his subject lends an intimacy to the story that is often missing in music bios written from a third-person point of view. It also manages to avoid the “we made an album, then we went on tour, and then…” conveyor belt that while it may be the truth of many musicians’ lives, often makes for spectacularly dull reading.

It does this by digging deeper into Petty the man than many similar books allow. He was clearly a “complex kid” with his share of issues. The key point in the book hinges around ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ when found “Petty moving towards a life that would look somewhat different to the others [Heartbreakers] lives.” As the main writer this was inevitable of course. His share of the take was always going to grow quicker than his bandmates. The amount of space given to drummer Stan Lynch, whose “musical and personal differences” with Petty have received fairly widespread coverage, is interesting. Petty clearly had a high regard for Lynch and must have sanctioned the interviews with him being used here. In the only other comprehensive book on Petty, Paul Zollo’s ‘Conversations with Tom Petty’ there is fulsome praise for Lynch.

Which brings us to the only really serious complaint about Zanes’ book. It is quite light on Petty’s own voice. What that does mean is that this book and Zollo’s complement each other without covering the same ground too deeply. Zanes takes a respectful and insightful approach shedding light on Petty’s journey, the creative process behind his music, and the complexities of the man himself, but for the inner voice you need to read it back-to-back with ‘Conversations with Tom Petty.’’ Having done this, I feel I have as full a picture of Tom Petty as I could want. If you are interested in the music, and the process then Warren Zanes has that covered amply. If you want the motivation behind the songs in Petty’s own words, then adding Paul Zollo’s book to your library fills in the gaps left here.

I’ve always been more a fan of Petty’s earlier work than what came later. ‘Damn the Torpedoes‘ remains high on my all-time albums list.

Another Petty song that is still a favourite after more years than I care to think about.

About Tim Martin 248 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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