Book Reviews

Book Review – Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

Tom Petty is one of those musicians I greatly admired. Although I say Springsteen was the soundtrack to my life, many other musicians added songs that were important to me and that I listened to over and over; musicians such as John “Cougar” Mellencamp, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty contributed quite a bit to that soundtrack.

In his biography of Tom Petty, author Warren Zanes takes the reader along on the course of Petty’s life up until about five years before his death. It’s an unusual life in many ways and I came away with a better understanding of him not only as a musician but as a human being.

Petty was born and grew up in Gainesville, Florida. His background was most definitely unusual, with a Native American grandmother that had to be hidden away from the local racists. He had a troubled relationship with his own father, and was in denial about how his mother suffered. When success arrived, he found himself spread very thin trying to care for all of the people he loved.

Success didn’t come overnight for Petty, and even then it was somewhat reluctantly. There were many years of following promises of a recording contract. This took Petty and the band back and forth across the United States from Florida to Oklahoma, to California and more. It was only when Petty took the helm and became the front-man and decision-maker that things seemed to fall into place.

There are lots of details of the strife in the band. In the first incarnation “Mudcrutch” there was a lot of strife between the band members and the lead singer. This was more of a democratic structure where everyone had a say and it really didn’t work. Once reformed as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (minus that lead singer), there was strife between Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ drummer, and Tom. Lynch seemed to do a lot to undermine Tom to the rest of the band behind his back. Yet, for years Tom tolerated it.

Warren Zanes was a friend to Tom as well as the author of the book. Most of the time that results in people opening up to him about many things and gives more depth to the musician’s life. In some cases, though, it felt like he was glossing over or omitting things. He spends a lot of time on Petty’s heritage in Gainsville and what it meant to how Petty would write music. Indeed, when I went back and listened to the first Heartbreakers album after reading this, it had more in common with the southern rock of the 70’s and 80’s than the sound Petty would be known for in later years. At the same time, he doesn’t spend much time on Petty’s drug use and the effect it had on the music. He doesn’t bring up at all the controversy surrounding his use of the Confederate Flag onstage during the Southern Accents tour and how Petty had to walk that back later on. (See: )

All in all, though, this is a good biography that talks to a lot of people who surrounded Petty through the years and is probably the most definitive one, now that he is no longer with us. I highly recommend it to fans.

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