Petty: The Biography

Petty: The Biography
By Warren Zanes
[Henry Holt & Co.]

“The first time you count four, and suddenly, rock and roll is playing – it’s bigger than life itself.” And so begins one of America’s most beloved rock ‘n’ roll stories; the story of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Warren Zanes successfully threads what is a multifaceted story of Petty and all those with whom he came in contact. From crazy aunts, frustrated musicians, Elvis and the Super Bowl, Zanes’ Petty: The Biography portrays both Petty and ’70s America, where opportunity was available to those who had the patience, luck and skill to make it happen.

Petty’s story begins in north Florida, where things were more southern than northern. Inside their small home Petty’s father was less than stable and often abusive. Although not very successful in school, a young Petty soon ran with a decent crowd and was fortunate to have others share their record collections with him. Even prior to the British Invasion, Petty was playing guitar. Possibly spurred on by a chance meeting with Elvis Presley, a young Petty got a taste of attained musical heights and pursued what would become the national rock ‘n’ roll dream. Zanes describes a twelve-year-old boy dreaming for the first time: “Petty got his first guitar, an almost unplayable Stella, in 1962,” writes Zanes. “It wasn’t much more than a shape to hold, an idea with a strap. But it was enough.”

Zanes does a really nice job pulling stories, anecdotes and illumination from Petty and those close to him. Regarding Petty’s deviation from “normal” boy behavior and his dysfunctional family, his father did not understand him. “I think both my mother and father were probably scared that I was gay,” says Petty. “They were always trying to push me into playing baseball or whatever. And I just didn’t want to. I liked art, and I liked clothes, and, after The Beatles, I liked having my hair long. I’m sure [my father] Earl translated that into, ‘Whoa-he’s going the wrong way. He’s not doing what other boys are doing.’ And they didn’t know how much I loved girls, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring a girl home to that. I didn’t ever discuss a girl with them. I didn’t want my parents involved in that, in any fucking way.”

Soon Petty was in a couple of combos playing when and where they could…no different from bands today. Zanes writes that after a fourteen-year-old Petty and his band played in-between sets for a local DJ, “a young man came up to Petty and asked if his band had ever played a frat gig, then asked if they wanted to. ‘It never stopped from that moment on,’ says Petty.’”

Once while Petty’s early band Mudcrutch was practicing a kid was playing guitar in the next room. Mudcrutch member Jim Lenahan spoke to his bandmate Randall Marsh. “We looked at Randall and said, ‘Tell him to come out. Let’s hear him.’ So Mike Campbell comes out with the worst guitar I have ever seen in my life. It looked like it had been cut out of a door. He was super skinny, just looked unhealthy. We asked if he could play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ He ripped into that opening. Our jaws dropped. By the end of the song, we said, ‘you’re in our band now.’”

Throughout the book Campbell’s importance is constantly touched upon and as a musician Zanes knows how Campbell’s style helped make the Heartbreakers. “Mike Campbell was established as Petty’s partner,” writes Zanes. “He’d co-written some of the best-loved Heartbreakers songs, and he was a guitar player who never used a song as an excuse to show what he could do as a guitar player. Unless a song asked for it, he didn’t play it. Mike Campbell wasn’t there to give the light man something to do at shows.”

There was a lot of second-guessing on the part of the suits and brass, and drummer Stan Lynch was often in the crosshairs, a position he helped create. Booker T & the MG’s and Stax bassist extraordinaire Donald “Duck” Dunn helped out on the Stevie Nicks collaboration “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” Zanes tells the story: “Dunn sat next to Lynch, close enough for Lynch to feel Dunn’s thigh pressing against his own. It was a message for the drummer to keep his head on, stay quiet. At the end of the playback, there was silence, broken only by Dunn’s response. ‘He looks at the producers,’ recalls Lynch, ‘and he says, ‘Well, you don’t like that, you don’t like pussy.’”

Petty’s penchant to flex his independent muscles often got him in trouble with record label execs. Zanes shares how before it was a hit, “Listen to Her Heart” sounded like a single to everyone, but got in trouble with a reference to cocaine. The label wanted it changed to “champagne.” ‘That’s not expensive enough,’ Petty told them. The executives were thinking about a radio. Petty was thinking about a song.”

An interesting aspect to Petty is Zanes’ skill at interjecting personal anecdotes into the Heartbreakers’ story. As a member of the Del Fuegos, Zanes not only toured with the Heartbreakers but befriended Petty. His musical insights add value to the already rich currency that is the Petty story. Their relationship also brings musical aspects of the story, what it means to be in a band, to the fore. This can best be read in the portrayal of the Heartbreakers membership history. When second bassist Howie Epstein was let go, Petty was eager to reacquire original bassist Ron Blair. “I knew we had to come up with a bass player for the tour that was being planned,” says Petty. “The idea of someone new would have just been…too many missing people. I need to be a member of a band. Or not. Ron was an answer to my concerns. Had he not appeared, I think I would have put an end to the band. I couldn’t have done it with a hired gun.”

The story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is not over, but the book concludes with how integral they are to rock history; to band history. At the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony Petty said, “I’m very proud that we’re being inducted as a group, as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘cause they’re the best fucking band in America.”

“Petty remains a band member, a band leader, and that will be as much a part of his legacy as the songs themselves,” concludes Zanes. “‘He could have been a solo artist,’ says Mike Campbell. ‘But a band is cool. If it’s a real band.’ The life of Petty’s songs was made longer and richer because the guys who first played them kept playing them.”